It is October 21st, 2017, and the 45th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft is being asked to do more than should be asked of him.
A rookie in his second NBA game, Dillon Brooks has drawn the toughest defensive assignments anyone could imagine at this stage of his professional career. Throughout the contest he has been asked to guard the likes of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Stephen Curry. While he did not start this contest, he logs 32 minutes of playing time off the bench - only Mike Conley and Marc Gasol log comparable or more minutes in the game. The $94 million man Chandler Parsons comes off the bench. The Grizzlies start James Ennis III, Jarell Martin, and Andrew Harrison. A hopeful signing of Tyreke Evans will soon become a home run, but that knowledge isn’t known yet. It is Brooks that is counted on to help Memphis’ stars bring home a win as the post-Zach Randolph and Tony Allen era begins for the Grizzlies.
Brooks shoots 4 for 7 from the field and helps limit the offensive efficiency of Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant (16-40 combined) as Memphis defeated Golden State 111-101.
Looking back on these highlights is like seeing ghosts. The in-between of the end of Grit and Grind and the start of the #NxtGenGrz was a time of uncertainty and indirection. Injuries would eventually derail this season - Mike Conley would wind up only playing 12 games. Chandler Parsons played in 36 contests - 48 combined games and over $51 million spent between the two players. The 3rd man leading Memphis in minutes played was Jarell Martin - a player who last played in the NBA in 2019. Marc Gasol was 1st in time on the floor for the Grizzlies, doing his best in a tough spot to help the limited Memphis team find a way to compete amid a coaching change from David Fizdale (which he was reportedly involved in to an extent after tension rose) to J.B Bickerstaff, who had limited opportunity for success with this group of talent.
Beyond Gasol, the Grizzlies leaned on a rookie 2nd rounder to play all 82 games. Dillon Brooks was 2nd on the team in total minutes played, 3rd in shot attempts and points scored, and 1st in steals. As the season went on, what was asked of Brooks went up - over the final 22 games of the campaign, Dillon took double-digit shots in 18 of them and 15 or more shots in 8 of them.
Memphis went 22-60 that year - a performance that led them to the chance to eventually draft Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the cornerstones of the here and now. To get there, through that season where multiple key veterans for a multitude of reasons in a variety of ways were not able to be what they were supposed to be, the Grizzlies looked to a player from the University of Oregon who, while he shined on the college stage, was seen as a stretch to succeed at the NBA level.
When Memphis needed him, he was there.
The Memphis Grizzlies stood pat at the trade deadline back in February. Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman said at the time that Memphis liked where they were in terms of their roster, and they did not see the need to make a move for the sake of veteran depth/making a generic trade. Talented players were traded - Norman Powell, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, and others - but no juice was worth the squeeze according to the front office to strengthen for the playoff push.
One of the major reasons why the team said that they were not aggressive around the trade deadline was Dillon Brooks. Brooks was injured throughout this season - first an issue with his hand that held him out from the start of the season, and then an ankle injury that forced him to miss about a month and a half in the middle of the campaign. Brooks only played 32 games total in the 2021-2022 season, and Kleiman, Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, and the team themselves - including superstar Ja Morant - stated that the returning Brooks would be a midseason acquisition in his own right. He was seen as that valuable, that important to what the Grizzlies wanted to do.
Memphis chose to ride with the player they saw as their spirit animal - the guy that in the NBA Bubble during the height of the pandemic even rookie Ja Morant deferred to at times - and believe that he could be what they needed him to be to achieve their goals. After missing much of the 2018-2019 season due to injury - the season where Marc Gasol was traded and Mike Conley was after the campaign concluded - Brooks returned during that first year of the Ja Morant Era and took on an even larger role offensively than he had before. Dillon not only led the team in minutes played, he also led in shots attempted by over 100 and was 2nd in points scored by 8 to Morant, the Rookie of the Year.
