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Debating Thomas Bryant’s future on the Wizards

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Can the 22-year-old center become a key player in D.C.?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, Osman Baig and I discussed Thomas Bryant’s ever-evolving role with the Washington Wizards.

Once considered the Wizards’ “big man of the future” — well, as of last year — Bryant has struggled to take the leap everyone expected this season. He’s dealt with injuries, minutes restrictions, and the sudden emergence of Moritz Wagner.

Despite his struggles, I maintain that Bryant can still become the key piece he was expected to be this season. Oz, on the other hand, can’t seem to overlook Bryant’s lack of development on the defensive side of the floor.

So we debated it. Our exchange is below.

Ben: Alright — so we’ve had quite the back-and-forth in private messages, but it’s time we battle this out publicly.

You seem to be off the Thomas Bryant train, but I’m still sitting in first-class, convinced that he could become an above average starting center.

My rationale is pretty simple. He’s 22 years old, can space the floor, and he’s one of the most efficient players in the league. Here’s a teeny, tiny look at how efficient he’s been — he’s made 19 of his last 25 shot attempts, and six of his last seven 3-point tries.

That’s a small sample size, obviously, but he has a history of being efficient. He made 62 percent of his shots last year. And he’s not doing it in a Rudy Gobert way, where he’s relying solely on dunks, putbacks and alley-oops. He’s hitting threes — occasionally popping from mid-range. And he’s a hell of a rim-runner.

What else could you possibly want from a young center, especially one taken late in the second round? The foundation is there — there’s something to build on.

Oz: I wouldn’t say I am off the train, I just think we may need to be realistic about where that train is heading. Bryant was a bright spot last year, a young energetic player on a team that had gotten stale and old. He played extremely hard and efficiently which made re-signing him a priority this past off-season.

Bryant’s second season in Washington (and third overall) hasn’t gone poorly, but also has not taken the next step I think we all would have hoped for. Yes, he’s still hyper efficient at the basket but injuries, shot selection, and most importantly, defense, or a lack thereof, are problematic.

Bryant is not a rim protector, isn’t capable of switching off on the perimeter, and gets muscled inside so how will he be able to consistently stay on the floor long enough to highlight his rim-running efficiency?

Age is a factor but age doesn’t also mean that he will get it. The league is full of hyper efficient rim runners so does his efficiency really differentiate him when he plays a role defined by efficiency. On this team alone, Moritz Wagner and Anzejs Pasecniks are both also above 70% from the field within five feet of the basket per nba.com.

I credit Bryant for being able to shoot the three-point shot also, but he’s not spacing the floor in a way that will materially impact how teams defend the Wizards in my opinion. He takes 1.4 three point attempts per game and is 20/50 on the season. Will that carry over to greater volume?

If he’s only taking that shot 1.4 times per game and making less than one a game, he’s not really stretching the defense out because they’ll give him that at that volume. If he makes one three point attempt a game defenses will live with it.

Does it also matter what round he was taken in? Credit to him for working to what he is today but the Wizards are looking for a starting two-way center I would presume. Its’ great that Bryant has built himself up after being selected in the second round but they need a starter if their goal is a quick retool, not a good story (well both wouldn’t hurt).

In general I think both of the young centers on the Wizards look more like backups if I were projecting today. They have a sizable group of players on either rookie deals or in Bryant’s case, a reasonable cost-controlled deal.

These players won’t all be part of the future here however and that’s what gets lost by bringing up age. The terms of these contracts are finite and in many cases, you have players competing for similar roles. It’s also not an on paper group of expected sure fire starters. They cast a wide net and if they hit on even 50% of the players they took a shot on, that’s great — even if it’s just backups!

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Ben: I think it does matter where he was taken in the draft. You’re quick to write off his defense — but this is a player who fought to stay in the NBA and is now a serviceable rotation player. His draft position shows that he’s capable of improving — and improving quickly.

I don’t buy the idea that, because he’s not Ben Wallace defensively, that he won’t become a decent-to-good defender. You’re describing Joel Embiid. You want a player who can block shots, run the floor, score inside and out. Well, the reality is — there aren’t many of those players out there. Most players known for their defensive prowess probably can’t score the way Bryant does.

I wouldn’t dismiss his efficiency, either. Pasecniks is not the offensive player that Bryant is — and to make such a comparison removes context. Pasecniks is largely uncomfortable when he gets the ball. Just a few nights ago he had a point guard defending him in the post and the Wizards didn’t even look to get him the ball. That would never happen with Bryant, who’s fluid inside — can hit a turnaround jump shot every once in a while, a jump hook, power through the defender for a dunk.

