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Thomas Bryant is helping Lakers stay afloat without Anthony Davis

The sixth-year center has stepped up in the absence of his superstar teammate.

Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Lakers began life without Anthony Davis on Dec. 18, they were 12-16, 12th in the West and 1.5 games behind the 10th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Thirteen games later, they’re 19-22, 12th in the West and one game behind the 10th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

Davis’ extended absence could’ve buried a Lakers season that was already struggling to gain momentum for a litany of reasons. Instead, at least through three weeks, they’ve survived it, going 7-6, and preserved their postseason hopes. They’re only 1.5 games back of the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors. When Davis initially went down, they were four games behind the No. 6 seed.

LeBron James is the preeminent life jacket here. In the 10 games he’s played since Davis’ injury, the superstar wing is averaging 34.3 points (63.8 percent true shooting), 7.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds. The Lakers are 6-4 in those contests. Vigorously attacking the rim out of ball-screens and transition, he’s dominating the paint and only scored fewer than 31 points twice during this span. Much like last season, his slow start is another relic amid a prolific campaign.

The 38-year-old isn’t alone, however. Davis’ replacement, Thomas Bryant, has filled in admirably for his All-NBA teammate. The former Indiana Hoosier is averaging 16.9 points (70.1 percent true shooting) and 10.5 rebounds during the 13 games Davis has missed. On the year, he’s averaging 13 points (72 percent true shooting) and 7.3 rebounds. He’s been a dynamite play-finisher who would pace the NBA in true shooting were he eligible for the leaderboards (Nicolas Claxton, at 71 percent, is currently atop the list).

To some degree, he’s emulating paramount pick-and-roll diversity and potency of the man he’s succeeding. Davis’ primary offensive allure this season, and for the majority of his career, stems from his wide-ranging prowess as a ball-screen partner. He’s a domineering lob threat, versatile finisher in traffic and holsters deft touch to toss in floaters from varying angles.

According to Synergy, his 1.368 points per possessions as a roller ranks in the 81st percentile this year. He’s second in pick-and-roll possessions per game (4.6). Among the 29 players logging two-plus roll possessions per game, only Christian Wood (1.527 PPP), Clint Capela (1.423) and Nikola Jokic (1.385) outclass Davis in efficiency. His multifaceted nature paired quite well with James and Russell Westbrook.

Bryant arrives at his own successes in a distinct manner from Davis, but is broadly replicating the production borne through malleability. He’s generating 1.333 PPP as a roller, which place him in the 79th percentile overall and seventh among the aforementioned group that includes Davis.

The 25-year-old is light off the ground, wields oven mitt hands to corral passes and is tickling the twine all over the floor. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting 78 percent at the rim (86th percentile among bigs), 59 percent from short midrange (92nd percentile) and 53 percent from long midrange (79th percentile).

*As a note, Cleaning The Glass defines short midrange as 4-14 feet and long midrange as 14 feet to inside the 3-point line.*

His soft hands pair well alongside James and Westbrook, both of whom are prone to rifling lasers inside, particularly the latter whose accuracy wanes at times. Not only that, but he’s adept on the offensive glass, regardless of whether he’s established preferable position. Sometimes, he simply extends his 7-foot-6 wingspan to spear rebounds and sports dexterity the opposition does not. His coordination on catches and boards are both critical and rare for most centers.

Bryant’s developed some significant rapport with James and Westbrook. He aptly paces his dives inside and will float into open space for suitable passing windows away from the action. While some gangly, sprightly rim-runners can be flustered by timely rotations or pressure off the catch, Bryant’s displayed faculty in putting the ball on the deck for a dribble or two. Similar to Davis, he’s heady and multidimensional. That allows Los Angeles some cohesion in the actions it draws up, despite its star center being sidelined.

Whereas part of Davis’ return to superstar form has been actualized by trimming down the 3s and long 2s, Bryant’s a legit long-range threat. Davis is popping out of ball-screens way less than prior years and making a conscious effort to reach the rim more often. That’s smart. He should do that and eschew the long-range bombs.

Bryant, though, adds an element of floor-spacing not emulated by his fellow center. He’s shooting 38.9 percent from deep since 2019-20, including 45.2 percent this season. He’s the only true center on the roster who brings that spacing component, whether it’s from midrange or deep. Los Angeles can feel content with his jumpers, while Davis’ jumpers are more of a last resort or tertiary choice because of his vast interior exploits and recent exterior struggles.

Bryant won’t sit north of 58 percent in the midrange and 45 percent beyond the arc all season. But he’s long acted as a credible big man shooter whose outside looks are a steady and welcomed release valve — something escaping his predecessor. The specific numbers aren’t sustainable, yet the general process and schematic impact are.

The gulf between Davis and Bryant defensively is substantial. Davis is rangy, strong-chested, instinctive and mobile. Bryant struggles to fluidly change directions, is weak against contact, and lacks Davis’ awareness and short-area quickness as a helpside rim protector. This isn’t to tear apart Bryant, who’s a good player enjoying a tremendous, resurgent year. It’s to articulate the differences and gaps in their game, and avoid any implication of a Wally Pipp Moment unfolding in the City of Angels.

The Lakers are ninth in offensive rating (117.5) and 25th in defensive rating (119.0) without Davis. Both rankings are reflective of Bryant’s skill-set. Expecting a backup on a one-year, $2.1 million deal to anchor a defense is illogical anyway. Plus, Los Angeles’ dearth of credible point-of-attack defenders and wing stoppers thrusts him into unfitting responsibilities.

Regardless, Bryant is authoring the best ball of his career right now. After struggling last year in the 10 games he played following a torn ACL a season prior, he’s found a niche during his second Lakers stint. With each dunk, offensive rebound and confident long ball, he’s helping them keep their playoff aspirations alive and giving Davis a little more time to properly heal.