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What does NBA history tell us about Thomas Bryant?

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Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Wizards center Thomas Bryant is a unique figure in NBA history.
Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Because I was bored, I ran Wizards center Thomas Bryant through my statistical doppelganger machine. And now you’re bored too. Sorry.

Let me see if I can make it more interesting. First, Bryant’s “most similars” for 2019-20 are a decent but unimpressive bunch.

Here are the most similar, by the numbers:

  1. Richaun Holmes, age 23, Philadelphia 76ers
  2. Tyler Zeller, age 25, Boston Celtics
  3. J.J. Hickson, age 21, Cleveland Cavaliers
  4. Mehmet Okur, age 24, Detroit Pistons
  5. Ed Davis, age 23, Toronto Raptors
  6. Aaron Gordon, age 20, Orlando Magic
  7. Montrezl Harrell, age 23, Houston Rockets
  8. Terrence Jones, age 22, Houston Rockets
  9. DeJuan Blair, age 22, San Antonio Spurs
  10. Trey Lyles, age 22, Denver Nuggets
  11. Shawn Marion, age 21, Phoenix Suns
  12. Brandan Wright, age 25, Dallas Mavericks
  13. Alex English, age 24, Milwaukee Bucks
  14. Jared Sullinger, age 22, Boston Celtics
  15. Ryan Anderson, age 22, Orlando Magic

That’s enough. Good players who could contribute but — except for Marion and English — never became great.

There are some “issues” with the doppelganger machine though. First, none of these players are particularly similar. Holmes is closest, but he was less efficient on lower usage, shot worse from three-point range (though he attempted only about half a three less per pace-adjusted 40 minutes). Bryant edged him out in rebounding and assists, though Holmes was significantly better on the defensive end.

But similar? Eh.

One of Bryant’s distinguishing characteristics is his ability to make shots from everywhere on the floor. He finishes at the rim. He hits from the midrange. He knocks down threes. That ability has me dismissing inside-only bigs like Zeller, Hickson, Davis, Harrell, Blair and Wright.

We could kinda side-eye squint our way to saying Bryant and Gordon are somewhat similar. All it would take is Bryant missing a bunch more shots but looking more athletic while doing it.

To make Sullinger a comp, Bryant would need to gain 40-50 pounds of flab and stop playing hard.

For Blair, add 40 pounds of muscle, then 25 pounds of fat. Subtract knee ligaments and infuse with indifference.

The comp to a young Ryan Anderson comp isn’t awful — the Wizards just need Bryant to avoid back injury and personal tragedy.

That leaves Marion (no — Marion’s nickname was The Matrix; Bryant’s most distinguishing feature on defense is slow feet) and Alex English.

Putting aside the position (for those who didn’t see English play in the 70s and 80s, he was a SF) and era differences, and...there’s at least a superficial resemblance in the numbers and the player descriptions at least echo — good offensive players who didn’t/don’t contribute much on defense.

Digression: English, who’s in the Hall of Fame, was a 24-year old rookie SF who did not have a three-point attempt in his first two seasons. His career high in three-point attempts was 15 at age 33. Last season, players attempted 15 or more threes in a game 60 times, including twice by Wizards players (Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans).

If he played today, English would likely have a different shooting stroke — he had a kind of stiff-armed motion with a high release point — but he was an accurate shooter and a big-time scorer. I have his best season as a PPA 188 for the Denver Nuggets in 1982-83.

If I screen for centers who shot threes, the names that pop up are Kelly Olynyk, Myles Turner, Raef Lafrentz, Frank Kaminsky, Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala, Matt Bonner...

But, Bryant shot better from two-point range than all of them, better from three-point range than all but one season from LaFrentz (who was actually a decent player when he wasn’t injured), and better on the boards than all but Dedmon.

The players are getting less and less similar, though — at least according to the doppelganger machine.

Out of curiosity, I ran one last screen, this time looking for centers who shot threes at least as frequently as Bryant did and made at least 40%. None of these players showed as being similar overall, but here’s the list anyway:

  • Olynyk, 24, BOS
  • LaFrentz, 26 and 25, DAL/DEN
  • Muscala, 25, ATL
  • Bonner, 24, TOR
  • Okur, 29, UTA
  • Pau Gasol, 36, SAS
  • Channing Frye, 26 and 33, PHO/CLE
  • Al Horford, 31, BOS
  • Dirk Nowitzki, 39, DAL
  • Karl-Anthony Towns, 22, MIN
  • Jason Smith, 30, WAS
  • Kevin Love, 29, CLE

I know I’m to the part in the article where I’m supposed to go full fanboy and argue that Bryant is really most similar to Towns or Love and that he’s a future Hall of Famer.

I can’t do it.

The numbers and my eyes are saying the same thing: Bryant’s a fairly unique player in NBA history. What he does echoes and rhymes with some of what other players do, but no one has combined the finishing, accurate long-range shooting, acceptable rebounding and terrible defense quite like Bryant has. Certainly not in his age 22 season.

This presents the Wizards with some uncertainty about his future. If he puts in the work to become a solid defender, he’ll likely be a quality starting center for a bunch of years. Or he could slide into an all-offense bench role with limited value. Watching his development promises to be interesting, even if it doesn’t help the Wizards win.