Thomas Bryant never broke character.
During one of the more electrifying moments of the Washington Wizards' triple-overtime adventure Saturday night, after trapping the pass as if he had glue stuck on his left hand then charging at the rim to throw down thunder with his right, the second-year center padded the slight lead. After the dunk, Bryant lost his balance, almost needing to do a pushup to scurry back to his feet. And because Bryant didn’t realize at the time that he had just etched his name into the franchise and NBA history books, he lowered his head and sprinted down court for the next defensive possession.
Just as he would have had this been the Section 5 championship game inside Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y. Or if he were still at Huntington Prep in West Virginia and trying to prove himself in one-on-one battles against the top prep recruits in the country. And even back in Bloomington, Ind., barking at the upperclassmen because his passion for the game made it hard for him to handle anything that was less than complete.
“I’m a perfectionist,” said the 21-year-old Bryant, whose baby face and permanent grin belie his force on the court, which Wizards fans have witnessed since he took over starting duties from Dwight Howard last month. “One thing about me: I always want to do things with perfection and to the best of my ability, even if it’s something people think I can’t do. I know I can do it. My mindset is never mess up. Never make a mistake.
“Do everything perfect at that point and time,” he said.
Bryant hasn’t changed much through the years, and this constancy in intensity and pursuit for perfection led to his signature performance.
On Saturday night against the Phoenix Suns, Bryant scored a career-best 31 points on 14-for-14 shooting. He became the fourth player in the history of the league to make all 14 shot attempts in a game, joining a list that’s dominated by Wilt Chamberlain, according to basketball-reference.com. Bryant’s unblemished stat line also tied a franchise mark set by Bailey Howell in 1965 with the Baltimore Bullets. He also added another solid performance in Sunday night’s 105-89 loss at Indiana, scoring 11 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 18 minutes.
“MVP,” Bradley Beal said of Bryant’s production in the Wizards' 149-146 win over Phoenix. “He did everything we needed him to do. He’s still young, still makes mistakes, but he makes them at 110 percent, so we live with them.”
The night announced Bryant as a big deal, but he has been making his presence felt for years. Bryant didn’t grow up playing sports in western New York because he was the biggest kid around.
“He was a 6-foot-1 seventh-grader who could probably hide behind a yardstick,” recalled Jon Boon, his former Bishop Kearney high school coach.
Bryant played because all that energy had to be channeled somehow. So he’d pretend to be Ray Lewis while laying some poor kid out on the football field and play like a mad man on the CYO basketball courts. By middle school, Bryant committed to basketball and at the end of his eighth-grade year, he was sitting on the Bishop Kearney varsity bench. That’s where Boon found him during the team’s sectional championship. Bishop Kearney was trailing — why not throw the kid out there, Boon figured. In front of nearly 5,000 fans, Bryant didn’t freeze — scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds in 12 minutes to lead the team to victory.
“That was really the beginning of Thomas Bryant,” Boon said.
Bryant played his final two years of high school at Huntington Prep, a basketball powerhouse that has launched eight players to the NBA. The school attracts talent and though coach Arkell Bruce could have recruited most any blue-chipper, Bryant, who was still raw and growing into his frame, stood out.
“His energy level,” Bruce said, highlighting what attracted him to Bryant, “and just a contagious teammate as far as positive energy goes. He was vocal. He understood the concept of a great teammate on and off the court, even if he was on the bench.”
During Bryant’s junior and senior seasons and through the AAU circuit, he matched up against the best competition, including future NBA players Thon Maker and Cheick Diallo. But his rising profile didn’t soar to his head.
“I wouldn’t say he had swag,” Bruce said, laughing at the thought of the happy-go-lucky Bryant being cool.
How many other ranked players would run to their coach’s arms, bawling tears of happiness, after hearing his name announced as a McDonald’s All American?
“I would say he had just a blue-collar, hard-hat mentality,” Bruce said.
When he went to Indiana, Bryant still lacked chill in his DNA. Sometimes that would get him in trouble. While at Huntington, Bryant couldn’t always control his emotions and would pick up one or two technical fouls a year. With the Hoosiers, Bryant still couldn’t dial it back.
“Me and Yogi Ferrell,” Bryant said, “we actually used to get to it a lot.”
Bryant credited an intervention by then-coach Tom Crean, who reminded the fiery freshman center and the senior point guard how they needed each other. Bryant also started to realize it was time to cool down.
“Why am I doing this? I had to take a reality check. Like, got to control my emotions,” Bryant told himself. “They’re not trying to hurt me. They’re trying to help me.”
At times Bryant still finds it hard to accept anything less than perfection — on the opening possession of the first overtime Saturday night, Beal threw a pass inside to Bryant who lost it then immediately crouched over and held his head in his hands. But then Bryant settled down and played like he always has. Extreme, focused and in pursuit of perfection.
“It’s amazing. I had no idea throughout the game and I had no idea after the game until people started telling me about it,” Bryant said about his record night. “As soon as I felt I was in the rhythm of it, I just went out and took it.”