Lakers might have found a keeper in Thomas Bryant

The Lakers built their roster this season with low-risk, medium-upside gambles. They may have hit the jackpot with Thomas Bryant.

It was clear well before the season started that depth was going to be an issue for the Lakers. They filled out their roster with a mix of veterans and young players, but the pattern was mostly low-risk, moderate upside (at best) and contracts that wouldn’t last beyond this season, avoiding getting locked into anything that would prevent them from taking bigger swings this summer when Russell Westbrook’s contract would come off the books.

As of right now, no one in that group has made themselves indispensable to the Lakers’ future but Thomas Bryant is starting to look like a keeper.

LeBron’s 43 points were the story of last night’s Lakers win over the Hornets, but Bryant added 18 points, 15 rebounds and 2 assists in 36 minutes. Since Anthony Davis went down with a lower leg injury, Bryant has started nine of 10 games, averaging 15.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists in just under 30 minutes per game. Over that span, he’s shot 64.4 percent from the floor and 10-of-18 from beyond the arc.

Bryant didn’t play his first game for the Lakers until Nov. 18 because of a thumb injury. And he’d played just 83 games over the three previous seasons, dealing with a variety of injuries including an ACL tear. But, finally healthy and getting regular minutes, he’s found a rhythm and appears to have revived his once-promising career.

Thomas Bryant and LeBron James have pick-and-roll chemistry

Bryant is contributing in a variety of ways but the foundation has been his work in the pick-and-roll with LeBron James. He’s no Anthony Davis, but Byrant is an enthusiastic screener with the mobility to roll into seams and the soft touch and bounce to finish over and through traffic.

Here, Bryant quickly reads the miscommunication between Dejounte Murray and Onyeka Okongwu and slips the screen. The benefits from a half-hearted dig from Trae Young, the gravity of Austin Reaves in the weakside corner (one of the few actual spacing threats on the Lakers) and a beautiful jump pass made possible by the hang time of LeBron James.

This is a good example of Bryant’s agility, his excellent hands and his ability to read open space and when to make himself available — all reasons he ranks in the 79th percentile in scoring efficiency as the screener in the pick-and-roll. He’s also averaging 4.5 screen assists per game since Davis went down, about the same as Nikola Jokic or Bam Adebayo.

LeBron has also recognized the way Bryant’s presence as a lob threat or lurking finisher along the baseline is drawing the focus of rim protectors and he’s been regularly leveraging it to get himself easy shots. Watch how distracted Okongwu is by Bryant around the paint as LeBron goes baseline…

And then how Bryant sneaks into empty space to get himself a dunk a few minutes later in almost the exact same scenario.

At this point, Bryant is by far the most versatile and threatening offensive partner for LeBron and the veteran is making sure the partnership works to the benefit of both of them.

Another floor spacer for the Lakers

One of the keys to Anthony Davis’ strong play early in the season was a recommitment to scoring on the interior. The formula was working but it also removed another floor spacing option from the frontcourt when the Lakers didn’t have a lot of threatening shooters to use on the wing.

In addition to his pick-and-roll work, Bryant has been an accurate and willing 3-point shooter. We’re still looking at a small sample size but he ranks in the 91st percentile in scoring efficiency on spot-up possessions. That additional frontcourt threat is paying dividends for everyone — the Lakers’ offense is averaging 119.3 points per 100 possessions with LeBron and Bryant on the floor together, a number that would lead the league if stretched across the entire season. It’s also working for LeBron, individually, whose effective field goal percentage is more than nine percentage points higher with Bryant on the floor (62.3 to 53.0 percent).

To be clear, the Lakers absolutely need Davis back on the floor to have any real chance of a surprising playoff run this season. Bryant has been a huge boon to the Lakers’ offense but he’s nowhere near the defender that Davis is and he’s not someone who will single-handedly change their fortunes this year.

But what he is revealing himself to be is an excellent complementary piece, someone who could potentially play next to Davis and certainly provide value in minutes he’s not on the floor. Whenever the Lakers begin to make personnel preparations for next season, re-signing Bryant seems like it should be a no-brainer.

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Donovan Mitchell makes history

Donovan Mitchell captured the evening with a 71-point masterpiece in an overtime win over the Bulls. Here’s what you need to know:

  • 71 points by the numbers: Mitchell finished the game 23-of-34 from the field, 7-of-15 from beyond the arc, and 20-of-25 from the free-throw line. He scored 16 in the first half, 42 in the second and 13 in overtime.
  • The shortlist: Mitchell’s 71 points put him on an exclusive list of just seven players who have scored 70 or more in a single game — Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Thompson, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor, Devin Booker and now Mitchell.
  • Kobe’s crown: Kobe Bryant is now the only player to score more points in a game in the 3-point era (beginning with the 1979-1980 season).
  • 70-10: Mitchell also recorded 11 assists in the game, making him the first player to ever record a 70-point double-double with assists.

Klay Thompson was right behind him

While Mitchell was chasing history, Klay Thompson had one of the best games of his own career, putting up 54 points in a double-overtime win over the Hawks. Here’s what you need to know:

  • 54 points by the numbers: Thompson finished the game 21-of-39 from the field, 10-of-21 from beyond the arc, and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line. He scored 22 in the first half, 22 in the second and 10 across both overtimes.
  • Busting his slump: Thompson had been struggling this season, shooting career-lows from the field and beyond the arc. He has now combined for 85 points in his past two games, shooting 17-of-36 on 3-pointers.
  • Just what the Warriors needed: Golden State has now won five in a row to keep themselves in the playoff hunt without Stephen Curry.

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