Amid a season of turmoil, Thomas Bryant was a shining light. While the Washington Wizards were defined much of the year by overpaid players whose commitment and effort level were openly questioned by their teammates, Bryant was just the opposite. Over and over again, he was lauded for his energy and enthusiasm.
While a collection of veterans fell short of expectations, Bryant played like he didn't know any better. He dashed up and down the court and celebrated small victories like rebounds, blocks and dunks with child-like joy.
It was a breakout season for Bryant, whom the Wizards plucked from the waiver wire last summer from the Los Angeles Lakers. The move at the time appeared to be insignificant, one that would probably help their G-League team more than anything. But by late November, he had worked his way into the starting lineup and never looked back.
"It feels great. It’s a step in the right direction," Bryant said of his first year in Washington. "I can’t tell you how happy I am for the improvement in just a year."
Though the Wizards' season was a disappointment overall, Bryant managed to put together quite the year for himself. He averaged 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting a league-high 68.5 percent on two-pointers. His 61.6 field goal percentage set a single-season franchise record, besting 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan who finished at 60.4 percent at 1996-97.
Bryant, when informed of that record, called it "amazing" and "mind-blowing," but it was by no accident. At just 21 years old, he proved this season he can be uniquely selective with his shot.
Bryant can make shots from all over the floor, including three-point range, where he shot 33.3 percent this season, not bad for a center. He is also solid from mid-range, shooting 46.6 percent from three to 10 feet.
Where Bryant makes his biggest impact is around the rim. He has quick feet for his size and natural touch in the post. He can also finish with power.
Bryant led the Wizards with 117 dunks this season. Bradley Beal was second with 61 and only 18 players in the NBA had more. Bryant's 117 dunks were the most for a Wizards player since JaVale McGee had 155 in 2010-11.
Bryant's efficiency led to a special night this season. On Dec. 22 against the Suns, he went a perfect 14-for-14 from the field, a performance only Wilt Chamberlain has topped in NBA history.
Bryant's personality and production made him a quick favorite among his teammates and Wizards fans. He is the best young big man prospect the team has had in years.
But there is no guarantee Bryant will be in Washington long-term. He is set to hit free agency this summer and, though the Wizards can make him a restricted free agent and match his rights, he could garner significant interest from other teams.
The Wizards' current front office, led by interim GM Tommy Sheppard, would make keeping Bryant this summer a top priority, according to people familiar with their plans. But if a new GM comes in from outside of the organization, they could see things much differently.
Bryant's contract situation could also get confusing. The Wizards have his Early Bird rights and can exceed the salary cap to re-sign him, but with a limited contract. They can offer Bryant up to 105 percent of the league average salary from the 2018-19 season, which according to Larry Coon's salary cap guide is estimated to be $8.38 million. That would mean Bryant could be offered roughly up to $9.28 million annually by the Wizards.
Bryant's contract could not be for one year under this provision. It would have to be two to four years in length.
Things could get really messy if the Wizards need to match an offer for Bryant from another team. Then he could be subject to the Gilbert Arenas provision, which is ironically named after the 2003 free agent deal Washington signed with him. That rule limits what other teams can offer Bryant in restricted free agency -- at least on the front end, as they still have the option to backload his contract.
Tyler Johnson, now of the Phoenix Suns, is a good example of how the latter can work. In the summer of 2016, the Brooklyn Nets offered him a deal that paid $5.6 million the first year and $5.9 million the second. His third and fourth years then jumped to $19.2 million apiece.
A backloaded contract would, on the face of it, help the Wizards in the short-term with John Wall set to make $37.8 million next season in the first year of his supermax deal despite likely missing most, if not all, of 2019-20 due to a ruptured Achilles. But the Wizards' salary cap situation could get very difficult in 2021-22, in what would be the third year of Bryant's next contract and one where his salary could spike.
That would be the first year of Beal's next contract and Wall will be making $43.9 million. Beal will likely earn a significant raise from the max contract he is on right now and could be in line for a supermax like Wall if he makes All-NBA. So the Wizards have to keep a keen eye on 2021-22 in any decisions they make on contracts and Bryant could be affected.
Bryant, like most players, will want to make the money he deserves. But the Wizards do have working for them the fact he proved such a good fit this season. He barely played for the Lakers last year and clearly has a good opportunity in Washington as their center of the future.
Bryant has a positive view of the organization.
"It would be great [to stay here]. I love this place. I love the Washington Wizards," he said. "I love playing with all of these guys. I love playing with Brad. I love playing with Troy [Brown Jr.], everybody. I love the coaching staff as well. Just being here. They gave me an opportunity to play. Why would I want to leave?"
The last question is one he will only be able to answer this summer, when the offers hit the table.
MORE WIZARDS NEWS: