WASHINGTON -- Last season, the trade of Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard's injury left a consequential void in the Wizards' offense that no one else on their roster was able to fill.
After Gortat had for years used his wide frame to set some of the most effective screens in the NBA, Wizards guards and wings had to work harder to get their shots. Washington ranked 24th out of 30 NBA teams in screen assists and 25th in points off screens.
With Gortat and Howard out of the picture, Thomas Bryant assumed the starting job at center and became a mainstay in the rotation, but screen-setting was not his strength. He ranked 41st in the NBA in screen assists, tying Ian Mahinmi with only 2.6 per game.
Then at 21 years old, Bryant was learning on the fly what screen setting in the NBA - against the biggest, quickest and strongest basketball players in the world - was truly like. And when his first season in Washington was over, he recognized that part of his game needed some work.
So, he put emphasis on getting stronger and studying the tricks of the trade. So far this year, it has been a much different story. He is currently third in the NBA in screen assists per game, averaging over twice as many as he did last year. His 5.8 screen-assist average is right about where Rudy Gobert was (5.9) when he led the league last season.
On Sunday against the Magic, Bryant recorded 12 screen assists that led to 28 points for the Wizards offense.
"It feels pretty good to have that because we need it," Bryant told NBC Sports Washington when informed of those numbers.
"I think that's very good going forward with this team because I know we have so many guys capable of getting shots and getting to the rim. Me freeing them up is going to open things up for me if it doesn't open things up for the person I'm setting the screen for or for the weak-side getting open shots."
Bryant gives the Wizards something Gortat never did when it comes to setting screens in that he can not only roll to the basket, he also can pop out to shoot threes. And when he does roll to the rim, Bryant has the size, quickness and touch to cash in for points at a high level. He was fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage last season (61.6) and set a franchise record.
This year, Bryant is shooting 69.5 percent on shots within five feet of the rim. He is 13-for-16 on layups or dunks cutting to the basket.
Setting screens can help Bryant get points, but ultimately it's about assisting his teammates first and doing the dirty work necessary to help an offense work efficiently. The Wizards are third in offensive rating (112.4) and Bryant's contributions have been a big reason for that.
"Screen-setting has been a huge part of our offense. We set them all over the floor," head coach Scott Brooks said.
"We don't want to stay in one place or one angle, we want to help them find better reads. There's a way to get guys open, there's a trick. Depending on who has the ball or who has the guy coming off the screen, you can manipulate the defense to get us the shot we want."
Setting picks is not the stuff that makes highlight reels or wins players MVP trophies. It isn't glamorous work, both because it often goes unnoticed and because it isn't pleasant to do. Bryant has to commit to building a wall that very large opponents will unknowingly run into.
That means elbows, shoulders and chests colliding in all sorts of combinations.
"When you're setting a screen, you have to go in knowing that you're going to get hit and that it's going to hurt sometimes," Bryant said.
"If you're trying to get [your teammate] open and get your play off, you've gotta expect that you will get hit. When you have that expectation of you getting hit, that makes setting the screen easier because you know that you'll have that impact and you know you'll have to set the screen hard or hold it for a second."
Bryant is picking up all the little things that go into screen setting; how to brace for impact, the timing of holding a screen and when to break away, what he can get away with from referees and how to roll out of them to create his own offense. He says the only way to learn all of those elements is through experience in NBA games.
If his current pace continues, Bryant could establish himself as one of the league's best screen-setters, much like Gortat was for years before him. There is a long legacy of setting picks in Washington going back to Wes Unseld, who was perhaps most famous for the craft.
Unseld was the size of a refrigerator and, as the story goes, once knocked an opponent out cold with a screen. Bryant has heard of Unseld and his screen-setting prowess but doesn't want to take it that far.
"I try not to do that. I set good screens, but I don't ever want to hurt anybody," he said.
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