When Lakers’ training camp began in late September, one of the positional battles I was most looking forward to was Damian Jones vs. Thomas Bryant to determine who would be the team’s primary big man (non-Anthony Davis division). I was intrigued for many reasons, but chief among them was that neither of these players was named DeAndre Jordan (and, to a lesser extent Dwight Howard), and both offered the possibility of a massive upgrade to the center rotation compared to last season.
Heading into camp, the speculation (and word around the facility) was that Jones had a leg up in that competition. He was also, reportedly, the leading candidate to start at center, pushing Davis down to PF in the process. The thought process on this was pretty straightforward: Jones’ superior athleticism (in comparison to Bryant) would translate to better vertical spacing offensively and rim protection defensively. There were even hints he would start shooting 3-pointers, building on the second half of last season with the Kings when he flirted with taking the long ball with more confidence.
On the other side of things, Bryant was coming into camp looking to recapture the form he showed before an injured knee cut his season short in Washington two seasons ago. That player was an inside-outside scorer who rebounded well and played with a high motor. Bryant returned to action last season, but the Wizards’ trade for Kristaps Porzingis paired with the emergence of Daniel Gafford while Bryant was injured, left him in limbo and mostly as a deep bench player who was not in their plans as he entered free agency.
Thus his return to the Lakers in the hopes that he’d return to form as a 3-point shooter and, in the process, provide the Lakers the stretch-5 option who could complement the LeBron, Davis, and (especially) Westbrook trio.
Heading into camp I wouldn’t say I had a horse in the race, but the noise around Jones playing well in pre-camp scrimmages, combined with the reports of him being favored as a starter and the appetizing nature of how his athleticism would translate on both ends of the floor, left me inclined to think Jones was the superior option. Training camp and the preseason, then, would only serve to reinforce those preconceived notions.
Until, well, it didn’t.
On the eve of the season opener, in the much-anticipated training camp battle between Jones and Bryant, I’m ready to declare Bryant the winner. And, honestly, I don’t think it’s all that close based on what we saw in the games.
Don’t get me wrong. Jones has had his moments. He’s played hard and has shown how his quickness, leaping ability, and overall athleticism can be helpful. He ran the floor well, had some memorable blocked shots, and his activity around the basket altered other attempts in the paint when he rotated defensively. He also showed to be a good target for interior passes, catching lobs around the hoop and even making some good passes when he was crowded on his interior catches.
Jones, however, was not as good as Bryant. In most key statistical categories, Bryant was just outright better.
Bryant shot better (54.5% to 26.7%) and proved to be a better finisher in the paint, rebounded better (13.2 to 7.2 per 100 possessions), got the FT line more and shot a higher percentage when there, and committed fewer fouls. Bryant also ran the floor just as hard (if not harder) than Jones, proved to be just as good an interior target for dump-off and entry passes, showed a better understanding of the offense when making his reads as a passer on the perimeter, and played better positional defense with his superior bulk and strength allowing him to hold up in the post and in isolation.
Further, it bears mentioning that the Lakers, as a team, were much better in the minutes that Bryant was on the floor vs. Jones. Per the NBA’s stats site, Bryant was one of only two players (along with Westbrook) who had a positive net rating (plus-1.1) and plus/minus (plus-3) while he was on the floor. Jones, on the other hand, was a -36 overall and the Lakers' net rating when he was on the floor was a minus-23.6. This, of course, isn’t all on Jones, but these differences are huge and do reflect how well the team performed when one was in the game vs. the other.
Of course, I do understand that Bryant was far from perfect and still left a lot to be desired in certain aspects of the game. His relative lack of leaping ability meant subpar rim protection if he was not early in his rotation. This also showed up in his drop coverage technique as guards and wings were able to elevate over the top of him for shots in the paint when he was in his backpedal and players pulled up in the midrange or took floaters. His 3-point shooting was entirely absent, missing all six of his attempts from deep, which, when considering he was signed to take and make that shot, is particularly rough. The things he couldn’t or didn’t do felt like they popped on screen as much (if not more) than the things he was doing on any given possession.
The same can be said of Jones, however. Jones is supposed to be a lob threat, but his low shooting percentage reflects that he wasn’t able to turn his interior looks into makes while also settling for too many jumpers as part of his overall diet of shots. I thought there were times he looked to be thinking too much offensively, looking shaky in where he should be moving to and what his passing reads were. On defense, he struggled in isolation, but also had his issues playing in drop coverages where he ended up in no man's land too often. I also thought he struggled on the backboards, both when asked to box out and when he had to chase out of area caroms.
So, I get it if there’s not some overwhelming feeling of positivity around the Lakers' big man rotation as we head into the regular season. It seemed as though there was going to be a big upgrade on last year’s rotation and, while I think that’s still going to be true, it might not end up being to the degree we thought it might be. After all, there’s a reason why AD is very likely to begin the season as the starting center and why a defensive-minded coach looks like he’d rather start three guards than a second big man.
But, this isn’t just about starting or playing center to a level where AD would be able to slide down to PF more often. The camp battle these two engaged in was, ultimately, about who should be the team’s other big man next to — and behind — Davis. And, both the tape and the stats say that player is Thomas Bryant — even if a thumb injury keeps him out on opening night. I just hope when Bryant is ready to play, Darvin Ham says so, too.