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Dwight Howard's injury opened the door for Thomas Bryant's rapid ascension

Dwight Howard's injury opened the door for Thomas Bryant's rapid ascension

Thomas Bryant is always so excited. The man will smile and point to his teammates on the bench after a big dunk. A blocked shot will be celebrated by a scream into the crowd. He probably fist-pumps when his sandwich is ready at the deli or his number is called at the DMV.

That eager energy is a big reason why Wizards head coach Scott Brooks inserted Bryant into the starting lineup back on Nov. 20. He saw a lack of urgency and zip from his team and believed Bryant could help fill the void. Since, he has started in 22 straight games and over the past several months has consistently improved, to now where Brooks will trust him later into games.

On Wednesday night in a win over the Hawks, Bryant played a career-high 39 minutes. He has played at least 29 minutes in three straight games with two of those featuring double-doubles, including a 16-point, 15-rebound night against the Hawks.

Bryant has gradually gone from an early-game tone-setter to a full-fledged starter over the past six weeks.

"He's really improving as the season's going on. He's getting some opportunities, and he's earned it," Brooks said.

Where Bryant has become of particular help is on the glass. The Wizards rank among the worst rebounding teams in basketball, placing 27th or worse out of 30 teams in offensive, defensive and total rebounds. They have the worst rebounding percentage (46.0) in the NBA.

This season, the Wizards are a perfect 8-0 when they out-rebound their opponent. They are 6-22 when teams out-rebound them. 

Bryant needs to get better at keeping opponents off the glass, as on Wednesday against Atlanta John Collins and Alex Len brought in a combined 19 boards. That is an overlooked skill the best rebounders have. But Bryant has mostly been doing his part. 

He has four double-digit rebounding games in his last nine outings. Only Otto Porter Jr. has more games with 10 or more rebounds this season among Wizards players

Bryant has also helped the Wizards as an inside scoring option. He is remarkably efficient with a 66.0 field-goal percentage that would tie Rudy Gobert for best in the NBA if his number of attempts qualified. No qualifying Wizards/Bullets player has shot better than 60 percent in a season since Gheorghe Muresan in 1996-97.

In his last seven games, Bryant is shooting 75.4 percent from the field. That includes his perfect 14-for-14 outing against the Suns, which only Wilt Chamberlain has bested in NBA history.

"He is really improving at getting good touches under the basket and he's a crafty finisher, so he's just going to grow," point guard Tomas Satoransky said.

"He has good hands. He finishes. He catches and finishes. He can finish with either hand," Brooks said.

Bryant's in-season improvement is not by accident. He described his philosophy of how to develop as a player after Wednesday night's win as a patient, but rewarding process.

“Always being willing to learn. I know the game isn’t going to be perfect. It’s a game of mistakes. The way you become a better player is how you translate from making those mistakes and putting it behind you so you can make better decisions," Bryant said.

“The confidence is there. It has always been there from the start. As you get more acquainted with your teammates, as you play more and more, you start to get more comfortable out there. So my comfortability level is going up... I’ve put the work in since day one. I work my butt off and [Brooks] sees that and it’s starting to translate, and it feels great.”  

Bryant, 21, has a lot of fans in the Wizards locker room. The youthful enthusiasm Brooks hoped he would provide seems to be appreciated by others.

Many Wizards players describe Bryant in terms of how his approach to the game is contagious. That goes all the way up to Bradley Beal, who has established himself in the league as an All-Star player.

"I've told him since Day 1 that there is an opportunity for him to come in and be that guy, to bring that energy. I remember when we first played pick-up in the summer, we just clicked instantly. He was a hard, aggressive and active runner. It has just carried over into the year.

"We feed off the energy that he gives us. I tell everybody that his s*** talking and whatever he's doing gets me going. I need him to keep doing it."

Bryant's opportunity came this season when the team learned Dwight Howard would miss months due to back surgery. So far, he has been making the most of it and far out-playing expectations as a player the Wizards claimed off waivers in the offseason. 

