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Thomas Bryant is bringing the Wizards energy, as it's the only way he knows how to play

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Thomas Bryant is bringing the Wizards energy, as it's the only way he knows how to play

Wizards head coach Scott Brooks had been looking for something from his team for weeks to begin this season: a sign of life. They had stumbled out to a disappointing 5-10 start and were down big at home against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Late in that lopsided loss, Brooks saw what he had wanted to see a lot more of. He noticed a level of energy and a sense of urgency from his young players, who were summoned from the bench to play out the string of a game that was well out of reach.

Second-year center Thomas Bryant threw down a dunk in the closing minutes and sped down the right side of the floor, towards the Wizards bench. He flashed a smile and pointed at veteran players. Brooks took a mental note.

For their next game, when it was becoming clear Dwight Howard would be out a while after another injury setback, Brooks tapped Bryant to be his new starter. That was nine games ago, and since then the Wizards are 6-3.

Though Bryant hasn't played a ton of minutes, just 17.5 per game in the nine games, he has produced the desired effect as a member of the starting group. He only knows one gear, to be active and play hard, and it seems to be rubbing off on his teammates.

"I always try to play with that energy. That passion, I always bring," Bryant told NBC Sports Washington.

Bryant has been more than just a try-hard. He's putting up solid numbers in his small, but appreciated window of opportunity.

Bryant's 124 offensive rating this season is second only to Tomas Satoransky on the Wizards. And his 111 defensive rating is tied with Howard for best on the team.

He has averaged 5.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in 12.6 minutes this season while shooting 58.9 percent. His per-36 numbers of 16.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game put that efficiency in perspective.

Bryant is giving the Wizards something they arguably haven't had in years; an athletic, spry young big man who can maximize a complementary role. He plays physical defense, rebounds well and can be relied upon offensively to clean up for others.

Bryant's rebounding percentage (16.3) is second only to Howard on the team. And he is shooting a team-best 83.3 percent on attempts within three feet. When Bryant decides to go up with it around the rim, he is hard to stop.

"I just try to do whatever the team needs me to do," he said. "I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job so far."

All front offices are hit-and-miss with draft picks, trades and free agent signings. The current Wizards group has certainly made their mistakes over the years.

But they deserve some credit for finding Bryant, who may have already exceeded the expectations for someone claimed off waivers. Bryant was a castoff from the Lakers, and the Wizards are happy to have him. 

He has quickly developed into a player they can at the very least trust as a rotation piece and as a temporary starter. Considering he's only 21 years old, that's not bad at all.

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Wizards' rivalry with LeBron James begins new chapter with Lakers in town

Wizards' rivalry with LeBron James begins new chapter with Lakers in town

LeBron James' dominance for the better part of two decades has had a ripple effect around the league, to where just about every franchise has been directly or indirectly altered one way or the other over the years. The Wizards, being in the Eastern Conference, have seen their relation to James evolve quite a bit.

Early on, they had a defined and entertaining rivalry with James and his first edition Cavaliers. From his days with the Heat through his second tenure in Cleveland, James operated as a big brother in the conference.

Now, with James in Los Angeles, their head-to-head rivalry will enter a new chapter, beginning with their first meeting on Sunday at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

James has left the East and therefore does not affect the Wizards as much as he used to. But he still remains a marquee match-up and playing for the Lakers certainly helps that cause.

"Playing against LeBron always brings out the best in everybody," guard John Wall said. "Why wouldn't you get up for a game like that?"

James, 34, remains arguably the league's best player. He is third in points per game (28.4) while shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from three. He's also averaging 7.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Those are MVP-type numbers, especially on a Lakers team that doesn't have another All-Star.

Exciting games always seem to happen when James plays the Wizards, no matter the stage or the team he's playing for. He had legendary playoff battles with the Wizards in the mid-2000s, famously duking it out with Gilbert Arenas. His Cavs and the Wizards played in the first round of the postseason three straight years, from 2005 through 2008, with James taking each series.

As the Wizards went through a rebuild and missed the playoffs from 2008 through 2013, their meetings with James' Cavs and then the Heat were always marked on the calendar. In December of 2012, when the Wizards were en route to a 29-win campaign, they beat James' Heat in Washington. It was their biggest win of the season and the game drew extra attention with Robert Griffin III, then the talk of the town, in attendance.

The Wizards haven't met James in the playoffs during Wall's era, but they had some memorable regular season battles. The one that comes to mind first was in February of 2017.

