Otto Porter valued in Chicago

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DETROIT – Bulls guard Zach LaVine summarized the scouting report on the Wizards the last couple years.

John Wall and Bradley Beal: “A lot of the shots were going that way.”

Otto Porter: “He was just stuck in the corner.”

Porter is spreading his wings now. After getting traded to Chicago last month, Porter is filling a bigger role on a team pleased to have him.

The Bulls, especially after trading Justin Holiday, were desperate at small forward. Denzel Valentine has missed the entire season due to injury. Chicago’s option for a bigger wing were oversized (Jabari Parker), undersized (LaVine, Wayne Selden) or inexperienced (Chandler Hutchison).

“Every team needs a guy like Otto,” Bulls coach Jim Boylen said. “But we definitely did.

“He comes in, and it’s like a calming of the sea.”

Chicago is 7-6 with Porter and 12-44 without him. Even just since acquiring Porter, the Bulls have outscored opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and gotten outscored by 9.0 points per 100 possessions without him.

Importantly, Porter has thrived with Chicago’s other healthy core players. The Bulls are +6.6 points per 100 possessions when Porter, LaVine and Lauri Markkanen share the court.

Effectively, Porter was an early free agent addition for Chicago. The Bulls dealt two players with expiring contracts – Parker (who definitely wasn’t returning) and Bobby Portis (who might’ve returned) – and a 2023 second-rounder to Washington.

The reason Porter was available: His large contract. He’s earning $26,011,913 this season and due $55,739,815 the next two years.

The tax-dodging Wizards were ready to move on. After stumbling with Parker, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as big additions in free agency recently, Chicago wanted the known quantity.

Porter’s $26,011,913 salary is now the third-highest by a Bull. Only Michael Jordan ($33,140,000 in 1997-98 and $30,140,000 in 1996-97) earned more.

Here are the highest salaries by anyone on Chicago’s roster in the given season:

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The Wizards’ financial commitment to Porter was brief and forced upon them. Porter signed a four-year max offer sheet with the Nets in 2017. Coming off its best season in nearly four decades, Washington matched.

Yet that same offseason, Wall openly courted Paul George as an upgrade over Porter. This January, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said his team wouldn’t trade Porter then obviously did anyway.

Porter said the Wizards never told him their intentions had changed before trading him.

“It was all business,” Porter said. “It was nothing personal.”

Porter seems more welcomed by Chicago. LaVine lights up when discussing Porter. Asked whether Porter appears to be enjoying his expanded role, LaVine offered an enthusiastic “Hell yeah!”

In Washington, Porter contributed quietly. He shot well from the perimeter and spaced the floor. He avoided mistakes. He usually played sound defense. Teams need someone to create, but Porter looked like an ideal complementary player.

Porter has been tasked with much more in Chicago. He’s averaging 18.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game with the Bulls. His usage percentage (21.7) is 3.3 percentage points higher than it ever was with the Wizards. He has already finished more plays as pick-and-roll ballhandler in Chicago (75) than he did in Washington (64) this season.

“Anything that I can bring to this team, I’m going to do it,” Porter said. “There’s no holding back.”

I’m not sold on Porter having the ball in his hands so much long-term. It makes sense with these Bulls, but better teams will likely have other players more suited for creating shots. Still, this experience should at least aid Porter’s development for Chicago’s next phase – whatever that is.

The Bulls are in line for a high draft pick and project to have about $20 million in cap space this summer. Nail those opportunities – especially by upgrading at point guard, where Kris Dunn hasn’t been the answer – and Chicago could be onto something.

Porter said he loves playing for the Bulls. He has gotten a fresh start and a leadership position.

The 25-year-old Porter has played more playoff games (31) than any other Bull. Heck, he has played nearly as many as the rest of the roster combined. Robin Lopez (28 games), Wayne Selden (six games) and Cristiano Felicio (six games) are the only other Bulls with postseason experience.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Porter said. “But the thing that it is, we can grow together, learn together.”

The Bulls needed a competent small forward. They got one much better.

