Russell Westbrook was one of the few people inside the building the day Thomas Bryant hit the floor in Washington, the sound of him slapping the court in frustration and his pained howls echoing in an otherwise empty arena during the pandemic.
It wasn’t a particularly impactful play — Bryant jumping in the air less than two minutes into a game with Miami on Jan. 9, 2021 — but the landing would change everything.
His ankle rolled, his knee, left to absorb all of the force from his body, buckled. He fell to the court and immediately grabbed his right knee from him.
His anterior cruciate ligament was torn, the 6-foot-10 center’s season over and the momentum he’d been building over the previous two seasons with the Wizards violently skidded to a stop.
Westbrook knew he had a job to do.
“I had to show him support, instill that the process starts the next day of changing your mindset to get ready for a comeback,” Westbrook said. “Regardless of what happened [to your knee], that’s over with. Yeah, you’re going to be pissed about it. But now, the process starts.”
Almost two years later, Bryant doesn’t believe any process has ended.
“I would say it would be just the start of it,” Bryant said after a recent win.
In 13 starts since Davis exited the lineup because of foot injuries, Bryant is averaging 16.9 points and 10.5 rebounds while shooting 64.5% from the field.
The return to this level of effectiveness is, at least in a small part, because of Bryant’s time in Washington with Westbrook — a player he identified with because of the former MVP’s consistent attacking energy.
“What he used to tell me was to always stay prepared and always train like it was for a game,” Bryant said. “One thing I took from him was the amount of preparation he did, whether it was before practice, after practice, before games and after games. He always took great, great care of his body. And that’s what I always got from him too. The recovery needs to be … as much as you do out there on the court, you need to recover as much as you can as well.”
All of those lessons mattered even more when Bryant needed to work his way back.
“Absolutely. That was one thing that really, really helped,” Bryant said. “I always wondered, ‘Damn, what does Russ be doin, man?’ But it’s what he does to take care of his body, the intention and attention to detail about everything off the court with his body, maintenance, his preparation. I took that with me.”
With his minutes and usage soaring since Davis’ injury, Bryant hasn’t slowed down.
Playing with a seemingly unending tank of rocket fuel, Bryant’s energy combined with his soft hands and softer shooting touch have the Lakers reconsidering what their team could look like moving forward.
With Davis beginning his path to a return in a ramp-up process that starts Tuesday, Bryant’s play could have the Lakers thinking about super-sized lineups with the All-Star forward and his fill-in center playing together.
Davis recently joked that Bryant, 25, is playing so well that he might have to learn how to coach before saying the two bigs could complement each other. Davis, despite a stretch of dominant basketball earlier this season as the Lakers’ center, is comfortable playing alongside another big — something he did when the Lakers won a championship in 2020.
LeBron James, while admitting to trying to stay in the present, said Bryant’s emergence could change how the Lakers end up playing once Davis returns.
“I’ve already kind of had visions of what that could possibly look like with the frontcourt of myself, AD and Thomas on the floor together,” James said last weekend. “I think it could be extremely beneficial for our ball club.”
It’s something Bryant has imagined as well.
“I always think of that. Just to be able to incorporate him and my skill set as well, I feel like it’s going to be a great approach to the game of basketball,” he said after the Lakers beat Sacramento. “But, for right now, I can’t think too much ahead about that. Right now, I just have to focus on the next game and the next game after that one until our superstar is back.
“For me, I always think about it. I try to not get too ahead of it, but man, that would be special right there.”
It’s been a special season for Bryant, who returned to the Lakers — the team that drafted him 42nd in 2017 — on a kind of “prove you’re healthy” contract for the league minimum.
The start to his season was delayed by a torn thumb ligament, costing him 13 games. Dennis Schroder suffered the same injury, undergoing the same surgery at the start of this season.
Since Bryant and Schroder returned to the court on Nov. 18, the Lakers have gone 16-10.
“We’re just having fun and doing everything together. If we just do that, I think we’re tough to beat, especially when AD comes back,” Schroder said. “Everybody just accepting their role, do what they do on a day-to-day basis, we’ll be fine. Thomas Bryant, I mean he plays like an AD right now, close to it. Doing a great job being ready, staying ready. We finding him, getting second possessions for us — offensive rebounds, clutch buckets.
“He’s playing great.”
There’s a genuine happiness for Bryant because of the spirit he brings to the court. He laughed with his baritone voice at the comparisons about his energy di lui — from a kid all hopped up on too much birthday cake to someone with Mountain Dew Code Red pumping through his veins di lui.
He plays incredibly hard — sprinting up and down the court from rim to rim. He, in James’ words di lui, “catches everything” thrown at him and will try to rip the rim down no matter who is in front of him. Still, his midrange touch is so soft that those in-between shots have almost become gimmes over the last month.
It’s set him up for a lucrative offseason, making him a credible candidate to earn a slice of the Lakers’ cap room.
“Thomas is definitely taking full advantage of his opportunity and it’s just a guy that plays extremely hard, knows how to play and probably one of the most skilled bigs in this game,” James said. “He catches everything. He finishes everything around the rim. But he also has a soft touch from the midrange and from the three-point line. And he just has a motor. He just has a huge motor that is just always going on both sides of the floor. So, I’ve always worked well with guys like that. Guys that always put themselves in position and the trust that he has with me, with Russ, we’re always looking for him.”
For Westbrook, it’s special having seen Bryant at his lowest and helping in the process of building him back up.
“I love it. I just love seeing him compete,” Westbrook said. “He’s a passionate kid and he wants to compete at the highest level. And I want to make the game easy for him so he can show his worth and show what he’s made of. And that’s part of my job.
“Gotta let him eat.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.