There’s a rush one feels when coming close to fire. A spark creating an open flame ignites not just that upon which it burns, but the blaze of possibility in the mind of the one who encounters such a sight and feeling. The very survival and flourishing of humanity can be attributed to those earliest humans mastering the stoking of sparks to create a blaze capable of cooking meat and keeping away physical threats. With that realization comes a kindling of imagination - of what can be done when the human spirit meets a will to evolve and endure.
Somewhere in Memphis, Tennessee there is a young man who carries himself both on and off the basketball court in a similar fashion to those combustible curiosities and visions. His genius as a professional athlete able to overcome below average (when compared to others in the NBA) God-given gifts to carve out a meaningful (and newly quite profitable) career in the NBA is to be commended. But the unconquerable self-confidence needed to achieve at such a level can lead to condemnation - a denunciation of the unorthodox mentality that a player the likes of Dillon Brooks must maintain to be both his best and worst self.
They are one and the same. And with that realization comes acceptance of the most important Memphis Grizzlies player not named Ja Morant entering the 2020-2021 season.
For all his flaws and feats of feast or famine, he is the one player on the Grizzlies roster who carries the combination of experience, skill set, and tenacity necessary to be a willing second in command to Morant. With Jaren Jackson Jr. out for the foreseeable future, someone must rise up. Brandon Clarke, while saying he has been working on his ability to create for himself off the dribble and shoot the three pointer at a higher clip, is not able to make offense alone when necessary - he is too dependent on others. Jonas Valanciunas can score off the dribble...with his back to the basket, which is a nice security blanket in the schemes of Taylor Jenkins but not the preferred means of manufacturing scoring.
Enter the bombarding stylings of Dillon Brooks - a wing whose refusal to conform to what many see him being as an NBA player is both ingeniously confounding and alluringly antagonistic. He isn’t the right hand man Memphis wants...but he is the one it needs if they hope to survive the stretch of season ahead without Jackson Jr. by Morant’s side.
After all it is Brooks who, when the Grizzlies needed a forceful push in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble this past summer, would step forward and fight the good fight against the best the NBA had to offer. That’s not to say it wasn’t without consequence - Brooks in nine games for Memphis took 161 shots, good for a 17.9 attempt per game average. This is only four total attempts behind the 165 shots Morant himself took in Orlando - and only after Ja’s Herculean effort against the Portland Trail Blazers netted him 28 attempts to Dillon’s 18 in the single play-in game. Dillon led Morant by six shots entering that contest.
Yes, streaky Dillon Brooks was averaging more attempts per game than Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. But when Ja wasn’t willing, able, or capable due to opposing defenses collapsing on him it was Brooks that took the shot.
And when shooting, Dillon lived up to his hot or cold reputation. In four games in Orlando Dillon shot well below 40% from the field on 64 shots, while shooting better than 55% in two contests (on a combined 36 attempts). In that key showdown with Portland that ended their season he was 7-18 overall but 4-5 from three, and second on the team in minutes played at 38. He missed 13 two point shots while only making 3, certainly hurting the team’s prospects.
But he was also the only wing player capable of getting many of those looks - off the dribble, by himself - while also being an above average defender on the roster. And look at the group of players prepping for the season in Memphis. Outside of draft picks, and the veteran Anthony Tolliver and the enigmatic Josh Jackson, the gang is essentially back together. And Jaren and Justise Winslow are still nursing their Bubble injuries.
Dillon therefore remains both the best and only option on the perimeter. And he will remain that for now. Grayson Allen can help, but he is not the defender Brooks is. John Konchar in theory is a threat to contribute in many ways, like a Justise Winslow, but to take such a leap from a two-way contract seems far fetched for his talent. De’Anthony Melton is a plus defender and facilitator in transition, but Memphis needs shooting in the starting lineup with Jackson Jr. out and he cannot provide that at the level necessary. Desmond Bane is a rookie who without Summer League and a full build up to preseason probably isn’t ready to take on such a burden.
A burden, by the way, that Dillon Brooks does not see as a weight to carry. He is not searching for someone to lighten the load. He wants to lift it better.
