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A Few Trends in Dillon Brooks’s Game

Small sample size edition

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Dallas Mavericks
Dillon Brooks rises for a shot against Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

How many times have we seen the Grizzlies swing and miss on a draft pick?

Too many for our innocent hearts to count, but let’s indulge in some brief masochism before returning to a warmer, brighter place.

Of course there was the infamous Hasheem Thabeet pick with the second overall selection in 2009. The ill-fated O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love swap in 2008. Swings and misses on Jamaal Franklin, Josh Selby, and—as it stands for now—Wade Baldwin IV. Injury mishaps derailed Xavier Henry and Jordan Adams, while at least Sam Young, Tony Wroten, and Hakim Warrick were halfway decent for a time. The team cut bait early on Greivis Vasquez, DeMarre Carroll, and Kyle Lowry, who is now a multi-time All-Star, and traded away Rudy Gay, the guy they thought was going to be their franchise cornerstone, near his prime.

The Grizzlies draft history has been a dark, dismal road lit only by the slow-to-build but nonetheless mighty fire that is Mike Conley. Without his incredible transformation, there’s not much else you can point to in terms of success when it comes to the Grizzlies’ draft record.

Until now?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies
Young Duck flies high.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Note the important question mark at the end of that sentence, because it is extremely early to be anointing Dillon Brooks as a success. We’re only five games in to his career, and it’s certainly not out of the question that the book will be out on him in a week’s time, causing him to play like most other rookies, which is to say: poorly.

BUT, through five games the 2017 second round pick has produced at a rate that is surely above what most fans and probably also the front office expected of him to this point (despite having his first bad games—and combined they were bad—the past two nights in Dallas). He’s averaging the fourth most minutes per game of any Grizzlies player, and was one of the team’s top four or five players by Basketball Reference’s advanced statistics before his four point, five foul, four turnover performance in the team’s first loss completely torpedoed those numbers.

Not only has he been one of the better Memphis players, he’s been one of the better rookies in the Association so far, especially on the defensive end. He’s top five amongst all rookies who’ve played at least 50 minutes this year in defensive rating (fourth), defensive win shares (third), defensive box plus/minus (fourth), and steal percentage (second). He’s averaging a steal and a half per game to go along with 8.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, an assist, and almost one block on 51.9 percent shooting, though he’s only one of seven (a putrid 14.3 percent) so far from distance on a healthy number of open looks.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies
Dillon Brooks (24) guards Kevin Durant (35). I’m pretty sure Durant draws a foul on Brooks on a rip-through move a second and a half later.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unclear how Brooks will fit into the rotation when injured wings Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden return for the Grizzlies, but for now it seems he’s done enough to carve out a niche in the depth chart. He’s done so by being a talented scorer/shotmaker, and playing alert and active defense.

Upon watching film of his first four games, several trends of Brooks’s game stood out to me. None of them are all the way good, but also none of them are all the way bad, very much like the characters from The Wire. We’ll start with his defense, which, as noted earlier, has been one of the highlights of his young season.

In the opener against New Orleans, Brooks was particularly energetic, creating four steals en route to a win against the Pelicans. However, in addition to causing turnovers. he played good on ball defense, as somewhat shown below.

This play ends in a Brooks foul, and as I said, nothing I’m going to highlight is all good or all bad. He ultimately plays E’Twaun Moore way too close way too far away from the basket, allowing Moore to blow by and get to the rim. But, what I like here is how Brooks gets up into his man with his body. He’s physical and intrusive without fouling initially. You can see some of the same defense here while he’s guarding Kevin Durant, though he’s a bit more handsy, leading to a classic KD rip-through foul.

GBB’s own Andrew Ford has analyzed some of Brooks’s defense, noting that his on ball ability is better than promised. However, he also pointed out that Brooks gets caught up in the new switch-heavy defensive scheme employed by J.B. Bickerstaff.

Brooks was particularly lost in the Wednesday night loss in Dallas, where he had a tough time figuring out when to switch and on to whom. You can also see him make a rookie-ish mistake in the Golden State game when he fails to pick up, of all people, Stephen Curry in transition.

A poor closeout allows Curry to go baseline to the hoop, and Brooks, woefully out of position at this point, does what every person (including me, all the time) in that position would do, which is attempt to poke the ball away on a last ditch reach around. As a defender, you never want to be in a position to have to reach around; it signals more often than not that you’ve been beaten and commonly leads to a foul.

Brooks’ rebounding has been solid, but not prolific. When crashing the defensive glass after coming in from guarding the three point line, he’s often got his head on a swivel, making sure there’s no players around him who need to be boxed out or who may be streaking into the lane for a putback. This is good; it shows good court awareness, and is something I often noted when watching Vince Carter last season.

But then again, this boxout of Harrison Barnes is weak.

This time he doesn’t look around, nor does he put a body on Barnes as the shot goes up. He ends up getting the board because he’s in the right position, but Barnes nearly snags the ball out of the air from behind him because he was unaccounted for when the shot went up.

Now let’s get to offense, where there’s way too much material to post in the remaining half of this article, but which is all intriguing nonetheless. Both of the remaining observations have to deal with Brooks’ decision making with the ball in his hands.

