When Anthony Davis went down with an injury that cost him several weeks, the rest of the Lakers season seemed almost hopeless. Surprisingly, they managed to stay afloat, however and did not drop as far in the standings as expected. The main reason for that is obviously LeBron James, who refuses to slow down and let father time catch up to him, but others stepped up too. Thomas Bryant took over Anthony Davis’ starting center spot, and while he was not quite as impactful as Davis, Bryant thrived as a starter.
Two seasons ago, Bryant tore his ACL and struggled to get back to the promising play he had shown before with the Washington Wizards, but when the Lakers needed him to take on a bigger role, he was ready. Bryant took full advantage of the opportunity and has been playing the best season of his career so far, averaging 12.7 points on efficient shooting and 7.2 rebounds. Thus far, he has already recorded nine double-doubles, including his season-best game against the Portland Trail Blazers. In the Lakers’ great comeback win, Bryant scored an extremely efficient 31 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
Thomas Bryant has been a perfect offensive fit for the Lakers
Bryant pairs well with LeBron James and benefits from playing with the superstar. James attracts so much defensive attention that sometimes Bryant can just sneak into the dunker spot and get an easy basket. His ability to find open spots at the right time and catch pretty much any ball that soars towards the paint, combined with an efficient finishing ability unfazed by contact, also make Bryant a great pick-and-roll partner for James and other ballhandlers such as Dennis Schröder and Russell Westbrook.
The big man’s offensive game is not limited to the paint, though. He has a smooth jumper and quick release from behind the arc, and he converts a career-high of almost 45 percent of his three-point attempts. Defenses have to respect him as a shooting threat, which allows Bryant to stretch the floor for James and bank in on kick-out passes for wide-open threes. With James and Bryant on the floor together, the Lakers actually average 119.3 points per 100 possessions, and James called his younger teammate one of the most skilled bigs in the game.
Offensively, that is true. Bryant was one of the few bright spots and pleasant surprises in Davis’s absence other than James’s scoring tear, but defensively he was not up to the challenge. Without Davis on the floor, the Lakers have one of the worst defenses in the league. While that is not just on Bryant, as the Lakers lack solid defense all across the roster, it is representative of his limitations. As a post defender, Bryant is bothered by contact, allowing opponents to push their way to the basket, and his help positioning often occurs too late, leading to fouls and easy scores.
Bryant still has work to do to improve.
Bryant is uncomfortable anywhere on defense, but he appears to be terrified of leaving the paint and switching to the perimeter. Given that teams target him knowing that guards can get by him easily, that is understandable, but he also has some good moments. He is a solid defensive rebounder and can contest shots with his quickness and leaping ability every once in a while, which leaves hope for a defensive improvement in the future.
Bryant will never be a great defender or rim protector, but not being an easy target anymore would already benefit him and the team. It does not seem that Bryant’s defensive struggles are the result of a lack of effort, as he always brings energy onto the court and runs the floor on both ends. Instead, it appears to be the result of low confidence as a defender and bad positioning, which means that it can be worked with.
Personally, I would be curious to see a frontcourt consisting of James, Davis, and Bryant all sharing the floor. This trio would combine size, scoring, outside shooting, and defense in a way that the Lakers have not had all season. At the moment, the Lakers do not have the personnel for that, though, and as Davis works his way back into full form and into the starting lineup, Bryant will have to move back to the bench and take on a reduced role.
On one hand, Bryant’s production will go down, but on the other hand, the Lakers now know that Bryant can keep the ship afloat while Davis is out. That means, in turn, that Davis can rest rather comfortably when needed and hopefully avoid another injury that would cost him valuable time.
The Lakers may not have found their missing puzzle piece to become contenders again in Bryant, but he is a talented young player who complements their core pieces well and could help them in the future.