Thomas Bryant is helping Lakers stay afloat without Anthony Davis

Thomas Bryant is helping Lakers stay afloat without Anthony Davis

When the Los Angeles Lakers began life without Anthony Davis on Dec. 18, they were 12-16, in 12th place in the West and 1.5 games behind the 10th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Thirteen games later, they are 19-22, 12th in the West and one game behind the 10th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

Davis’ extended absence could have buried a Lakers season that was already struggling to gain momentum for a number of reasons. Instead, at least for three weeks, they’ve survived it, going 7-6 and keeping their postseason hopes alive. They are just 1.5 games back of the sixth-ranked Golden State Warriors. When Davis first went down, they were four games behind the No. 6 seed.

LeBron James is the main life jacket here. In the 10 games he’s played since Davis’ injury, the superstar wing is averaging 34.3 points (63.8 percent shooting), 7.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds. The Lakers are 6-4 in those contests. Attacking the rim strongly off ball screens and in transition, he is dominating the paint and has only scored less than 31 points twice during this stretch. Like last season, his slow start is another relic amid a fruitful campaign.

However, the 38-year-old is not alone. Davis’ replacement, Thomas Bryant, has complemented his All-NBA teammate admirably. The former Indiana Hoosier is averaging 16.9 points (70.1 percent shooting) and 10.5 rebounds during the 13 games Davis has missed. On the year, he’s averaging 13 points (72 percent true shooting) and 7.3 rebounds. He’s been a dynamite playmaker who would pace the NBA in true shooting if he qualified for the leaderboards (Nicolas Claxton, at 71 percent, currently tops the list).

To some extent, he is imitating the greater diversity and potency of human choice and power that he is following. Davis’ primary offensive appeal this season, and for much of his career, stems from his expansive ability as a ball-screen partner. He’s a dominant lob threat, versatile handler in traffic and nimble touch case to throw off floaters from a variety of angles.

According to Synergy, his 1,368 points per possession as a roller ranks in the 81st percentile this year. He is second in ball-and-roll possessions per game (4.6). Among the 29 players who own more than two turnovers per game, only Christian Wood (1.527 PPP), Clint Capela (1.423) and Nikola Jokic (1.385) surpass Davis in efficiency. His versatile nature meshed well with James and Russell Westbrook.

Bryant achieves his successes in a distinct way from Davis, but is widely replicating the production carried through flexibility. He’s generating 1.333 PPP as a roller, which puts him in the 79th percentile overall and seventh among the aforementioned group that includes Davis.

The 25-year-old is light off the ground, using oven hands on coral passages and tickling twine all over the floor. According to Cleaning The Glass, he shoots 78 percent at the rim (86th percentile among bigs), 59 percent from short-medium range (92nd percentile) and 53 percent from the mid-range. long (79th percentile).

*As a note, Cleaning The Glass defines mid-short as 4-14 feet and mid-length as 14 feet inside the 3-point line.*

His soft hands mesh well with James and Westbrook, both of whom are prone to laser-like possession inside, especially the latter, whose accuracy sometimes fades. Not only that, but he’s adept on the offensive glass regardless of whether he’s established a preferred position. Sometimes, he simply extends his 7-foot wingspan to pole vaults and athleticism that the opponent doesn’t. His coordination for catches and boards is critical and rare for most centers.

Bryant developed an important rapport with James and Westbrook. He conveniently opens his dives inside and will swim in open space for convenient windows that pass away from the action. While some cantankerous rushers can get rattled by timely turnovers or off-the-catch pressure, Bryant has shown the ability to put the ball on the deck for a dribble or two. Like Davis, he is stubborn and multidimensional. This allows Los Angeles some cohesion in the actions it drafts, despite its star center being sidelined.

While part of Davis’ return to superstar form has been actualized by cutting long 3rds and 2s, Bryant is a legitimate long-range threat. Davis is coming off ball screens far less than in previous years and is making a conscious effort to get to the rim more often. This is smart. He must do this and avoid long-range bombs.

Bryant, however, adds an element of floor spacing not mimicked by his center. He is shooting 38.9 percent from deep since 2019-20, including 45.2 percent this season. He’s the only true center on the roster who brings that separation component, whether it’s from the middle or deep. Los Angeles may be comfortable with its jumpers, while Davis’ jumpers are more of a last resort or a tertiary pick due to his great interior exploits and recent exterior struggles.

Bryant won’t sit north of 58 percent mid-range and 45 percent from beyond the arc all season. But he has long acted as a reliable big-shot, whose exterior is a steady, welcome release valve — something that eludes his predecessor. The specific numbers are not consistent, but the overall process and schematic impact are.

The gap between Davis and Bryant on defense is substantial. Davis is wild, strong-chested, instinctive and mobile. Bryant struggles to change directions fluidly, is weak against contact and lacks Davis’ awareness and short-area quickness as a rim protector. That’s not to diss Bryant, who is a fine player who is enjoying a tremendous, resurgent year. It’s to articulate the differences and gaps in their game and avoid any implication of a Wally Pipp Moment unfolding in the City of Angels.

The Lakers are ninth in offensive rating (117.5) and 25th in defensive rating (119.0) without Davis. Both rankings reflect Bryant’s abilities. Expecting a backup on a one-year, $2.1 million deal to anchor a defense is illogical anyway. Plus, Los Angeles’ lack of reliable point guards and wing balls pushes him into unfit responsibilities.

Regardless, Bryant is the author of the best ball of his career right now. After struggling last year in the 10 games he played following a torn ACL a season ago, he found a place during his second stint with the Lakers. With every dunk, offensive rebound and sure long ball, he’s helping them keep their playoff aspirations alive and giving Davis a little more time to heal properly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *