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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' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

The Washington Wizards were so truly terrible on the defensive end last season that they didn't discriminate towards any areas of the game.

Were they bad at defending threes? Yeah, they were 26th in the NBA in threes allowed (12.1/g) and 27th in opponent three-point percentage (37.0).

What about protecting the rim? Yeah, that too. The Wizards allowed more field goals within five feet of the rim (22.1/g) than any other team and the third-highest percentage (64.2) from that range. 

Collectively, it all added up to the 28th-ranked unit based on defensive rating (113.9), the highest in Washington franchise history. And they allowed the second-most points (116.9) of any team in the league.

The thing is, the Wizards didn't do a ton to address their defense this offseason, at least in the short-term. Though they likely set themselves up to be better down the road, most of the players they brought in who can help now aren't defensive guys.

C.J. Miles, Moe Wagner, and Davis Bertans are shooters. Rui Hachimura is known far more for his scoring than his defense. And Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas at the point guard spot aren't exactly defensive stoppers.

If the Wizards are to improve defensively this season, even marginally, it will have to be due to players becoming better on that end than they have been in the past. And there is one player in particular who can make the biggest difference.

That would be third-year center Thomas Bryant, who has not been a plus-defensive player so far in his career but is only 22 years old. He hasn't been much of a rim protector previously, but he possesses some natural abilities that suggest he has the potential to become one. He is a high-energy player with long arms, fairly quick feet and a willingness to play through contact.

Bryant knows he holds the key to the Wizards' defensive ceiling.

"I have to be one of those guys to make a big difference. A big man can be the anchor for the defense. I have to take that responsibility to heart every day, whether it's in practice or the game," he said.

Bryant averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Wizards, but only 0.9 blocks. His per-36 blocks average was 1.6, which was tied for 30th in the NBA. 

But for Bryant, and all big men, it's not just about blocking shots. It's about altering shots and the best rim protectors dominate in that regard. Though the stat can't be found on Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, the Wizards track it and pay close attention.

"Defensively, he definitely has to work and he has to improve," head coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant. 

"The two or three shots that players block is really good, but there are a thousand other plays that they can be in the wrong spot that they have to work on. He has to be in the right spot, protecting the paint and being in the paint to not allow guys even in there."

Bryant said altering shots has been a big point of emphasis for him leading up to the 2019-20 season. And in that process, he's trying to be more talkative on the floor to help his teammates who can't see behind them when defending guards.

"I'm starting to keep my hands up and my arms up, just verbalizing out there on the defensive end. I'm trying to be more engaged and that way my teammates are more engaged," Bryant said.

Ultimately, the Wizards will need more from everyone on their defense. One of their problems with rim protection is that guards can penetrate off the dribble too easily. By the time they meet Bryant at the rim, they have a full head of steam.

There are also, of course, way too many threes going in, and those count more. Even if Bryant became a lesser version of Rudy Gobert, he would need some help.

But no one else on the Wizards roster arguably presents the same short-term upside that Bryant does. If he figures it out on defense, it could make a world of difference for a team that needs it.

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Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

The Wizards return home to the nation's capital after a one-game road trip to Madison Square Garden. Bradley Beal led with a team-high 21 points. The Bucks head to D.C. currently sitting at 3-0 so far throughout the preseason.

Here is everything you need to know.

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS PRESEASON HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Wizards vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 2019 NBA Preseason 

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 6:00 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Wizards vs. Bucks preseason game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can live stream Wizards vs. Bucks on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

Radio: Wizards Radio Network, 1500 AM

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS TV SCHEDULE

6:00 PM: Wizards vs. Bucks, NBA Preseason (LIVE)

8:30 PM: Wizards Postgame Live (LIVE)

BUCKS vs. WIZARDS INJURY REPORT:

Bucks: Eric Bledsoe (OUT, Fractured Cartilage between two of his ribs)

Wizards: John Wall (OUT, Left Achilles rehab), Isaiah Thomas (OUT, Left thumb rehab), Ian Mahinmi (OUT, Right Achilles strain)

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