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Few people recognized Thomas Bryant. At the September grand opening of the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8, Bryant stood in a corner near the facility’s entrance and occasionally answered questions from media members.
Some passersby turned their heads to glance at the 6-foot-11 basketball player towering over everyone, but otherwise, Bryant went relatively unnoticed throughout his brief public appearance that fall afternoon.
Since then, Bryant has become one of the most unexpected positive developments during a disappointing Wizards season, going from NBA bench warmer to a steady starter who has earned the admiration of his coaches, teammates, and the thousands of D.C. pro basketball fans looking for something, anything, to cheer for at Capital One Arena.
“Oh yeah, I feel like people are starting to know who I am,” Bryant says. “I hear the cheers. I hear the hecklers as well. It’s good out there. I like it.”
The Utah Jazz drafted Bryant out of Indiana University in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft before trading him to the Lakers, where he played sparingly off the bench and spent much of his time on the South Bay Lakers, the Lakers’ G League affiliate.
When the Wizards claimed him off waivers in July, the team expected him to play a limited role. Coach Scott Brooks already had a starting center in Dwight Howard.
But as injuries piled up, including one that has kept Howard out of the lineup since mid-November, Brooks turned to the 21-year-old New York native to inject energy into a lifeless team that floundered away several games and turned the Wizards once again into an NBA laughingstock.
The decision has paid off even better than Brooks had expected.
“I’ve been surprised,” the coach said recently. “To be quite honest I didn’t know nothing about him. He didn’t play last year but a few minutes and here and there with the Lakers. [Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld] and our staff found him. Our development guys have developed him. Now he’s playing good minutes and starting. He probably wouldn’t have said he would be a starter if you’d asked him a month ago, two months ago. But he’s earned these minutes … I thought his energy, and his effort, and his enthusiasm, you can see it, every time down court, everybody cheers for him.”
A self-described perfectionist, Bryant has put in extra time in the gym to be ready for opportunities like these. He credits his preparation for his breakthrough season. Veterans like Bradley Beal have taken note.
“Ever since [Brooks] decided to start him, it’s been infinite energy,” Beal said in early December. “I love playing with him, he’s one of my favorite young guys on the team. His work ethic is crazy. He and Troy [Brown Jr.] are always the first ones in the gym. I just tell him to stay humble and continue to take advantage of his opportunities. A year ago he wasn’t even in this position, now he’s starting. That’s amazing in itself.”
Against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 22, Bryant scored a career-best 31 points on 14-for-14 from the field. Only four players in NBA history have made at least all 14 shot attempts, with Wilt Chamberlain on top of the list.
Bryant did not predict that any of this would happen. How could he?
“You know, you sit on a bench for a while and going down to the G League playing and all of a sudden, coming into the starting position, you’d be surprised yourself,” he says. “But I just try to stay ready each and every day. The training and the extra work I put in before and after practice helped me prepare for this moment.”
During a recent game, Tomáš Satoranský raced down the floor and threaded a pass to Bryant, who threw down a two-handed slam to give the Wizards a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter, forcing the Charlotte Hornets to call timeout. Bryant skipped back to the bench and pumped his arms in the air, imploring the 17,197 fans at Capital One Arena on a Saturday evening in late December to get louder. And they did.
The Wizards would go on to win the game, 130-126. Bryant finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in over 35 minutes of play—just his second career NBA double-double. Both have been Washington victories.