Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, seeming primed for a breakout, was a trendy preseason sleeper pick for All-American honors.
But with 16 games down on the Hoosiers’ regular-season schedule and 15 to go, a harsh reality is becoming apparent.
Bryant isn’t breaking out.
The sophomore center has posted almost the exact same numbers (12.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game) that he did as a freshman (11.9 points, 5.8 boards) – and IU’s go-to guy has been James Blackmon Jr.
"I’m just here for the team; you don’t always have to score points," Bryant said. "Points come from everybody. You’ve got to rebound. You’ve got to block shots. You’ve got to be a good leader out (on the floor)."
Bryant has seen his block rate increase by a third and his steal rate nearly double. He also is drawing more fouls this season, ranking 15th nationally in free throw rate, according to KenPom.com, and teammates praise his emerging leadership.
"TB’s a good teacher," said freshman De’Ron Davis, who is Bryant’s backup and pupil.
Still, this wasn’t the plan.
Not after it was Bryant’s low-post dominance (19 points and five rebounds) that led the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 with a 73-67 victory over Kentucky.
Not after Indiana graduated Yogi Ferrell, to whom Bryant was usually the second banana.
And not after NBA types made Bryant a projected first-round draft choice last spring.
The thought was another season in college would allow Bryant to shine. But the reality has been less encouraging, as he looks like the same second or third option he was before.
The 6-foot-10 Bryant has just the fifth-highest usage rate on the team, behind even two reserves, and has a shaky dribble that often gets stripped.
Opponents try to force him to put the ball on the floor, and fans in Assembly Hall begin shrieking as Bryant bounces it.
Amid all this, the New York native is shooting 54.5 percent, a figure most players would be ecstatic to have, but one that pales in comparison to what he did last season when his field-goal percentage (68.3 percent) was the best in school history.
Much has been made of the amount of time Bryant spends hanging out on the perimeter, but statistics suggest that his finishing skills have regressed.
Bryant shot 74.4 percent at the rim last year, according to Hoop-Math.com, but is now at 62.1 percent.
Coach Tom Crean has said Bryant must get better post position but also insists IU’s perimeter players haven’t been great at feeding the post.
Defensively, Bryant copes with pick-and-roll plays better than in the past but still takes his lumps with on-ball defense in the lane, despite that length.
In the big picture, IU (11-5, 1-2 Big Ten), which dropped out of the AP Top 25 poll, is bullish on the possibility of Bryant making a leap in the second half of the season, beginning in tonight’s game at Maryland (14-2, 2-1).
"I haven’t been worried about him at all," Crean said. "He’s gaining confidence and really, really learning how the extra work matters. Thomas is getting more fundamental and has to work that much harder tomorrow to keep that going."