SACRAMENTO — Thomas Bryant has been good enough that coach Darvin Ham recently said he needs to start giving him post touches. But Bryant is also good enough that he doesn’t need to post up.
A glance at Bryant’s 14 field goal attempts on Saturday night says a lot about his shot diet this season. Eleven of his attempts were inside the paint, but he also made all three midrange shots he took against the Sacramento Kings. Three buckets came in transition; two came on putbacks; most came in pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop looks.
Not only is the 25-year-old producing points for the Lakers in absence of Anthony Davis, he’s doing in versatile ways without holding onto the ball. How would Bryant, who is shooting with career-best efficiency (72.1% eFG) and starting for a team on a five-game winning streak compare his recent stretch to the rest of his career?
“I would say it would just be the start of it,” he said Saturday night, a glint of confidence in his eyes.
This is not the first time that Bryant has proven himself in a starting NBA role, but his second stint with the Lakers represents that the 6-foot-10 Indiana product is no fluke after he showed flashes in Washington before a devastating left ACL tear. On a minimum deal, he’s been one of the best bargain signings in the NBA.
Production? He’s got it: He’s scored in double figures in 11 of his 13 games since Davis got hurt, and all seven of his double-doubles in that time. In the last 13 games, he’s the Lakers’ second-leading scorer (17.2 ppg) and leading rebounder (10.2 rpg). Said Dennis Schröder: “I mean he plays like an AD right now, close to it.”
Opposition? He’s faced it. Back on Dec. 16, Bryant was ambushed by the news that he would have to start the second half for Davis against Nikola Jokic, and wound up outscoring the two-time MVP in the second half. He’s faced Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis and Orlando’s Paolo Banchero – and the Lakers have beaten those foes, too.
“He’s gone up against some hellified opponents, man,” Ham said. “You talk about Jokic, you talk about Bam, you talk about Sabonis. He’s really going toe-to-toe with a lot of top-shelf talent.”
While Bryant has struggled at times to guard opposing big men, there’s little doubting his feathery touch on offense. Stat site Cleaning the Glass puts his key shooting figures (eFG, midrange shooting, 3-point shooting) in the 95th percentile of big men in the league. He’s one of the few bigs in the NBA who is shooting over 70% in effective field goal percentage while also hitting more than 40 percent on his 3-point attempts.
But his hustle shows up, too. Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have praised him for getting down the floor in a hurry in transition, always looking to be a target at the rim. It’s a trait Bryant has been known for throughout his career, but earlier this season, it seems he was spurred on by an internal critique.
“It’s funny, one game, the vets actually said, ‘We don’t play hard. We’re not playing hard enough,’” he said, declining to specify which game in particular. “So I always put that in the back of my head whenever we step out on that floor, I need to give it my all no matter what. Whether it’s the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, it cannot change.”
It has made a difference. For one thing, Bryant may be the lynchpin of lineups with James and Westbrook, who at times have struggled to share the floor despite being the two highest-paid players on the team. CTG charts lineups with both James and Westbrook with a plus-7.5 net rating. In the 221 possessions they’ve played with Bryant also on the floor, that number jumps to plus-19.4 (their lineups together with Davis are just plus-1.8).
That boost has given team leaders some thought about finding ways to play Bryant alongside Davis, if Davis gets healthy this season. Ham said he could see it, and Bryant himself said he “always” has thought of that alignment.
James had the strongest endorsement for Bryant and Davis together – with the caveat that the Lakers need to progress to that point with Davis’ timetable to return still unclear.
“I’ve already kind of had visions of what that could possibly look like with the frontcourt of myself, AD and Thomas on the floor together,” he said. “I think it could be extremely beneficial for our ballclub. But also at the same time, just stay in the moment and we’re just trying to hold it down until our big guy comes back.
Added James: “Thomas has definitely done his part.”