With Thomas Bryant, have the Heat found their answer at backup center?

Mar 10, 2023; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Denver Nuggets center Thomas Bryant (13) shoots before a game against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 10, 2023; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Denver Nuggets center Thomas Bryant (13) shoots before a game against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports /

The Miami Heat’s year-long struggle to find a suitable backup center came to a head in the NBA Finals. Against the jumbo Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, Miami’s non-Bam Adebayo bigs were outmatched. The Heat were outscored by a combined 31 points in Cody Zeller and Kevin Love’s combined 64 minutes. When they went small with Haywood Highsmith at the five, they lost those minutes by 20 points. Jokic and Aaron Gordon went to the basket over and over again, and only Adebayo could provide any real interference.

Over the course of the season, the Heat cycled through various backups behind Adebayo. Dewayne Dedmon wore out the coaching staff after a few months and the Heat spent a second-round pick to unload his contract. They then signed Orlando Robinson to a two-way deal and used him as Adebayo’s primary backup before picking up Zeller, who at the time hadn’t appeared in an NBA game in 13 months, in February. Omer Yurtseven was never a factor after undergoing ankle surgery in training camp. The Heat lost the Finals for more reasons than those backup-center minutes but, entering the offseason, it was an obvious area of need.

Within hours of free agency beginning last Friday, the Heat agreed to a two-year, $5.4 million deal (with a player option) with Thomas Bryant, a 25-year-old big man with the size and shooting skills to make him Miami’s most intriguing backup center in quite some time. If the Heat can help him become a better defender, they may have found a longterm answer at the position.


The first thing that stands out about Bryant is his size. At 6-foot-11, 248 pounds, Bryant has a 7-foot-6 wingspan and 9-foot-4 standing reach. He checks into Miami as the team’s biggest player.

His towering length makes him one of the league’s best rebounders. With the Lakers and Nuggets last season, Bryant grabbed 17% of available rebounds, including 24.6% of available defensive rebounds. Both are elite marks.

Even though the Heat ranked near the top of the league in overall rebounding rate, easy boards were difficult to come by. The Heat had to work hard to box out and crash the glass to mitigate any opponent’s rebounding edge. Having Bryant will allow Miami’s other players to get back on defense and create extra scoring opportunities for an offense that struggled for most of the season.


Most intriguing about Bryant’s game is his outside shooting. Bryant is a career 36.6% 3-point shooter on high volume for a center (118 of 322 over six seasons). When running the floor, he likes to trail the play and settle into a spot beyond the arc.

His shot is quick and smooth for a center (even if he does bring the ball down a bit too low) and, as the percentages indicate, reliable.

Despite his size, Bryant is a finesse player. As a screener, he could improve at the point of contact to become more of a pick-and-pop threat. He doesn’t run the floor with the intent to get to the rim as much as team’s would like. (In four seasons in Washington, he had about as many dunks as 3-point attempts. He started trending in the right direction last season with the Lakers and Nuggets, attempting 100 dunks to 59 3-point attempts.)

The Heat are betting that, within their program, Bryant will improve in the physical areas of the game. A lack of physicality in Miami does not go unchecked, and teammates like Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler will challenge him to embrace contact.

Defensive flaws

As offensively gifted as Bryant may be, his struggles on the defensive end are why he’s playing for his fourth team in three seasons. Dunksandthrees.com, which offers a helpful defensive metric, graded Bryant fourth-worst among all NBA centers in defensive rating last season. (He ranked ahead of just Day’Ron Sharpe, Gorgui Dieng and James Wiseman.)

Bryant can get caught out of position and then be easily pushed off his spot.

When out of position, Bryant is prone to fouling. He averages a troubling 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes for his career. He is also slow to close out, especially when caught out of a defensive stance. Sometimes his feet appear to be made of bricks.

This is why Bryant’s previous teams have been outscored when he’s on the court. As promising as his offensive skillset is, his defensive limitations have made him at times unplayable. The champion Nuggets ousted him from the rotation completely, going instead with 36-year-old Jeff Green at backup center.

The Heat believe Bryant has the tools to be a serviceable NBA center and are confident that if anyone can coax more out of him, it’s them.

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