Thomas Bryant was a 5-star recruit that could have attended any prestigious college program in the country. He ultimately chose Indiana University over the likes of Kentucky, Kansas and Syracuse. As the #20 recruit in the nation people naturally expected big things and an immediate impact.
Bryant started his college career on a sour note, getting disciplined for an alcohol citation before ever playing a game for the Hoosiers. While he was objectively good as a freshman, averaging almost 12 points and six rebounds, he ended up not being quite the diaper dandy, one-and-done-type player that many envisioned. At least not the type that lands a spot in the 2016 NBA Draft lottery (not that I followed the draft too closely that year since the Wizards had traded away their pick…again).
Despite some first round buzz, Bryant returned for his sophomore season in hopes of improving his draft stock even further. Heading into the 2016-2017 college season, he received multiple preseason All-America honors and looked like a possible Big Ten Player of the year candidate. Once again, Bryant did not fully live up to expectations and barely improved on his statistics from the season before.
Hoping to still capitalize on whatever hype remained, Bryant entered his name into the 2017 NBA Draft. He was picked by the Utah Jazz in the second round (42nd overall) and eventually traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant ended up only playing 15 games for the Lakers, averaging slightly more than one point and one rebound per game. But as always, Bryant showed flashes of his tantalizing potential. In 37 games with the South Bay Lakers of the NBA G League, Bryant averaged around 20 points and seven rebounds.
The Lakers eventually waived Bryant that offseason and the Wizards, intrigued by his G League production, claimed him. Bryant went on to be one of the few pleasant surprises for the Wizards in an otherwise disappointing year. He averaged over 10 points and six rebounds and started 53 of his 72 games.
The Wizards, like so many of Bryant’s previous teams, felt that he had plenty of untapped potential left. Accordingly, they signed him to a 3-year, $25-million contract. This was a shrewd business move by new General Manager Tommy Sheppard. The Wizards filled a position of need for the long term, on a team-friendly deal – something that Wizards fans are not accustomed to seeing (I’m morally obligated to get in at least a few shots at Ernie per article).
If Bryant continues his upward trajectory then this could end up being one of the better contracts in the NBA. And even if he doesn’t fully reach that level, paying $8-million per year for a productive, starting-caliber center is still good business. And that won’t be for lack of effort on Bryant’s part.
Bryant, who up until this point has been a bit of a tease, seemed to be really putting in the work in the off-season. He spent the summer working out with Rico Hines, a player development guru who runs one of the most competitive pick-up games for NBA players. If you look at the social media accounts of players like James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Pascal Siakam, Lou Williams, or Montrezl Harrell you’re sure to see at least one video of them playing at a Hines-organized run.
This gave Bryant additional practice against the best of the best in the league and an opportunity to build some chemistry with new Wizards point guard Isaiah Thomas, who also worked out there over the summer. Beyond just playing pick-up, Hines really helps players continue to develop their skills and refine their games. Hines, a former UCLA player himself, was previously a player development coach with the Golden State Warriors and St. John’s, and now fills that role for the Sacramento Kings. Two of his former protégés, Pascal Siakam and Monta Ellis, have won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
In an interview I did with Hines while he was working for the Warriors, he stressed the importance of hard work and how he demands that of everyone he works with. “It’s mostly passion and a lot of hard work. I’m all about work, work, work, and after that we are going to work some more. Training and hard work, it always pays off…It comes down to working hard and just flat working you’re a** off. You have to do that to be the best that you can be. Another thing is using your imagination to work out,” said Hines.
This approach really seemed to resonate with Bryant, who earlier this summer spoke to Drew Ruiz of Slam about his work with Hines. “I thought it was a good fit because of the way he trains and pushes people. He keeps it really real with you and teaches you everything you need to know and want to put into your game,” said Bryant.
For the Wizards to exceed their projected win total, they need Bryant to make great strides as a rebounder and defender. Despite good size and length, Bryant is not the type of athlete traditionally required to be an elite shot blocker. However, effort is a good way to overcome any potential physical limitations so hearing about how hard Bryant has been pushing himself has to be an encouraging sign. I can guarantee Scott Brooks would be ecstatic if he saw an increased effort on the glass and a focus on protecting the rim.
If his summer workout videos are any indication, Bryant is clearly doing the physical work necessary to reach his potential. But what about the mental preparation needed for greatness? This is especially important for someone like Bryant who has the physical tools but has never fully capitalized on them. Luckily for Bryant, and Wizards fans, this is a key focus area for Hines.
“Each and every guy in the NBA, they have it, they have it. Some guys just have an edge, and that’s what separates the men from the boys. Some guys do the extra work, I don’t consider just staying late as extra work. You either want to be good or you don’t. You have to be mentally tough. It takes that to get up all early and come to the gym. After 30 games, or after 50 games, still coming in and doing that extra work is hard. It takes being the first one off the bus at an arena because you want to get your shots up. Those things are what take mental toughness. If you just came back from a 9 day road trip and we get in late, still getting up early that next day to put shots up is tough,” said Hines.
Per NBA Advanced Stats, Bryant was fourth in the NBA in true shooting percentage at 67.4-percent. The majority of Bryant’s shots came from inside the arc, which is why part of Bryant’s off-season regimen has been to work on extending his range. This will be key for a Wizards team that lacks outside shooting beyond Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans. If Bryant, who shot 33-percent on 1.4 attempts per game, is able to improve on his ability to stretch the floor then that would really make the Wizards a lot tougher to guard. And, hopefully, make life easier on Beal in the process.
Bryant also finished first in the NBA in “Restricted Area Field Goal Percentage.” Despite this efficiency, Bryant finished 84th in the league in points in the paint per game (of all players that played greater than 10 minutes per game) with 6.8. Common sense dictates that if you have a player like Bryant who scores effectively and efficiently when they are near the basket then they need more attempts near the basket. For his part, Bryant continued working on finishing moves and counters with Hines this summer. Scott Brooks needs to meet him halfway and try to feature Bryant more in the post. I know that is not necessarily cool or trendy in today’s NBA but it’s never a bad idea to play to your strengths.
And now for the “IF” section of the player preview. IF Bryant is able to apply what he learned from Hines about outworking his opponents then I think somewhere in the neighborhood of ten rebounds per game is realistic. IF Bryant’s shooting form and additional summer reps translate into consistent 3-point shooting and IF Bryant is featured more in the post, then 18 points per game seems doable. IF those things happen then it is conceivable to think that Bryant could play his way into the Most Improved Player award conversation. IF that’s the case then maybe, just maybe, the Wizards got themselves a steal this off-season.
Am I being overly optimistic here or does this seem realistic to you, Wizards fans?