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How Dillon Brooks Adapts Will Determine His NBA Career

It’s hard to say how Brooks’ game will translate.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Oregon vs Iona Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Even without a pick of their own entering last week’s draft, the Memphis Grizzlies came away with two players in the second round: Ivan Rabb, drafted 35th, and Dillon Brooks, drafted 45th. You’d think, with Rade Zagorac from last year’s draft also looking likely to come over for next season, that at least one of this year’s selections is bound for the Memphis Hustle. Guessing off draft order, it’s probably going to be Brooks.

So congrats to Dillon Brooks for signing with the newest and already coolest team in the G-League! This is the Andrew Harrison route to the NBA, although Andrew Harrison never had the chance to sign on a two-way contract.

In Brooks, the Grizzlies drafted one of college’s most productive players, and last season’s Pac-12 Player of the Year. He comes from Mississauga, Ontario, which makes it a total of three Canadians who have any emotional stake in the Grizzlies: Brooks, P.K. Subban, and myself. Thank God for us.

Production in college doesn’t always equal production in the NBA, which is why teams draft for tools over stats, and why Brooks fell to the second round—he didn’t even appear on the Ringer’s mock draft. That doesn’t preclude him from being a player, or even a really good one, but we’ll have to see how his game translates.

To get a better feel for Brooks, I watched a few hundred clips off Synergy. (You can also check out a similar write-up on Ivan Rabb from Wednesday.)

Can Brooks translate without length or speed?

In a profile by UPROXX, Brooks compared himself to Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green—players who fell to the second round because of concerns about how their college production would carry over without NBA-familiar measurements, and who beat the odds anyway. You know what Brooks is trying to say. He thinks he’s versatile, and he thinks he can translate. He has no wingspan, but he’s trying to get by on force of will.

It’s a nice sentiment. It’s also hard to say how skill in college translates against skill and athleticism in the NBA, and only one of those can be learned. This is why we’re attracted to things like wingspan. We shouldn’t allow it to overshadow a player, though.

Brooks was one of college’s top scorers, in basically any way imaginable. The Oregon Ducks started him as their power forward and used him as a mismatch scorer, beating bigs on the outside with the dribble and smalls in the post with strength. He averaged 16.0 points per game on 52.6 percent from the field; only four players taken in the draft beat him out in per-40 scoring.

What Brooks has going for himself is skill and strength, which he used to force himself to the rim. His isolation scoring, which made up 16.2 percent of his offense per Synergy, ranked in the 91st percentile with a 51.4 field goal percentage. That’s crazy. In a straight one-on-one—maybe the hardest scoring situation in basketball—Brooks was more likely to score than not.

His bugaboo is a lack of length and speed. Brooks is 6’6, with a 6’6 wingspan, and little burst on the step. It’s one thing to score against college competition, but against NBA defenders, who all have wingspan because they get drafted on wingspan? Tough reality. Even in college, you could see how the lack of speed was something he had to battle against, in physical, bully-ball drives.

In the NBA, Brooks is probably too short to play a full-time power forward like in college, but he might not be fast enough to play shooting guard. I’m reminded of when Draymond came into the league, and nobody was sure if he could defend a position at all.

The question is reprised for Brooks, but on offense: is he going to be a mismatch scorer, or a mismatched scorer? Everyone wants a player who does it all, but if that player can’t do any of it at an NBA level, they go from doing everything to doing nothing.

They become Jeff Green.

The skill is there for a fact, and Brooks knows how to probe with the dribble until he gets to the rim. His jumper is solid, and he used it as part of his post game to keep smalls honest. He shot 40.4 percent on threes, including some toughies off the bounce. That might not identify him as an NBA three-point shooter yet, and he shot closer to 34 percent in his first two seasons at Oregon, but it’s completely workable.

Having the full arsenal helps, because Option A, the drive, won’t always be there in the NBA. That’s the disadvantage for Brooks, without blow-by speed or arms for days. We’ll have to see how far he can get off feel.

