Less than an hour after the start of NBA free agency, the Washington Wizards made their first move by agreeing to re-sign center Thomas Bryant to a three-year deal worth $25 million, his agent confirmed Sunday.
As a restricted free agent, the 6-foot-11 Bryant was the Wizards’ top priority after his breakout 2018-19 season. But as the Wizards pursued Bryant, they moved away from two other players on last year’s team: Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. In the days leading up to free agency and even in the market’s opening hours, the Wizards did not contact either player, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
And early Monday morning, Portis, a restricted free agent, reportedly agreed to a two-year deal worth $31 million with the New York Knicks.
That lack of communication with Portis and Parker, both 24, juxtaposed with the quick agreement with the 21-year-old Bryant, revealed Washington’s eagerness to invest in a player who just a year ago it claimed off the waiver wire.
Last July, around the start of free agency, Washington grabbed Bryant after he was tossed aside by the Los Angeles Lakers. He spent the majority of his rookie season with the Lakers in the G League, but in Washington, he needed only one assignment with the Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards’ affiliate, before making an impact in the NBA.
In November, when veteran Dwight Howard had season-ending surgery, Bryant leapfrogged Ian Mahinmi on the depth chart to become the Wizards’ starting center. Over 53 starts, he stabilized the frontcourt as he posted season averages of 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. Bryant scored a career-best 31 points on 14-for-14 shooting in a triple-overtime win over Phoenix on Dec. 22, becoming the fourth player in NBA history to finish a game perfect from the field with that many attempts.
“Thomas with the great season, no one really expected him to do that,” point guard Tomas Satoransky said during his end-of-the-season exit interview with reporters. “He brought a lot of energy when he started."
Even during the lowest points of the season as the Wizards’ playoff hopes faded, Bryant saturated the roster with enthusiasm and energy. He beat defenders — and sometimes his teammates — down the floor to speed up the transition game, and he was a favorite target of Bradley Beal. Beal, who controlled the offense in the absence of the injured John Wall, averaged 4.4 passes per game to Bryant. In a clear sign of respect, he trusted Bryant in late-game situations and set him up for the game-winning shot against the New York Knicks during the teams’ Jan. 17 showcase in London.
“My mind-set is just to stay playing aggressive, stay poised and go out here and play hard, play smart and just try to get a win out there,” Bryant said in April. “You don’t want try to change anything up really too much. The main thing is go out there and play hard.”
On the court and on the sideline, Bryant’s joy knew no bounds. He once nearly threw an accidental (but vicious) right hook toward a referee while celebrating a blocked shot. On the bench, he rarely stayed on his cushioned seat for long, opting instead to cheer a teammate’s three-pointer by extending both arms in a “raise the roof” move.
Even after Portis arrived, Bryant did not sulk. During a Feb. 23 loss to Indiana when Portis was the starting center, Bryant came off the bench and contributed 23 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Next season, though, Bryant may have that starting spot all to himself. The Wizards dealt Otto Porter Jr., once thought to be a franchise cornerstone, to Chicago for Portis and Parker in February. While Portis, a forward/center, started 22 of 28 games down the stretch and averaged 14.3 points and 8.6 rebounds, Parker (a forward who averaged 15.0 points in 25 games) was the lone consistent offensive contributor off the bench — and often was the scoring complement to Beal.
If Parker is out of Washington’s plans, too, the team will have traded Porter essentially for no return. In fact, this offseason might leave the Wizards empty-handed in terms of several of their major 2018-19 transactions.
On Sunday, forward Trevor Ariza reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with Sacramento. In December, the Wizards gave up Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers to land Ariza from Phoenix. Although Ariza was brought into help the Wizards’ three-point shooting and strengthen the locker room with his leadership, he made only 32.2 percent of his tries from beyond the arc while averaging 14.1 points. Ariza did not complete the season in Washington; he opted to leave town days before the finale while recovering from a groin injury.