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While Monday's media day was the first time Wizards players had interacted with D.C. reporters in person since the league shut down in March of 2020 due to the coronavirus, they had at least answered questions over Zoom. For center Thomas Bryant, it had been about nine months since he had spoken to the media at all.
He walked into the room with his No. 13 jersey, sat down with a smile to greet those awaiting him and then proceeded to go in-depth about his recovery from ACL surgery, showing a side of himself not displayed before in a press conference setting. Bryant had much more to say than he usually does, he was confident as he commanded the room and he was introspective about the arduous path it took to get to this point, just over two months away from his expected to return in December.
Bryant appeared to be a changed man and he admitted so.
"I had to dig down deep and learn to mentally overcome this challenge. And also, it did give me a new profile and respect and love for the game of basketball. When it’s taken away from you, it’s very hard to deal with," he said.
"It’s very hard because that’s like the one love that you have in your life right there. It’s the one thing that’s always been there, always intact that you know that you can always go to. When that’s taken away from you, it’s very hard. It’s almost depressing in a sort of way. But when you’re mentally strong and you keep talking to yourself and working with yourself mentally, the days don’t get so much harder, they get a little bit easier."
It is common to hear from athletes who have endured long injury absences that the mental side of their rehab was the hardest part. As painful as tearing an ACL or an Achilles tendon is, it's the month-after-month slog towards returning that can be most burdensome.
For Bryant, that was compounded by the fact it was the longest rehab he's ever had from an injury. For the first time in his life, he had to completely stop playing the game for an extended period of time.
Losing the ability to play basketball for weeks and then going through months of incremental progress made Bryant slow his life down. When asked about this upcoming season being a contract year, he said he wasn't focusing on anything but the now.
"I want to say right here, present with myself and my team," he said.
Bradley Beal has known Bryant since the latter arrived from the Lakers in 2018. He has seen Bryant mature over the past three years and can attest there is now a difference in his demeanor.
The two spent a lot of time together this offseason while living and working out in Los Angeles. They went out to dinner and hung out often.
"He definitely has a new aura about himself. He had a crazy summer, but individually he’s transitioned his mind to a new place. I love where he’s at," Beal said.
"He always has a competitive edge about himself. I think now just having [Daniel Gafford] and having [Montrezl Harrell] here, it’s kind of motivated him and he’s really itching to get back out here. We obviously want him to take his time and understand how important he is to this team. He’s one of my favorite guys to play with."
The reference to Gafford and Harrell was about Bryant's newfound competition at the center position. When he returns from injury, he will have to navigate a more talented depth chart. Gafford is very athletic and the best rim protector on the team, while Harrell is a proven veteran who two years ago won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.
How that will play out remains to be seen, but Gafford can be counted among those who likes having Bryant around. He enjoyed getting to know Bryant last season once he came over in deadline trade from the Bulls. Bryant was able to support the team from the bench late in the year and Gafford said he made an impact as a hype man.
"It brings juice to the team even when you aren’t on the floor. He’s out there in street clothes and he’s still attune to the game. He’s still active on the sideline," Gafford said.
"It helps out a lot because you’ve got guys who are probably down on themselves coming to the bench and there’s T.B. right there, the first person, telling you it’s all good. Keep shooting that shot and it’s going to be okay."
Bryant should be able to carve his own niche as an offensive threat. He might be the most efficient scorer on the team, especially around the rim, and has developed into one of the most accurate three-point shooters at the center position. Over the past two seasons, Bryant has knocked down 41.1% from long range.
Bryant said one positive of the rehab was the amount of time he was able to spend practicing his shot. He hopes to be more consistent and make more threes.
Bryant is getting closer to showing off that improvement, but he still has a few more months to wait, according to Wizards brass. For now, he has to remain patient and keep working.
"Knowing that you’re so close to the finish line, it just builds up more anticipation right there to where you just want to be out there and you have to try to pace yourself. The newfound love of the game has really, really erupted in me," he said.