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For better or worse with Dillon Brooks

Memphis has entered in to a volatile marriage...but will it be long-term?

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When it comes to the 2019-2020 NBA season for the Memphis Grizzlies, there are few players that encompass the ups and downs that the campaign contained better than Dillon Brooks. When things were good, Dillon usually was as well - draining shots and dripping with an uncommon swagger and confidence. When Memphis struggled? Well, Brooks probably was launching out of rhythm mid-range jumpers early in shot clocks, but would do so while still displaying that same swagger - the elite belief in himself that has gotten him to this point.

For Dillon Brooks, a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is not an special athlete. He does not carry a basketball blue blood name, or possess any particular skill set that makes him a player that you think is an above average NBA player. Yet here he is, boasting a freshly signed 3-year $35 million contract, the type of money reserved for exactly that type of NBA performer. Whether it is as a starter or sixth man moving forward, with the Grizzlies front office investing in Brooks he figures to be a key cog in the future for Memphis.

For better or worse.

At his best

Ironically, Dillon Brooks’ best game of the 2019-2020 season was in a loss...which of course was rare overall. Memphis famously was 20-7 overall this season when Dillon scored 20 or more points. But that stat became less accurate as the calendar turned - in 2020, Memphis actually went 12-7 in such games. That’s a winning record, but the Grizzlies were indeed capable of losing when Brooks was playing well.

And against the Pelicans in Memphis on Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Dillon was his best self...even when the Grizzlies weren’t.

Dillon Brooks scored 31 points three times in the 2019-2020 season. He did it once in the Bubble - the season-saving victory over the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Bucks. He did it once in 2019, again in a win, that time against Minnesota. So why choose the game where Memphis was beat, and why select the contest where he shot least efficiently (12-25 from the field, as opposed to 12-18 and 9-16 against Milwaukee and the Timberwolves)?

Because it’s the one he can best replicate moving forward.

It’s the game where he attacked the basket early and often, and didn’t settle for inefficient offense. It’s the one he almost got a double-double with nine rebounds, tied for his best performance on the glass. It’s the game where he set his feet and took rhythm jump shots, not forcing things outside the flow of the offense. He posted four assists in the Pelicans game, showing a willingness to create shot opportunities not just for himself but for others. He grabbed two steals, putting his defensive prowess to even more good use in terms of gaining extra possessions for his team. He played a complete game on both ends of the floor.

He was a great NBA wing. And while perhaps the 31 points aren’t sustainable, the other ways he impacted the game are.

At his worst

Memphis Grizzlies v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Again, ironically, the worst performance of Dillon Brooks’ season was in a Grizzlies win - a victory I was fortunate enough to see in person. It was Ja Morant’s first triple-double against the Wizards in Washington D.C., but it was the very worst of Dillon Brooks. He scored only 9 points on 17 shots while also only grabbing 3 rebounds and completing only 1 assist. Meanwhile, he had five personal fouls (Dillon is one of the worst foulers in the NBA, and that shined through in this game) and committed three turnovers in about 30 minutes of play.

The poor shot selection (0 for 8 from three!!!), the issues defending without fouling, the lack of contributions in areas beyond shooting/scoring...these are the flaws of Brooks that, at times, overtake the good-to-very-good things Dillon brings to the Grizzlies. It was a night that a little self-awareness would have gone a long way - and was a microcosm of his season overall.

What Comes Next?

Milwaukee Bucks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

When people detail the reasons they love the next generation of the Memphis Grizzlies, oftentimes the confidence and swagger they play with is cited. It’s a popular misconception to think that comes from Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. - those two cornerstones contribute, but make no mistake, the mentality of conviction begins for these young Grizzlies with Dillon Brooks. Watch the games in the Bubble - when things got tough, Morant and others were more than happy to defer to Dillon because he was the only other player, besides Ja, that was both willing and able to make (and take) shots when they came available off the dribble on the perimeter.

With that comes a double-edged sword...and a misguided feeling that Dillon had a “bad year”. Actually, he had a Dillon Brooks season - the same kind of production that got him the contract he will soon be enjoying. He had a career year scoring (16.2 points per game), shot literally his career average from three (35.8%), and per 100 possessions dished out more assists while also carrying a far-too-high 25.2% usage rate. He was asked to be more than he is capable of being, and he actually performed relatively well considering that truth.

He defended the opposing team’s best scorer on most nights while still being asked to be a lead perimeter scorer beside Ja Morant. He was the team’s third leading scorer overall, and perhaps most importantly led the team in games played (all 73, 74 including the play-in game with Portland that the NBA incorrectly isn’t including in stats) and minutes played (2,112). In an NBA where terms like “ceiling” and “potential” are often thrown around too often, Dillon Brooks is a player whose greatest ability is availability. His second season had injury issues, but his rookie campaign and this past season serve as a larger sample size of durability and basketball accessibility. Dillon can become a more consistent player in terms of decision making on both ends of the floor, but his skill set largely is set at this stage - and part of that tool belt is, night in and night out, being Dillon.

Brooks hasn’t changed - he’s the same player mentally that he was at Oregon, winning Pac-12 Player of the Year. He’s a competitor. He’s a believer in himself and how he plays the game. It is on the Memphis Grizzlies coaching staff and front office to put Dillon in a place to be successful moving forward - it isn’t his fault in his rookie year that he had to play all 82 games and essentially be then what he also was in 2019-2020. It is on Zach Kleiman, who signed Dillon to this extension, to add perimeter talent that amplifies Dillon’s strengths (like Justise Winslow does in theory). It is on Taylor Jenkins to hold Brooks accountable, to make sure he adheres to the Grizzlies “standard” of unselfish play.

In this way the youth in the job for both Kleiman and especially Jenkins shines through - they were rookies too, and this was year one of a full blown rebuild that turned out better than expected. In those uncertain roster moments around a young team, it is nice to have someone to count on being there on the floor, ready to compete - even if it backfires about as much as it succeeds.

It is frustrating at times, but also oddly comforting. In good times and bad, regardless of role, Dillon is likely going to be there, being Dillon for the Grizzlies.

For better or worse.

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