Porter doesn’t solve all Chicago’s problems, but he has already improved the team’s dynamic. Young players develop better in steadier situations. The addition of Porter should help now and down the road.

“He’s a winning person and a winning player,” Boylen said, “and we’re really thankful for him.”

Three Things to Know: LeBron James passes idol Michael Jordan on all-time scoring list

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron James passes childhood idol Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. “[Michael Jordan] is somebody I looked up to and always believed was the greatest. It’s pretty cool. I have no idea how I’ve been able to do it.”

That was LeBron James during All-Star weekend. On Thursday night, he did it — LeBron James passed Michael Jordan to become fourth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

At the next timeout (as mandated by the league), LeBron was celebrated for his accomplishment with a video tribute.

It was an emotional moment for LeBron, who all but said 12-year-old him would not believe where he is now.

LeBron, at age 34, is not done, he has several more years of high-level basketball in him. If LeBron can stay healthy, he likely moves past Kobe Bryant into third on the scoring list next season. Jordan averaged more points per game than LeBron — career averages of 30.1 points per game to 27.1 — but LeBron has played more games. Longevity is part of it — that’s why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is on top of this list, because at age 40 he was averaging 14.6 points per game (starting on a championship team).

The GOAT conversation is a fun bar stool argument that we’re not going to get into, but here is the thing that shows why these two have to be part of the conversation — they are 1-2 all-time in player efficiency rating (PER). We can pick apart the flaws of Hollinger’s stat, but it’s a good offensive snapshot of a player and these two are the tops ever. Jordan was the better scorer, LeBron the better passer and playmaker.

In what has been one of LeBron’s roughest seasons (the Lakers fell to the Nuggets on Wednesday and are now five games below .500) this is a reminder he belongs on the league’s Mount Rushmore, and he is in the GOAT conversation. LeBron is an all-time great. Nothing is ever going to take that away from him.

2) While nobody’s been watching, the Bulls have become good, beat Sixers on Zach LaVine game-winner. Early in the season, the Bulls were a mess. Chicago went 3-12 in November being outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions (second worst in the NBA), with an offense scoring less than a point per possession. December wasn’t much better (-8.4 net rating).

Things slowly started to change. The most significant difference was Lauri Markkanen got healthy and returned to action. Zach LaVine scored at a high rate all season but he started to become efficient. Fred Hoiberg was out as coach after going 5-19, Jim Boylen was in. The Bulls traded for Otto Porter at the deadline to give them another athletic wing.

The Bulls are a good team now — 8-7 in their last 15 games with a +1 net rating. It’s the kind of massive improvement in a season young teams hope to see, it provides hope for the future.

But the Bulls can win now, too. Just ask the Sixers, a team that needs wins because they are in the middle of a playoff seedings chase (they and Boston don’t want to finish 4/5 and face off in the first round). Jimmy Butler put Philadelphia up by a point with two free throws with 4.8 seconds left, but then Zach LaVine capped his 39 points on the night with this.

That was some bad defense by Philly — how much do they miss Joel Embiid in the middle? He was out a seventh straight game resting a sore knee, he hasn’t played since those 21 minutes in the All-Star Game.

The Bulls got the win — after they re-played the final 0.5 seconds a couple of times, the second one without Porter. The Bulls aren’t making the playoffs this year, in fact they will be drafting high again thanks to those first few months. But they are a solid team right now and there is genuine reason to feel warm about the Bulls during this cold Chicago winter.

3) Gordon Hayward gets redemption in game-winner to beat Kings. Boston was set up to lose: Second night of a back-to-back against the fastest pace team in the NBA in Sacramento, and Kyrie Irving was out with a bruised thigh.

Hayward almost blew it for the Celtics, who were up three late after a couple of Jayson Tatum free throws. Then on the next play Hayward fouled Buddy Hield on a three-point attempt and a trio of free throws later, the game was tied.

Then Hayward saved the day.