James' Cavs had won the title the summer before and the Wizards were playing their best basketball since drafting Wall. They went to overtime on national television with James hitting a circus three-pointer while fading out of bounds (:50 mark) to help Cleveland earn the victory. The game was described as an "instant classic" by head coach Scott Brooks.

So much has happened for both James and the Wizards since. Now, James is a Laker and in the beginning of what will likely be the home stretch of his prime. The Wizards, meanwhile, are stumbling and making trades to shuffle their roster.

The Wizards will enter this match-up fresh off a trade with the Suns, one that brought Trevor Ariza to Washington. Ariza, though, won't be available because the trade isn't official and that will leave the Wizards with a depleted roster.

Dwight Howard remains out due to a back injury and Otto Porter Jr. missed their last two games, plus Saturday's practice, with a knee contusion. The Wizards practiced with eight players and are expected to bring Troy Brown Jr. and someone else in from their G-League affiliate.

"It's a tough task. We're probably gonna have to play a lot of minutes," Wall said.

"We've gotta make sure we're ready to go," Beal added. "We have no choice, or else we're gonna lose."

The supporting cast continues to change year-to-year and, for the Wizards lately, week-to-week. But there remains a lot of history between them and James, with Sunday gearing up to be the latest installment.

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John Wall, Bradley Beal react to Trevor Ariza trade that sent Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers to Suns

John Wall, Bradley Beal react to Trevor Ariza trade that sent Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers to Suns

From the front office's perspective, the timing of the Wizards' trade for Trevor Ariza could not have been better. They secured the player they wanted as early as he could be traded, on Dec. 15.

From the players' perspective, the timing could not have been worse. They had just lost a game to the Brooklyn Nets and were in the locker room when reports began surfacing on social media. Those involved, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers, had to address reporters, not knowing where they would be moving to the coming days.

Then, as the trade saga took on new forms, they rode the bus and then on the plane with the Wizards, surrounded by those they would soon call former teammates. Their phones were buzzing with messages from people asking what was going on, when they themselves didn't know.

John Wall has seen plenty over the course of his nine NBA seasons, including Kirk Hinrich getting traded at halftime back in 2011. But he hadn't seen this.

"It was kind of weird and kind of difficult," Wall said. "[We] go into the locker room and we're about to shower and stuff and we don't understand who is about to get traded, who's been traded. It was kind of a tough situation. I give those guys a lot of credit. They handled that stuff like professionals. A lot of guys could have reacted in different ways, which I have seen in the past."

As NBA Twitter did backflips over the absurdity playing out in real time, how the deal was originally supposed to have three teams and it fell through allegedly because of a mixup over which 'Brooks' was getting traded from Memphis, the Wizards were following along, on the bus and with two parties involved sitting nearby. 

"You don't see that a lot. I feel for Kelly and Austin who were put on that trip back here and not knowing what was going on," Bradley Beal said.

Like with most trades, the players offered a mixed reaction with teammates leaving, but help also coming in. They know Ariza well from his days in Washington back in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons and believe he will bring defense and three-point shooting, two things the Wizards currently need.

There was a human element of seeing Oubre and Rivers go, though, that both Wall and Beal felt. Oubre, in particular, had become woven into the fabric of the organization over the past three-plus years. He arrived as a first round pick in 2015 and grew up in their system.

"It is kind of devastating for those guys who came in and tried to give it everything they have," Wall said. "Especially K.O., being here four years, watching him develop from his rookie year not getting any minutes and coming into his own and being an X-factor for our team the last couple of years, it's sad to see him go."

Wall continued to say he wishes both players the best with the Phoenix Suns. The Wizards happen to play Phoenix in a week, on Dec. 22 in Washington.

Ultimately, the trade served a reminder to Wall, Beal and others that the Wizards have some urgency to turn things around. They are in the luxury tax with the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA. An 11-18 record after 29 games just isn't good enough to justify the resources being committed.

Wall explained in detail how he believes money was a consideration.

"The only thing I really can think of from my standpoint is that Trevor makes $15 [million], I think. Austin made [$12.65 million] and Kelly makes [$3.21 million] this year," he said.

"It was a situation where we were in a tough bind. We have three guys that are paid pretty high. And then understanding what Kelly is going to receive or ask for this summer, I don't think we have the money to match it. So, I think that's the reason why we made that trade."

This is the third trade the Wizards have made already this season. All three deals have saved them money, but this one has the highest likelihood to make a difference on the court.

The players are optimistic Ariza can prove the missing piece.

"We needed a change," Beal said. "Hopefully this is the change that sparks some energy out of us, some life out of us, that will get us to play the way we know we're capable of playing."

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