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Wizards owner Ted Leonsis talks Dwyane Wade, still undecided on offseason moves

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis talks Dwyane Wade, still undecided on offseason moves

WASHINGTON -- Ted Leonsis had a front row seat to two converging storylines.

The Wizards owner was among throngs inside Capital One Arena appreciating Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade’s final game in Washington.

Leonsis also recognized the likely last gasp for his team’s playoff hopes came up short.

“They’ll make the playoffs. It doesn’t look like we’ll make the playoffs now,” Leonsis said to NBC Sports Washington following the Wizards’ loss Saturday night.

 “Hope [Dwyane] plays well,” Leonsis continued. “We’ll have to figure out what to do in the off-season.”

The loss dropped the Wizards (30-44) 6 ½ games back of the Heat for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington only has eight regular-season games remaining.

Earlier this season Leonsis said organizational changes are in play should the Wizards fail to reach their goals, which included reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons.

Asked for his current thoughts on any off-season changes, Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington, “Don’t know yet. Let’s see how they do out West. It was disappointing. We were trying to catch [Miami].”

The Wizards embark on a four-game Western Conference road trip starting Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite any frustration with the game’s conclusion and the season at-large, Leonsis appreciated Wade’s gusto on his way out. 

The 16-year veteran and 13-time All-Star announced his retirement before the season. Wade, 37, looked anything but over-the-hill late against the Wizards.

Having turned into Miami’s closer after the All-Star break, Wade scored 11 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter as the Heat (36-37) fended off several Wizards rallies.

“Kind of historic, right? (Wild) that Dwyane Wade beat us tonight,” Leonsis said. “What a career, what a game. Just everything about the way he plays is beautiful. He’s really great.”

Leonsis remarked the referees overlooked an apparent traveling violation from Wade in the third quarter.

“We wanted to beat them. They played better. The no-call on Dwyane on the travel was apropos. I thought he took five steps. You say, ‘Well, that’s when you’re a Hall of Famer you get that respect,” Leonsis said respectfully. “But, good for him.”

Miami moved one game ahead of idle ninth-place Orlando in the Eastern Conference standings.

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Scott Brooks jokes that the Heat should be fined for letting Wade call it a career

Scott Brooks jokes that the Heat should be fined for letting Wade call it a career

On most occasions, elite athletes decide to finish their careers way after their skills have declined. It is uncommon for most icons to go out on their own terms. When you train your entire life to play professional basketball, it's a tough task to realize that your time has passed, and its time to move on to another venture. 

Dwyane Wade is not grouped into that category. Tonight's performance against the Wizards justified that. 

After announcing publicly last September that the 2018-19 NBA season would be his last, the news left the sports world nostalgic. Once a bright young star out of Marquette, "Flash" was must-see television.

After announcing last September that this would be his last ride in South Beach, Wade, albeit the face of the franchise, knew that this team wasn't the one he had joined when he was drafted fifth overall in June of 2003. It wasn't the squad he won his first title with in '06, or the bunch that started the "Super Team" movement. This was a collection of young prospects, journeymen, and he was a veteran presence, and no longer the marquee option. He welcomed the move to the bench and to be the veteran presence in the locker room that the team needed and has had quite the resurgence of sorts that has the sports world questioning whether retirement is really the best option, and whether he should come back another year. 

Scott Brooks is one of many who thinks Wade should reconsider.

In his final appearance at Capital One Arena Saturday evening, the veteran star lead his group to victory, showing flashes of the player he once was, and carrying his squad to a crucial road win. 

Brooks joked that "the NBA needs to fine the Miami Heat for letting him retire".

It appears that Wade's contemporaries are of the mindset of Brooks. Wizards forward Jeff Green, who exploded for 25 points off the bench in the tough loss, discussed postgame that despite his efforts to get Wade to change his mind, the latter knows that it's time to move on.

"He's playing amazing," Green said. "I've tried my convincing, I've been trying for the last six months, it didn't work."

Green expressed that he's glad his friend is choosing to leave the game before it leaves him.

"I'm happy for the guy." Green said. "He's going out the way he wants to."

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