He’s 22 years old, Oz. He’s made a great deal of improvement, and it’s unfortunate that injuries have taken him out the rotation from time to time this season. He works harder than any player on the roster. Remember when Rico Hines said that Bryant has All-Star potential? Let’s not dismiss his talent so quickly just because he’s not a complete player at 22.

Bryant’s worth keeping around and investing in. If the Wizards don’t keep him around (and worse, replace him with an older big), we’ll end up looking back wondering why the team let another young player go.

Oz: There’s no handicap for starting a 2nd round pick or and undrafted free agent. In the end production is production. Ultimately, you need a starter at center capable of playing competently on both ends of the floor. There’s a huge delta between where Bryant is defensively and Ben Wallace or Joel Embiid and acting like there isn’t a middle ground is a wild misrepresentation of my position.

In the context of this team, they need a defensive anchor in my opinion. They are going to be playing with a 30-year old point guard coming off an Achilles injury and a high usage two guard who’s defense has slipped as his offensive game has expanded. I’d trade offense for defense at the center position in a heartbeat because while Bryant is efficient, again, teams aren’t scheming around stopping Bryant. The teams offensive rating is 110.7 with him on the floor and 110.7 with him off the floor. He’s not moving the needle.

Yes, Bryant is young, but what has he really improved on from last year to this year and doesn’t that lack of development between last year and this year concern you that his upside is perhaps limited to being an uber-efficient reserve?

This isn’t about getting rid of someone, it’s about acknowledging that Sheppard has not solved the entire roster in one off-season and slotting players in the right position. There will continue to be turnover and as the roster evolves.

If everyone sticks, that means the Wizards probably made a mistake or are overestimating what they have. If they acquire another center and Bryant is around as a reserve and does make a leap defensively next season, that’s great...we’ll then have a two-way center in the rotation on a reasonable contract. But it would be a mistake to bank on starting Bryant and betting on that defensive leap.

Ben: I was mostly kidding about the Ben Wallace comparison, but my point stands. I’m not sure there’s much evidence out there that Bryant can’t reach that middle ground. We’re not focusing enough on his injuries.

The team has been so banged up that Ian Mahinmi somehow emerged as the starting center. The injuries alone will hurt his development — hamper his movement, and make him struggle defensively. He’s not a plotting, overweight big man. It’s not like he’s physically limited. It’s a matter of developing his movement — making sure he’s in the right spots defensively, improving his timing at the rim, and not switching as much so he’s not constantly at a disadvantage.

These are all things that can be remedied with a healthy dose of patience. I’m not here advocating on behalf of every single young player on the roster. I understand that the team will have to make decisions, at some point, on Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jerome Robinson, and others. But Bryant has shown to have upside — he works hard, is uber efficient, and, again, is only 22.

And when we talk about what’s out there — as in, free agents or possible trade targets — are any of the options that enticing, really? The idea of, say, Myles Turner is somewhat intriguing, but how much of that idea is romanticized and how much of it is substance?

I guess, my overall point is, I’m not entirely sure there’s many upgrades that are realistically available. Washington should continue to invest in their young players — particularly ones that have shown a willingness to improve, like Bryant has. And with that, I rest my case.

Oz: Centers take time to develop but the concern I have is defense was a question for Bryant coming out of Indiana, it was a question last season, and it remains a question this season and it’s hard to point to any specific areas where he’s made a defensive leap.

I compare that to Rui Hachimura for example, a player who was loudly critiqued for his defense and lack of feel on that side of the court before and during the season. He’s made clear strides defensively since his injury, strides that are statistically showing up and are supported by the eye test. Doesn’t Bryant have to show some positive trends defensively before we buy in on him as any more than a role player? Sure, maybe it clicks for him but that’s more based on hope than anything we’ve seen to date on that side of the floor.

Patience is important and Bryant is under a reasonable deal so again, I’m not suggesting they have to trade him. He can play his hyper efficient style of rim running basketball as a key member of the 2nd unit and if his game takes off and he works into a bigger role, that’s great. That does not mean the Wizards shouldn’t look for an upgrade or provide a stiff challenge if they can find one either via free agency, trade, or via sign and trade. If the Wizards have strong center play from more than one player, that’s a good problem.