Bryant spent the bulk of the 2017-2018 season playing for the Lakers G-League affiliate and was expected to be parked third in the center rotation behind Dwight Howard and Ian Mahinnmi. Call it preparation, some good fortune, or being at the right place at the right time -- Bryant entered the starting lineup early in the season and ended up being one of the few bright spots of Washington’s 2018-2019 season.
The second-year player appeared in 72 contests last year averaging 10.5 points while snagging 6.3 rebounds per game and becoming far and away Washington’s most productive center. Bryant exceeded everyone’s expectations and was rewarded by the front office with a three-year $25 million dollar deal.
The season was a surprise for everyone except Bryant. He’s just scratched the surface of what his potential is as an NBA player and the stars are aligning for him to elevate his game to yet another level as he enters the season as Washington’s starting center.
The big man’s bread and butter was finishing near the basket. Last season, he connected on 77.9 percent of all shots five feet from the hoop or closer and 68.4 percent on all two-point field goal attempts — good for seventh best in the league among all players who played in at least 41 games.
The highlight of his young career was a 31-point outburst agains the Phoenix Suns on a perfect 14-14 shooting -- all on shots in the painted area.
Bryant has a lot of things working in his favor as he enters his third NBA season. The first is the intangibles — his work ethic and motor. Search for soundbites from people close to Bryant and they sound like echoes of each other. “First one in the gym and last one to leave”, “He’s always striving to get better”, “Is the hardest worker in the room.”
This was all on display last year from Bryant. Unlike his days in college, he wasn’t one of the top few players on the court from a raw talent standpoint. As a result, he had to tap into his relentless motor and make the hustle plays to set himself apart and earn a spot in the starting five.
Look no further than this play, which epitomizes his effort and energy. Bryant and his man Joel Embiid have an equal starting point. The only difference is Bryant sprints down the floor while Embiid jogs back. The result, an easy transition dunk for Bryant.
Aside from being one of the hardest workers and continuing to push himself, Bryant will also get plenty of opportunities to play through his mistakes and won’t have to look over his shoulder as the starter at center from day one. Remember, Bryant was out of the rotation and didn’t get his opportunity last year until Dwight Howard got injured and the coaching staff realized Ian Mahinmi was unplayable. Howard is gone and Mahinmi will likely remain out of the rotation leaving just Mo Wagner as Bryant’s backup. It’s not clear yet whether Wagner can be a viable backup center.
Even though Bryant was the best center on the team last year, coach Scott Brooks gave him just 20.8 minutes per game and frequently yanked him after a mistake or opted to go with a small ball lineup. With Howard gone and no proven backup at the center position, don’t be surprised if his playing time edges north of 30 minutes next year.
While he should get plenty of opportunities, Bryant’s game needs some polishing. Washington was awful defensively last year so his teammates didn’t put him in a great position or do him a whole bunch of favors on that end of the court. Like most young players, Bryant was often out of position or a step late in his defensive rotations. Not the end of the world, but something that will hopefully be cleaned up.
He’ll also need to improve his three-point shooting if he wants to get an even richer contract in a couple of years. Bryant shot just 33.3 percent from distance last year which isn’t terrible but isn’t great either. And as we know, if you want to stick around in today’s NBA, you need a three-point shot that’ll keep defenses honest, centers included.
Bryant is one of the few players on the roster that are under contract for at least three years. Management has made a commitment to Bryant and with the Wizards expected to be a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference, he’ll get plenty of reps and opportunities to take his game to the next level.
Washington has many uncertainties heading into next year but one thing’s for sure, Thomas Bryant’s stock is pointing straight up and there’s no reason to think that he won’t show improvements this season.