Versatility makes or breaks the role player

This is the other thing you wonder of with college scorers—who are they when you take the ball out of their hands? Specialists don’t offer the same value on a basketball court, and it’s one thing if you can shoot like Anthony Morrow, but it’s another to be Shabazz Muhammad. Imagine a wing who scores 18.3 points per 36 minutes and passes like Hassan Whiteside per 36 minutes. Somehow, that’s Shabazz Muhammad.

It isn’t a desirable trait. You wouldn’t want that to be Brooks, and hey, it probably isn’t! His game looks like it’ll grow to encompass three-point shooting, and he showed the makings of other skills in college. You don’t compare yourself to Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green without thinking you can do something other than score.

I’m focused on two things in particular: whether Brooks can pass, because that’s what should follow shot creation, and whether he can defend, because you have to defend. Part of this, too, comes down to how Brooks translates athletically. If he’s so limited by his length and speed that he can’t beat a defender, then so much of the passing skill is wasted. Forget about trying to defend somebody, too.

In college, Brooks didn’t always lean into the versatility of his game, although part of that probably just comes with being the go-to scorer for your team, and so good as one. He showed flashes of the rest of his game, and as a team, Oregon got by with that. They didn’t need him to pass the ball, even if he did draw help.

To his credit, Brooks still showed that he had the vision. He was an infrequent passer and a wild one, averaging 2.1 turnovers to 2.7 assists, but not one incapable of seeing damn good passes. He’s the kind of guy that you want to pass out a little more often, but he’s not irredeemable.

The attention to detail was also flighty on defense, and Brooks was sometimes masked by Oregon’s zone scheme. To be fair, we’ve seen in players like Butler and Mike Conley that it’s hard to be a high-usage scorer and bring the same effort level back the other way. With Brooks’ foot-speed, though, it’s a killer if he isn’t trying, because he only wins by trying twice as hard as his guy.

Strength gets you somewhere, and I don’t think anyone is beating up Brooks in the post any time soon. Power forward isn’t going to be his NBA position, though, and it feels like everybody is 6’8 with a 7’0 wingspan now. That, or waterbug scorers at the guard position. Couple that with the speed of movement of team defense at this level, even away from the ball, and it makes for a difficult adjustment.

This is something that can be developed, at least. When Brooks realizes that he isn’t a top scorer in the NBA, he’ll shift towards filling out the rest of his game, and how he handles that shift can determine his career. Or maybe he will be a top scorer, and it won’t matter. Wait, that’s Shabazz Muhammad.

Working hard helps, actually

Everyone talks about Brooks’ intangibles, and this is sports, so I’m always on guard against clichés, but I’m also not easily forgetting that Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green made it to the NBA by doing the most. We’re talking about Jimmy Butler, who pulled an ‘09 Soulja Boy and put his phone number on blast, and we’re talking about Draymond Green, who just needs to stop.

Every site I’ve read on Brooks is so determined to write about his fire and his intensity and his grit, and okay, I’m starting to open my mind to it. One of his old teammates, Jordan Bell, says that he’s fought with everybody on the team, which is mostly just impressive.

For his part, Brooks told the LA Times that he’s working on “containing all of the emotions and learning from being ejected from a game.” Says DraftExpress, “Brooks is a fiery competitor who at times allowed his emotions to get the best of him, but if he can learn to control his ultra-competitive nature, it will be a significant asset for him at the NBA level.” It only counts for so much on film, but little things like the mad dash on close-outs or the defensive activity with his hands give a fuzzy feeling.

Working hard doesn’t eliminate Brooks’ physical disadvantages, but working twice as hard is how he gets over them. Platitudes won’t determine whether or not he can defend in the NBA, but it’s a fine starting point. Part of how he translates to the NBA will be how much he commits to filling out his game.

Who knows after that, but I like Brooks so far, so we’ll see where that takes us.

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