There were less than two minutes left in a thrilling triple overtime game between the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns, two teams that had just swapped Trevor Ariza and Kelly Oubre. Washington was leading 142-141 with 1:25 left in the third overtime when Bradley Beal, positioned behind the arc, found a streaking Thomas Bryant who finished a one-handed slam. A game-sealing bucket allowed him to join elite company.
The second-year big was a perfect 14-for-14 for 31-points in 36 minutes of action. No other player besides Wilt Chamberlain has ever been better than 14-for-14 in a single game. Bryant joined Wilt as well as Bailey Howell and Gary Payton to have 14 made field goals without missing a shot. The 21-year old also had 13 rebounds and two assists in the winning effort. He has come a long way.
“It’s amazing. I had no idea throughout the game and I had no idea after the game until people started telling me about it. I was just in the flow of the game. I just let the game come to me. … I just went out and took it,” said Bryant after his perfect night.
His journey to Washington began on July 2, 2018 when the Wizards announced they had claimed him off waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers, eventually paving their way to landing LeBron James. Before that, he was a McDonald’s All-American and an Indiana product where he finished his two-year career with 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
This has been a topsy turvy season for the Wizards with injuries and turmoil, but also a few thrilling wins. Things have not gone as the team has hoped, but one of the brightest spots in a strange year is the development and evolution of Bryant. With Dwight Howard still sidelined following back surgery for the foreseeable future and Ian Mahinmi not exactly being a starting caliber center, an opportunity opened for Bryant.
“MVP, by far. That’s my boy,” said Bradley Beal. “He plays his tail off every minute. Energy, finishing at the rim, rebounding, blocking shots, contesting shots, being up on pick-and-rolls, making it tough. He did everything we needed him to do. He’s still young, he still makes mistakes, but he makes them at 110%, so we live with them. He had 31 (points), so everybody’s going to be quiet about it.”
John Wall is done for the season and backup center (essentially) Markieff Morris will be sidelined for at least another five weeks, giving Bryant a bigger role to finish games. In the first game after learning Washington would be without their point guard, Bryant helped the Wizards with a 21 point and 10 rebound double-double in a 130-126 win over the Hornets. In an 114-98 win over the Hawks after the calendar flipped to 2019, Bryant contributed 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
“His activity, his ability to predict the paint is getting better. Obviously his rebounding. He rebounds outside of his area. He has good hands. He finishes. He catches and finishes. He can finish with either hand. He’s a good player. He’s really improving as the season’s going on,” said Brooks after the Hawks game. “He’s getting some opportunities, and he’s earned it. He’s playing well and we’re going to continue to need it.”
Beal is not surprised by Bryant’s rapid ascension in the NBA.
“I told him since day one since we’ve traded for him to come in and be that guy, be energetic,” said Beal. “Ever since I’ve first played pickup with him over the summer we just clicked. Everything he did was hard, aggressive, he was an active learner and it just carried over through the year.”
Bryant is also vocal on the court and has been able to back up his trash talk, which serves as a catalyst for Beal.
“I tell everybody, his shit talking and whatever he does out there gets me going,” Beal added. “So I need him to keep doing it.”
The Wizards recently got, arguably, their biggest win of the season against the Thunder, 116-98, for their first win in Oklahoma City ever. The biggest key to that win was winning the board battle with Bryant contributing with seven rebounds, while battling against the massive Steven Adams. The following two games, Bryant was tasked with fighting with Joel Embiid, one of the best bigs in the game, and he held up decently. Competing against an All-NBA talent fuels Bryant as he craves greatness.
“I always try to bring that intensity, bring that passion every time I step on that court,” Bryant said. “It’s great going against a big like that who’s considered the best big in our league. I always loved playing against guys like that because I want to be there one day. You know, just bringing that grit, that grind, a lot of people don’t work hard like that so I try to bring that hard work mentality to my teammates.”
In his rookie year with the Lakers, Bryant spent most of the season in the G League. He logged just 72 minutes in the NBA for the purple and gold who probably now regret waiving him as opposed to Ivica Zubac. Now the Wizards are reaping the benefits of a low-risk, high-reward analytics-driven signing. His work and energy in practice gave Brooks the confidence to take the then out of the rotation center and throw him into the starting lineup. 27 games into life as a starting NBA center, Bryant has averaged 9.7 points on 67.5 percent shooting including 37.5 percent from beyond the arc and 5.9 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. In a season with lots of negatives, Bryant’s evolution is a positive and a thing worth watching the rest of the season.