The question after Boston’s impressive win in Golden State was can they build on it? Just one game, but so far so good.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Miami moves into eight seed in East with a win against Charlotte. Can they hold it? There’s a real battle to make the playoffs at the bottom of the East, with three teams — Miami, Charlotte, and Orlando — all within a game of each other for the final playoff slot. Only one gets an invitation to the dance.

After Wednesday night, the Heat are in front. Kelly Olynyk dropped 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as Miami went into Charlotte and won. Miami, at 30-34, is a game ahead of Orlando (30-36) and Charlotte (29-35).

Who is going to win the race? My money is on Orlando, simply because they have a much easier schedule the rest of the way and have been playing well of late. But it’s wide open, and another factor is Brooklyn is the seven seed, 3.5 games up on Orlando/Charlotte, but the Nets have a very difficult schedule down the stretch. They could come back to the pack.

NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Bulls owner on if Paxson, Forman will be back: ‘Absolutely. We believe they’ve done a great job.’

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Was this really even in doubt?

There certainly have been times in the past when questioning the moves of Bulls’ president John Paxson and GM Gar Forman was a favorite pastime around the league, as was questioning the wisdom of keeping them around. The Bulls ownership, now led by Michael Reinsdorf, stuck with them anyway.

If the Bulls didn’t fire GarPAx then, it certainly isn’t going to happen now.

The pair has done a solid job recently and the Bulls are starting to round into something. What exactly remains to be seen, but Lauri Markkanen has played like a future All-Star since returning from injury, Zach LaVine has earned his big contract as a scorer (for this year, at least) and become an improved playmaker, Otto Porter is a good fit, Wendell Carter Jr. looks like a keeper, and in their last 10 games the Bulls are 6-4 with a +1.7 net rating. The Bulls are taking steps forward.

So when K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune asked Reinsdorf if Paxson and Forman were coming back, you knew what the answer would be.

Absolutely. We believe they’ve done a great job. I know that in this market, with some of our fans and some in the media, they look at it differently. That perplexes me…

Right now, we’re going through our second rebuild. That also mystifies me. I listen to some people who reach out to me asking how many rebuilds can we do. This is our second rebuild. And given where we are today, I think for Year 2 of our rebuild to have two potential All-Stars in Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine and a great draft pick in Wendell Carter Jr., we’re in good shape. Wendell injured himself, but I think we have a good enough sample size to know he’s going to be a solid NBA player. I think he’ll bring a lot to the defensive end and he’s very skilled. And then the trade for Otto Porter Jr., I know it’s only eight games, but the numbers speak for themselves. The offensive output has increased dramatically.

When asked about coach Jim Boylen, Reinsdorf sounded like the coach would return, too. Which was always the preferred plan in Chicago.

The Bulls are going to end up with another high draft pick — if the season ended today, Chicago would have a 12.5 percent shot at the No. 1 pick could land anywhere from 1-8, there’s a lot more fluctuation now. There’s a 25.7 percent chance they get the No. 6 pick (the highest odds of any one landing spot), which even in what is considered a down draft should land them a future rotation player such as Romeo Langford of Indiana or Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech.

The Bulls are in a good spot, this time GarPax should be given a chance.

Optimism with the Wizards? Thomas Bryant supplies it

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DETROIT – Thomas Bryant is usually cheery.

“I don’t like being upset, sad, mad about anything,” Bryant said. “I always want to be happy. I always want people around me to be happy.”

So much so, it could seem the attitude comes naturally to him.

“Hell no,” Bryant said. “It ain’t easy at all.”

It didn’t come easy when Bryant slipped to the second round of the NBA draft in 2017, a year after he returned to Indiana for his sophomore season despite looking like a probable 2016 first-round pick. He went No. 42 to the Lakers.

It didn’t come easy when the Lakers assigned him to their minor-league affiliate much of his rookie season. “You start getting overseas people following you on Instagram and DMing you,” Bryant said. “Like, ‘Hell nah.'”

It didn’t come easy when he barely played while with the Lakers. When got on the court, he usually struggled.

And it especially didn’t come easy when the Lakers waived him last summer.

“That one really got to me,” Bryant said. “I felt like I did everything right. I felt like I gave it my all, and then I went down like that.”