His desire to be that Sisyphean figure pushing the boulder of elite wing production without elite wing skill certainly is admirable. But while the spirit has always been willing, the flesh at times is weak. He has, since he arrived in Memphis with the Grizzlies, has been asked to be far more than he should be as an NBA contributor. From a rookie season rocked by injuries to stars, to health issues of his own in year two, to a more complete picture of hot and cold scoring and hit or miss defending (without fouling) alongside a volume three point shooter far worse than him (Jae Crowder) or next to a non-shooting threat in general (Kyle Anderson), being a complimentary piece for multiple star-level talents has never been a consistent reality for Brooks.
Instead, he’s had to rise to the circumstances in front of him regardless of the talent around him. That reality has surely shaped him. He is now the longest tenured Grizzly, the last remnants of a time where Memphis believed a core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Chandler Parsons could contend with the best the NBA had to offer. That feels like a lifetime ago.
For Dillon Brooks, it was a rookie deal that led him to his shiny new contract in the range of a low end NBA starter/high end role player or reserve. It is a contract he earned while maintaining a mindset that he displayed throughout his career, even while at Oregon, being then exactly what he is now - a basketball Rorschach test. Some see an overachiever with a flair for provoking faith from his teammates and anger from his opponents. He can be someone who plays the role of villain with great panache while providing much needed floor spacing, defensive leadership, and a mentality that combines unapologetic belief in oneself with a refusal to allow others to define your worth or role in your own story.
But while it is fun to consider Brooks a vice of the hoops variety, others don’t take so kindly to his rogue resourcefulness. They see Dillon as the NBA’s leading generator of fouls and poorly timed shots - usually in the midrange - who doesn’t prioritize making the right pass or finding the right play. Instead, he seeks space for himself to launch the ball at the basket because he can. He’s infuriatingly consistent - for better or worse, you know what to expect from Brooks.
The words of improvement and acknowledgement of flaws from Dillon fall flat for some. They want physical evidence of growth, especially when it comes to better facilitation. Advancement there is desperately needed. Per Cleaning the Glass, among the 50 NBA players that logged over 2,000 minutes last season Dillon was 46th in assist to usage rate ratio (.44, 14th percentile) and dead last - that’s right, 50th - in total points per 100 shot attempts (102.6, 23rd percentile).
If the Grizzlies want to remain playoff relevant while Winslow and Jackson Jr. are not in the lineup, those two numbers have to be much better.
But the first number there - the over 2,000 minutes one - reinforces what we already know. Brooks and Ja Morant (2nd) are the only Grizzlies that played 2,000+ minutes for Memphis last year. Dillon hasn’t always be the picture of health, but when he has been available he’s been a constant. His passion, his grit, his determination to be himself regardless of outside perception - it is a presence that the Grizzlies must both nurture and condemn. When he thrives, feed him and his fiery demeanor. When his blaze fades to a faint flicker, add to his tool belt the ability to not just put your head down and grind through a 37% shooting night because no one else can do it.
Make him see the value in being the creator. The galvanizing granter of offensive opportunity who sees that in order for him to step up, he must step down. To lead the charge, he must follow the lead of Ja Morant and spark the offense’s potential by prioritizing getting the whole roster engaged in the game.
Maybe it is too tall of a task. Dillon has had the success he’s enjoyed to this point because of who he is. But to fan the flames of the Grizzlies standard, Brooks has to pass the torch and allow for others to help when he is not on his game. There are flashes of such realizations. Rookie Desmond Bane has praised Brooks’ game and ability to teach through their pairing. Head Coach Taylor Jenkins has spoken of Dillon as a starter in line with Morant and Jonas Valanciunas, acknowledging just how important Brooks is in that role for this team. Memphis needs him to be himself...but they also need him to do more to continue to progress towards the next great Grizzlies team. The persistence of Brooks’ mentality is helping form the culture of the franchise. And Dillon has, and will continue, to take friendly fire as he helps drive that vision in to reality unless he shows personal gains in his game.
There’s value in his level of conviction. For if you don’t see the potential in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to? To that end, Dillon Brooks and fire are almost synonymous with one another. They’re both destructive and demonstrative of the possibilities that exist when survival is not ensured. Whether it’s as a hot hand shooting the basketball or a polarizing figure among Grizzlies fans, Dillon will remain a brightly burning source of stress and success in Memphis. Whether his light shines beyond its current luminosity is entirely dependent on what Brooks decides to do with the spark he is capable of cultivating.
How well he can stand the heat - and redistribute the rush that comes with it.