First, the nickname-less one (because we cannot just stand idly by and let him call himself the Dillion Dollar Man [I’m currently pro-Young Duck or Lob Dillon, but would gladly hop on another bandwagon if a better one showed up]), many times misses or doesn’t see open passes.

I found seven different instances of Brooks failing to hit an open man through the first three games of the season (he turned the ball over on most possessions in the loss in Dallas). However, most of these instances Brooks ends up making the shot, or creating some sort of positive outcome for the Grizzlies. So it’s hard to fault him for not passing when he’s doing good things.

But, I suspect he won’t be hitting as many of those shots because—observation number two!—he’s been an incredibly talented/lucky shotmaker on some poor shot selection.

Let’s start, though, with his not passing to open players (note: again, not a bad thing so far).

I first noticed this in the Warriors win when Brooks received a crosscourt pass, drove by his defender, Klay Thompson, to the baseline, and finished an acrobatic, and-one layup over Shaun Livingston.

That’s a nice, strong take against the long Livingston, and resulted in an old fashioned three-point play (though he missed the free throw). But I couldn’t help but notice that for all that hard work, Brooks had Brandan Wright wide open for a dumpoff dunk or alley oop. Sure, maybe Durant anticipates the pass and disrupts the play with his length, but when you look at it like this...

Brandon Wright is very open and Dillon Brooks is super not.

... I tend to think that Wright would have scored on 90+ percent of the hypothetical realities where he receives that pass, whereas Brooks scores on 50-75 percent of his layup attempts.

Going back through the tape, Wright is the most frequent victim of being open and not being rewarded for it. He’s usually opening driving lanes for Brooks by setting screens, and generally lurking next to the basket for rebounds and putbacks. But on this possession against the Rockets, he runs the floor with a clear as day lane to the rack for an alley oop. However, Brooks pulls up for an open transition three that he unfortunately misses.

That’s a good shot by Brooks. It’s an open three, and he has Wright underneath the basket in position for an offensive rebound. It’s also pushing the tempo, which is what Fizdale wants from his offense.

But also...

The moment when Brooks should have tossed the ball to the rim for Wright.

... nothing says tempo like a fastbreak alley oop, and as you can see above (and as Wright also realizes as he’s calling for the pass), the opportunity was ripe for the taking. Plus, you have to reward the big fella for running the floor!

Now take a look at a play where Brooks makes an easy finger roll, but could have kicked to Marc Gasol for an open top of the arc three.

I love the aggressiveness with which Brooks attacks the Darius Miller closeout. Then, with a full head of steam and no one stepping up to defend him, he takes it all the way to the rack for the finish. I cannot sit here and tell you that Brooks made a bad decision on this possession.

But what I can tell you is that Gasol was all alone, wide open for seven seconds at the most favorable three point shooting position on the floor. Granted, Gasol was only open for three seconds while Brooks possessed the basketball, but he was still incredibly open. It’s not that Brooks made a bad decision, but that he could have made an even better decision. Which is splitting hairs/contriving something to complain about. But it’s still something.

Let’s move on to poor shot selection, ending in what I’m not sure are talented or lucky makes. I’m leaning slightly towards the former, mostly because of this shot over Jrue Holiday in the opener.

This is an extremely impressive shot, one that the Grizzlies Twitter account deemed Kobe-esque. The degree of difficulty is high, but Brooks puts a ton of arc under this shot which rattles in. The shot itself isn’t a particularly good one though. Leaning, falling away, defender in his face, midrange—none of those ingredients make for a good shot. Additionally, Jarell Martin is wide open—observation number one!—on the left side after Mike Conley was open for a split second upon streaking around a Martin screen.

Brooks takes a similarly unwise, fadeaway midrange shot in the second quarter, this time with Tony Allen draped on him, which he misses. His very first make from the field in the game came when he pulled up for an in-the-lane, off balance shot over the outstretched arm of DeMarcus Cousins.

Talent or luck (or both)?

Again, this is an impressive make. But let’s assess the situation here. He once again has Wright ready for a lob or bounce pass, and also—though this one’s pretty unfair to Brooks considering he can’t see it—has Chandler Parsons open on the wing behind him after Parsons’ man attempted to poke the ball away from Brooks on the drive.

Lastly, considering he’s been a bad three-point shooter so far this season, Brooks has favored driving to the rim over taking the deep shot, and has had much more success at the rim, shooting 66% in the restricted area via Swish 2.0. While this driving layup over James Harden is not within the restricted area, it still highlights his finishing and his ability to make something out of nothing. The off-hand, reach around, scoop layup is more difficult than Brooks makes it appear here.

So, to bring it all back together, though Brooks has had a loud and impressing first four games overall, there are still areas of his game that can improve. Which, duh, he’s a rookie. But to claim that he’s finally a pick the team got right or that he’s going to be a major part of the rotation even once the team gets healthy are both a bit supercharged. Brooks has been better than expected, no question. But let’s be more patient, giving him time to adjust to the NBA and for the league to adjust to him. If he’s still producing at a high level after December, then the hyperbole can gain some merit.

But for now, Brooks, like most rookies, is not all the way good nor all the way bad. Luckily for Memphis, though, he’s been more of the former.

All stats current through 10-26-17 at 12:10 p.m. Central. All videos courtesy of 3 Ball.

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