Bryant didn’t know what it meant for his future. He spoke to his agent, trying to get answers. But in those trying moments, he really likes to get away from basketball and watch cartoons like “Family Guy,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Tom and Jerry.”

He also gave himself a pep talk.

“C’mon, you gotta keep swinging, man,” Bryant said he told himself. “There’s a lot more left in the tank for you. You’re young. So, you’ve got to keep trying to get through it.”

The Wizards claimed Bryant off waivers, and he has brought his positivity – and far more production than expected – to Washington. Bryant has been one of the biggest bright spots in the Wizards’ dismal season.

Washington entered the year shooting for 50 wins and the conference finals. Instead, the Wizards (25-36) are barely hanging in the sad Eastern Conference playoff race.

Among the many reasons Washington has disappointed: Starting center Dwight Howard has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. But that opened the door for Bryant.

Bryant has been a revelation. He’s an aggressive rim-runner who converts the numerous close opportunities he creates. His 81% shooting at the rim leads the NBA (minimum: 100 attempts). He has also shown range, making 21-of-55 3-pointers (38%).

In 43 starts, Bryant was averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game. He recently got pulled from the starting lineup because, as Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “We have to see what we have” in Bobby Portis, who was acquired for Otto Porter shortly before the trade deadline. But in the two games since, Bryant’s minutes (25.3), points (20.5) and rebounds (8.5) per game are up. This doesn’t seem like a big demotion.

Which should keep Bryant in strong consideration for Most Improved Player ballots.

In arguing De'Aaron Fox should be running away with the award, I cited his increase in box plus-minus from -4.4 to +0.8 – a jump of 5.2. Bryant’s box-plus minus increase has been even larger – from -4.2 to +1.8, a jump of 6.0.

But Bryant played just 72 NBA minutes last season. That’s not a reliable sample. Fox fully demonstrated how bad he was last year.

Still, limited playing time usually indicates inadequacy. Bryant seizing a larger role shows just how much he has improved.

Bryant’s increase in win shares of 3.8 (0.1 to 3.9) is the fourth largest in the NBA this season, behind only Monte Morris (another Most Improved Player-ballot candidate), Fox and Malik Beasley.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Bryant’s contributions are especially surprising, because the Wizards might have had an ulterior motive to claim him off waivers. Sure, the 21-year-old Bryant had basketball potential. But because he signed his current contract as a draft pick, he also counts less toward the luxury tax than a minimum-salary free agent would have. Washington has shown its tax leeriness by keeping roster spots vacant throughout the season then making trades to dodge the tax entirely.

Bryant will become a restricted free agent this summer. Though he has shown great progress, there are still major questions about him long-term – particularly defensively.

The Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams. It’s a whole-roster problem, but they aren’t much better with Bryant on the court. A solid individual rebounder, he isn’t diligent about boxing out.

With Bryant on the floor, Washington allows opponents to get 38% of their shots at the rim and shoot 67% on them. Essentially, Wizards’ opponents turn into the Bucks, the league’s best team near the basket. It’s hard to build a sound defense when the center provides such little rim protection.

Still, Bryant’s flaws rarely stem from laziness. He’s kinetic on defense, just often flying to the wrong spot.

Bryant is nothing if not energetic.

In describing why it’s important for him to set a tone for his team, Bryant winds up going through the entire roster. He wants to lift the veterans because they can get fatigued by a long season. He wants to lift the benchwarmers because he has been there before. Most of all, he wants to lift Bradley Beal because the star has carried the largest load.

“It’s great,” Beal said. “I tell him every game I need it.”

Beal especially appreciates Bryant’s pre-game routine in the locker room.

“He has his headphones on, and he’s jumping up around, dancing back and forth through the locker room,” Beal said. “So, imagine a 6-10 dude doing all the latest dances. So, it’s pretty fun and funny to watch, but it gets everybody going.”

Bryant knows he’s making his mark.

“They start dancing sometimes, too, and smiling,” Bryant said. “So, it’s all positive.”