Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Thomas Bryant.
By signing two free agent former Lakers centers in their mid-twenties this offseason, the Lakers have taken a divergent approach to filling out the roster depth at the 5-spot than they did last year. Although the difference in age between this year’s crop of 5s and last year’s is probably the most glaring facial difference between the two groups, the disparity between their styles of play might be an even bigger substantive gap.
Instead of a pair of pure rim-runners, the Lakers have inked athletes who can passably fill that role, but also have spent some time around the perimeter as hypothetical floor-spacers to give their ball-dominant teammates more room to operate on offense.
In particular, Thomas Bryant has embodied that archetypical stretch-five position, especially in comparison to Damian Jones’ 43 career 3-point attempts, providing resistance at the rim while shooting well enough on a sufficient volume of threes to keep defenses from leaving him unguarded on the perimeter. Between Damian Jones’ theoretical shooting ability and Bryant’s track record of competence, it seems as though the Lakers are looking to return to a slightly different version of the double-big-based rotation they deployed between 2019 and 2021.
What is his best-case scenario?
In a perfect world, Bryant steps in as the Lakers starting center beside Davis at the 4, stretching the floor to open up the paint while providing enough rim protection to keep Davis from exposing himself to as much injury risk as he’s had to in each of the past two seasons. An infusion of outside shooting at the 5-spot should create more space for the Lakers’ primary penetrators to go attack the rim and score inside, a strength that was neutered far too often last season by the team’s abundance of non-shooting threats.
If Bryant’s 35% career 3-point mark accurately represents how he’ll shoot this coming season, that’ll be just efficient enough to make defenses pay for overcommitting to a superstar Laker barreling towards the rim. And better still, he actually shot over 40% from beyond the arc across 56 total games in his third and fourth NBA seasons, leaving some reason to be optimistic that Bryant’s stroke will prove better than passable in his first season back with the Lakers.
Although Bryant’s made a name for himself as a stretch-5, he’s actually been as good or better of a rim protector than he has as a shooter. Last season, according to The B-Ball Index, Bryant graded out as elite in just about every interior defense category except rim deterrence. And while preventing shots at the rim altogether is a valuable skill, smothering wannabe scorers when they get there is even better.
Paired alongside Davis — one of this generation’s most dynamic and versatile defenders when at peak form — the Lakers, with Bryant, could have rebuilt the backbone of a championship defense, again.
What is his worst-case scenario?
Coming off of a torn ACL in January of 2021, Bryant barely saw the floor last season, and struggled to recapture the shooting stroke he had shown before the injury. In 27 games, Bryant made worse than 27% of his threes on 1.6 attempts per game. That’s a minuscule sample, but he was less accurate than both Russell Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker were from downtown last season. Although his absolute worst-case scenario would be a season spent on the shelf due to a re-injury to his knee, a close second would be an inability to shoot any better than he did last season.
Without Bryant proving to be a reliable threat from outside, the Lakers’ half-court offense could look as stagnant as it did last season when they struggled to find anyone capable of consistently knocking down the steady stream of open looks LeBron James and Westbrook created.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that though it’s beyond the scope of what has been and should be his typical defensive role, Bryant is completely incapable of sliding with opposing guards out on the perimeter. As a perimeter defender, Bryant has ranked in the bottom seven percent of the league in every season since 2019-20. Ultimately, his inability to switch out onto guards on the perimeter could present a weak link in the Lakers’ defensive chain come playoff time, or possibly force Davis into a more perimeter-oriented defensive role, undermining his utility as one of the game’s premier shot blockers. Furthermore, Since Davis did increase his time at the 5 in the Lakers’ most recent title run, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see Bryant’s role reduced in the postseason if the Lakers even make it that far this season.
What is his most likely role on the team?
Despite his recent regression from beyond the arc and defensive limitations, Bryant’s combination of two discrete skills — shooting and rim protection — is both scarce and valuable enough to make him a perfect partner in the post next to Davis. If Davis can cover up some of Bryant’s deficiencies as a perimeter defender, while Bryant’s shooting precludes Davis from needing to jack up threes he isn’t likely to make, then by season’s end, his signing on the minimum could look like one of the best free agent deals made this summer.
In contrast with some of the other moves the Lakers have recently made, Bryant’s fit around the roster’s centerpieces makes a ton of sense on paper. And while he may start out splitting minutes with Jones until one proves to be the superior performer in the purple and gold this season, I expect Bryant to open up the season as the team’s starting center, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
However, given the tenor surrounding the team right now and this zany offseason in general, the unimaginable might actually be more probable than whatever Ockham’s Razor currently suggests.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.