He did this while posting a true shooting percentage of 51% - only Jae Crowder and De’Anthony Melton both shot worse than that and logged over 1,000 minutes of play. Brooks was well over 2,000. Brooks was the one willing to take those key shots, to embrace the toughest assignments. He was the player that Memphis looked to to be that “villain” character and embrace the heat that came with his style of play while having unwavering confidence in himself. It was a double-edged sword - his attitude, defensive intensity, and effort helped shape the schemes of Taylor Jenkins and influence the young minds of a team that needed an identity. But his long leash offensively would hurt the team at times - especially when he took it upon himself to try to carry the team...something more often than not he wasn’t able to do. The mind was willing, but the NBA star offensive player flesh was weak.
No matter. The team believed in Dillon. They were willing to go as far as they would take him. His return earlier in the season helped the Grizzlies turn their defense from one of the worst in the NBA to one of the best. He would make all the difference for this team.
When the time came, they could count on him.
It is May 9th, 2022, and the 45th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft is being asked to do more than should be asked of him.
Ja Morant, a likely All-NBA selection when the teams are announced, is out due to a knee injury. Desmond Bane has had back issues much of the series against the Golden State Warriors and is not himself - plus the Warriors have made Bane the focus of their defensive energy with Morant out. Jaren Jackson Jr. has not made a single three point shot despite a strong defensive showing, and the lead that Memphis had scratched and clawed for throughout the game is slipping away.
Dillon Brooks - the same former Oregon Duck who in 2017 was asked to be something bigger than he likely is as a professional - is there to try to help his team.
Brooks’ return from a suspension in Game 3 was vital to the defensive effort of the Memphis Grizzlies to get them to the point of competitiveness this late in the contest. He spent time defending Curry and Thompson, as he had that rookie night in October years prior, as well as a new offensive weapon for the Warriors in Jordan Poole. His tenacity and confidence made Memphis feel they had a chance, and even as Brooks struggled himself with his shot it was the process of Bane to stick to the Grizzlies standard and pass on a good shot for a great one from Brooks and give Dillon the ball.
Even with the poor shooting throughout this series, the Grizzlies players were still willing to give him the ball.
Throughout his tenure as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Dillon Brooks has unapologetically been himself. There have been good times that have come with that reality, and there have been bad. But a majority of the time, the reality of Brooks’ tenure has been in the middle. Offensively he provides streaky shooting that is at or below average in the NBA overall with a frame and handle that allows for him to get to the basket and create his own shot. On the defensive end he is a fringe All-Defense type of competitor, using that bigger body and length along with physicality to defend all sorts of the best scorers in the NBA with varying levels of success and rare occurrences of defensive failure.
In terms of mentality, he provides an edge that this young team has needed - a steady presence of confidence that is never shaken, even when perhaps it should be. When you’re out of your element and chaos is all around you, to look and see something - or someone - you know you can count on to be what they’ve always been for a sense of stability. For this entire five year stretch of Grizzlies basketball, whenever he’s been on the floor, that’s been Dillon Brooks. And all through this time, multiple coaching staffs and front offices have made the decision that warts and all, Brooks was worthy of investment in this way.
Will that continue beyond this postseason, whenever it reaches its eventual conclusion? Who knows. But rarely does someone rise to such prominence in any organization by accident. Anger directed at Brooks for being himself, if you feel it, should also be directed at the organization and teammates that allow for him to be that type of player. Brooks was a holdover from the previous regime, but he also was given an extension. Dillon is a flawed player, as all people are flawed. But his strengths are valued by this team to such a degree that even after a performance in this series that local and national media are noticing as potentially damning to the chances of the Grizzlies in the Warriors series his coaches and teammates are actively defending him. Saying they want him to keep shooting. To keep being himself. As he has been the entire time.
The Dillon Brooks experience has been one of peaks and valleys throughout his years in Memphis. Yet his belief in himself - and the confidence the franchise has put in him throughout his time with the Grizzlies - remains.
Without Dillon Brooks, the Memphis Grizzlies would not be where they are - for better or worse. And the team remains committed to who he is, and what he means to them.
Come what may.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com