“I just feel like the time off is for the offseason. I feel like all-star break is kind of like a trap for people to get sluggish and relax a little too much,” Bryant said Thursday after his first practice back with the team. Bryant’s Wednesday return flight to Washington was canceled due to weather, causing him to miss the first session.
“Of course, I did some relaxing and of course, it’s great to get back with the team and go up and down,” Bryant continued, “but you just don’t want to get too out of shape or anything like that.”
Bryant, the second-year center who played collegiately at Indiana and would be a senior had he remained in school, still has peers on campus. But he didn’t spend the time reliving his college glory days by working out with the school’s basketball team. Instead, Bryant partnered with another Hoosier-turned-pro, OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors, and worked out alone to focus on his greatest area of concern: adding strength.
This season marks his first real NBA basketball since Bryant spent his rookie year in the G League. Since taking over at starting center for the injured Dwight Howard, Bryant has experienced growing pains normal for younger players.
On Dec. 22, Bryant reached perfection with a 14-for-14 shooting night and finished with 31 points and 13 rebounds during a triple-overtime win against the Phoenix Suns. Over the last 25 games, Bryant has maintained a high shooting percentage by making 62.4 percent of the limited attempts he receives each night (4.9 of 7.9 from the floor). Bryant’s finishing ability around the paint helps (he’s 75 of 93 from the restricted area since the Phoenix game), but he has also been efficient beyond the perimeter, making 50 percent of his three-point attempts (13 of 26).
Since that night against Phoenix, however, Bryant has compiled only six point-rebound double-doubles. The meager amount of big rebounding nights could be due to Bryant’s dwindling minutes — he averaged close to 24 minutes through games played in December and January but has logged 19 minutes per game in February. Or opposing scouting reports have caught up with him.
“I know one thing, they’re not letting me get no offensive rebounds,” Bryant said, chuckling, about the change he has seen on the floor since he has been established in the Wizards’ starting five. “That’s one thing. I’m getting, like, two or three people hitting me at a time when I go to the offensive board.”
Though Bryant has dealt with fatigue, as all rotation players do due to the nature of the NBA schedule, he doesn’t believe he has hit a wall. Bryant credits a midseason epiphany, albeit a painful one, for helping him to stay conditioned and in turn, not feel worn down.
“That’s a real big thing,” Bryant said, “taking care of your body is a full-time job as well, so I took that to heart because there were a few games I felt like I was, ‘Ahhh!’ Aching a little bit.”
These lessons have come over the season through valuable on-court experiences, but the Wizards hope that Bryant can learn from Howard, who also returned to Washington on Thursday. Howard spent nearly three months in Atlanta while recovering from spinal surgery.
As the Wizards practiced, Howard went through a separate routine. Though his presence will be limited — Howard cannot scrimmage with the team yet — Coach Scott Brooks still views him as a veteran with plenty to offer.
“As of right now, since he can’t be on the practice court or the game floor, he’s going to have to share his wisdom,” Brooks said. “The guy has a lot of experience, a lot of years under his belt and he has the ability to be around our guys every day. Bobby [Portis] and T.B., obviously they have to be a sponge. They have to pick everything up. You get better in this league by being around veteran players that want to share their knowledge and Dwight is going to be a guy that’s going to be able to do that for the next how many weeks when he gets on the court.”
Before Howard departed for surgery last November, he shared defensive knowledge with Bryant. According to the young big man, Howard advised him to view the court as four quarters to help break down what happens on the defensive end. He also counseled Bryant to never let an opponent get to the middle and the best way to outwit bigger players is to by studying their tendencies.
“[Howard] knows that a lot of guys are stronger than me and he knows that I’m quicker than a lot of guys,” Bryant said, “so he said you’ve got to find your strength and that’s when film comes in.”
“I’ll get stronger,” Bryant said, “and I’ll get more of a hang of it.”