“It may seem corny, but I really don't give a damn.”
Following what may arguably have been their most impressive win of the season, Darvin Ham stood in front of his team and said this as he spun a basketball and lobbed it to one of his players. The recipient? A seated Thomas Bryant.
The Lakers’ locker-room erupted in applause and “hell yeahs” as the 25-year-old caught the pass from his head coach.
For Bryant, who was still trying to catch his breath after dropping 21 points and tasked with checking the two-time MVP, Nikola Jokic, following Anthony Davis’ injury, the game-ball was a reward for his strong play. But it was also a symbol, and a reminder, that adversity can in fact be overcome with enough resilience.
He lowered his head, closed his eyes and beat his heart with his palm multiple times. The show of gratitude almost doubled as a momentary check if his heart was still there. It was, and so was he.
“This man missed a whole season because he had an ACL tear, and he’s back out here busting his ass for us,” Ham added. “Giving it everything he got on both sides of the basketball. That is what this is supposed to be about. That is our identity.”
When watching Bryant now, as he sprints up and down the court like a track star or crashing the glass with the force of a semi-truck, it’s sometimes difficult to remember he is the same player who suffered an injury that limited him to just 34 games over the last two years.
That natural feeling of trepidation and over-cautiousness about playing the sport at the highest level again after such a grueling injury has likely seeped into Bryant’s mind multiple times on his road back. But after already playing 21 games, and suddenly having to fill Davis’ shoes, Bryant sure does his damndest not to show it.
“A lot of guys that have injuries like that never get back to where they want to be,” Austin Reaves told the Los Angeles Times. “But he puts the work in every single day. You’ll never see him in the gym just chilling. He’s going to be working in the weight room or on the court. Just tip your hat to him.”
As a Laker, again, the center is revving that same hot motor that helped him initially turn heads early in his career. After singing a one-year ‘prove it’ type contract, Bryant has thus far showed he is most importantly healthy, but also, that he can put up numbers.
According to Synergy, among the players who have logged at least 200 offensive possessions this season, Bryant has the best points per possession (1.27) in the league.
Bryant’s offensive game benefits from the yin-yang of his of his approach. He has the requisite soft skills that some bigs aren't privy to like having soft hands, a feathery touch from both inside (82% shooting within four feet) and out (50% on his 26 attempts from three) as well as being light on his feet. In contrast and in compliment, Bryant also is a fierce competitor who readily attacks the rack and isn't afraid to scrap down low regardless of who he’s faced up against.
If it holds, his 72.5% effective field-goal percentage would end up being the highest mark of his career and also currently ranks in the 94th percentile among all bigs this season according to Cleaning the Glass.
Although he was one of the last free agents and the second big inked by the team this summer, Bryant’s strong offensive play has catapulted up the depth chart and in the starting lineup due to Davis’ absence. The once seen reclamation project is now a critical staple.
As a starter and Davis proxy, Bryant has been tasked with replicating the All-Star’s utilization in the half court, namely by serving as the team’s primary big in screen action. With the ability to both pop and roll, Bryant has yielded positive results thanks to good technique and a knack for feeding off the likes of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook’s playmaking.
Notice in this clip how he not only recognizes James being blitzed and swims into space, but also flashes sound fundamentals in both gathering and keeping the ball high/away from the defense before finishing.
Bryant has also helped jumpstart what can often be a stagnant squad from an energy perspective.
Filled to the brim with vigor, the big routinely creates second chances, battles for loose balls and sprints down the floor at every turn. He plays the game with the joy of a child on his first Fischer Price hoop, but also just so happens to be 6’10” with a 7’6” wingspan.
This level of kinetic frenzy on the court is perhaps best showcased when he can get out in transition. Arguably the team’s most consistent rim-runner, the combination of Bryant’s foot speed and engine allows him to beat opposing bigs down the floor. And once he’s there, he finishes absolutely everything.
On the season, Bryant is scoring a blistering 1.54 points per transition possession, a mark that ranks in the 96th percentile of the entire league per Synergy.
Despite his dazzling efficiency on offense, Bryant is not a player without flaws, specifically when it comes to his defense. A side of the floor that has ailed the big and put a cap on his ceiling up until this point.
Although his issues are not due to a lack of effort, between being undersized at his position and struggling in aspects like ball-containment and consistent rotations, Bryant is still aways away from being a reliable cog on that end.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers have a woeful defensive rating of 121.6 when Bryant has been on the floor this season and a more more palatable 113.5 when he’s been off.
Bryant’s defensive limitations are real, but also serve as a good reminder that he is still very much a work in progress. Fortunately, after having to watch from the sidelines for an extended period, he’s finally able to get back to growing.
“It’s very hard because that’s like the one love that you have in your life right there,” Bryant shared during his media day availability last season.
“It’s the one thing that’s always been there, always intact that you know that you can always go to. When that’s taken away from you, it’s very hard. It’s almost depressing in a sort of way. But when you’re mentally strong and you keep talking to yourself and working with yourself mentally, the days don’t get so much harder, they get a little bit easier.”
Although this season has not gone the way the Lakers or their fans have expected, this will undoubtedly go down as an important stretch for Bryant on his road back to normalcy.
There will be bumps along the way, but he’s making up for lost time now with every finish around the cup and game-ball thrown his way. That trademark smile is back, and it’s thanks to that rekindled love he always knew awaited him on the other side.