“It was getting him to center back into me,” Crean said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He’s always going to play with energy, but you try to get him to not play emotionally.”
Bryant has long been the most passionate player of any team he’s on. It’s part of what the Washington Wizards loved about the Rochester, N.Y., native when they claimed him off waivers ahead of the 2018-19 season, all baby-faced earnestness and potential.
Learning to channel that ferocity through the ebbs and flows of an NBA game is an ongoing process for the 23-year-old, but Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said Bryant has made great strides during his third season in Washington (2-5).
“It’s fun to coach him, because he’s emotional. Last year it was not to our advantage. This year, he’s controlling it,” Brooks said in a videoconference this week. “ … His growth in that area, it’s going to help us win a lot of games this year.”
It already has. Bryant’s even-keeled court awareness led to the go-ahead dunk in the final, frantic seconds of the Wizards’ win over Brooklyn on Sunday. With all-star guards Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal opening scoring opportunities the size of craters, Bryant is averaging a career-high 17.9 points and shooting a career-high 66.7 percent from the field — including 71.7 percent on two-point baskets. He is second on the team, after Westbrook, averaging 6.7 rebounds per game. And he is riding a particularly hot stretch heading into a rematch against center Joel Embiid in Wednesday’s game at Philadelphia (6-1).
In the Wizards’ past three games, Bryant has barely missed, shooting 26-for-30 from the field and skyrocketing up the league’s efficiency leader board. He is the second-most efficient non-high-volume player in the league behind Denver’s Michael Porter Jr., according to data from Synergy Sports. He averages 1.33 points per possession.
Brooks, for his part, saw the leap coming.
When the Wizards traded John Wall for Westbrook last month, the coach had just two words for his starting center: Get ready. Brooks, with all the years he spent with Westbrook in Oklahoma City, knew the guard could raise the intensity with which Washington prepared, practiced and played with his presence alone. He also knew that Westbrook and Beal would be drawing most of the attention from opposing defenses, leaving other scorers with opportunity aplenty.
“[I told him] you’re going to have the best year of your career,” Brooks said. “You’re going to have a level of expectation that’s going to be a lot higher than what I could do, what any coach could do. … I think Russell and Brad are going to help him get to another level that he probably didn’t even expect to get to as quick as he has. He’s shooting the ball and playing with confidence, the rebounding and blocking shots is not by happenstance. It’s not because I’m all of a sudden coming up with a better plan.”
Bryant, too, credits a large portion of his offensive success to the team’s facilitators, speaking Sunday about the mutual trust he has with the guards.
It was a feed from Beal that got Bryant the dunk in Brooklyn. On the prior possession, Bryant hadn’t rolled to the paint hard enough on a pick-and-roll that left Beal alone facing two Nets defenders and ended in a missed shot from Westbrook. Beal gave Bryant the critique, and one play later, the guard found Bryant under the basket for the slam.
“As long as you trust each other out there on the court, you really don’t have any worries out there when you play with dynamic guys out there on the offensive end,” Bryant said.
“I told him after the game, I said, ‘growth,’” Beal said. “He’s been growing every single game this year.”
Bryant is showing exactly the type of development Brooks wants to see this season from his younger pros, a corps that also includes third-year players Isaac Bonga and Troy Brown Jr. as well as second-year forward Rui Hachimura. The coach knew Westbrook and Beal leading together had the potential to raise the entire roster’s performance, but Bryant has filled in the rest on his own.
He still plays with his natural emotion, as evidenced by the $45,000 fine he got last month for inadvertently making contact with an official while trying to confront Detroit’s Blake Griffin after a play — in the preseason.
But with the days when Crean could calm his mind with just a look long past, Bryant has made controlling his energy a priority.
“It was really, most times, just checking myself, looking at myself in the mirror, and figuring out key ways to help this team. I play the game with so much energy, but I don’t want to be a downfall,” Bryant said. “It took a while. It took a good while, but it’s a lot of just like, self-observing.”