Every action comes with its own set of consequences.
Bruce Brown has lived through that rule of thumb with every lineup change, roster alteration, and significant adjustment his Nets have made over the course of this ever-winding NBA season.
Once a defensive guard in Detroit with unreliable playmaking chops, Brown was completely remodeled by Steve Nash and Co. in his new Brooklyn home. Now, he’s a short-rolling, floater-tossing mini-center — a 6’4” Draymond Green, as our Alec Sturm so eloquently put it.
During his first 20 games of the season, Brown’s impact was immediate, tossing up 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 57.6 percent shooting while moonlighting as a more than functional lynchpin on the receiving end of the pick-and-roll with James Harden and Kyrie Irving. His hot start earned all types of shoutouts among top-notch analysts. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor dedicated an episode of his video series “The Void” to Brown’s effervescent uniqueness. THE Zach Lowe from ESPN even coined a position in honor of Brown, calling him a “Rover” on offense.
But in an NBA that seems to get progressively larger, taller, and more skillful by the minute, running a 6’4” guard at “center” was by no means a viable long-term solution. Brooklyn was in need of some roster reconfiguration, ranked just 27th in defense through its first 20 games. The Nets were not matchup-proof for a playoff setting — far from, in fact.
In response, Sean Marks went hunting for bargain talents as he had so many times before, though this time wandering down the “aging veteran” aisle of his favorite discount store. The signing of Blake Griffin shocked the world given the, erm, apparent need for defensive pedigree. Take those feelings of confusion and double them when Brooklyn then followed that up by enlisting the skills of a 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge.
To Marks’ credit, both of his additions worked out — at least initially until Aldridge’s sudden retirement — though there was one casualty. Like I had initially feared, with a crowded frontcourt and more mouths to feed, Brown was suddenly without a consistent role in the offense. Aldridge, Griffin, heck even Jeff Green could all do more enticing things with the ball in their hands after setting a screen for one of Brooklyn’s superstars. With little-to-no pick-and-pop gravity, a limited passing game, and a floater repertoire that was largely right-hand dominant, Brown was no longer the belle of the ball in Brooklyn; rather, he was another interchangeable piece whose performances were greatly dependent on the opponent and the players surrounding him.
From the All-Star break to the end of March, Brown’s statistics cratered to just 7.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 41.3 percent shooting per game. During that time span, the Nets were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with Brown off the floor, second to only the ghost of DeAndre Jordan.
As we said, every action comes with its own set of consequences.
Not much has changed about Brown’s offensive game since his tumultuous month of March. He’s still cutting off-ball with regularity, though many times into crowded driving lanes. His three-ball hasn’t really progressed, at least with regards to volume. His playmaking numbers have hovered around 1.5-to-2 assists for basically the entire year. Brown’s story should’ve been over after Brooklyn made moves around the fringes, its cover slammed shut as lumbering giants began to fill the precious openings he once called home.
But that hasn’t happened, now has it?
Here’s a stat: In the month of April, Bruce Brown has only had two games in which he shot below 50 percent from the field. Overall, his numbers have rebounded to 10.4 points, 8.1 rebounds (!!), 2 assists, and 52.9 percent from the field. Brooklyn, meanwhile, has been 10.8 points per 100 possessions better with Bruce Brown on the floor, the best of any Net not named Kevin Durant. No big deal.
“I’m just being more aggressive,” said Brown about his second-wind in the season. “I think the second half of the season, after the All-Star break, I’ve been less aggressive on the offensive end. Having to pick my spots correctly so, just trying to be more aggressive when I get the opportunity and just have confidence.”
No better performance exemplifies Brown’s heightened aggressiveness than his prolific 21-point, 14-rebound night on 57.1 percent shooting against Toronto on Wednesday. Reminder: He’s SIX-FOOT-FOUR! (Although Blake Griffin has his doubts he’s even that tall!)
So how has he done it? Brown has effectively replaced his steady pick-and-roll diet with an incessant presence on the offensive glass. His offensive rebounding rate has risen from 52 precent in March to 64.3 percent in the month of April. Brooklyn’s offensive rebounding percentage rises by 2.9 percent when Brown is on the floor, the best of any Net, 7-foot centers included! He’s simply creating more opportunities for himself out of thin air.
Seriously, Brown has absolutely no business getting to the rebound in the clip below. None. Zero. But he’s the first to notice that Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 3-pointer is short, so he sprints to the spot early, leaps in the air like a tree frog after three cups of coffee, and miraculously hacky-sacks the ball to himself before tipping it to an open teammate while falling out of bounds. All grit. All determination. That’s what fuels Bruce.
“I think it’s just timing,” said Brown about his 14-rebound night against the Raptors. “Toronto, the way they play, they leave me. So that leaves me an opportunity to crash the offensive glass. And then on the defensive boards, DJ and the big guys are boxing out, so I just try and help them.”
It’s true. Brown is typically the first to notice if a teammate’s shot is off the mark, and he follows that up by precisely relocating into rebounding position like a tracking beam. Should he have to jostle a little bit with an opponent for a 50/50 ball, so be it! Brown’s compact 202-pound frame acts as an extra cushion when scrounging for available boards. In the first clip, he tips in Joe Harris’ missed shot faster than you can say “We the North.” In the second, he ricochets off the body of Fred VanVleet and explodes with a second leap to tip in his own miss.
As Brown mentioned, he’s been picking his spots with more clarity — working within the flow of the offense away from the ball, no longer in need of a stream of pick-and-roll sets. If teams aren’t going to guard him from three-point land, great! No reason to stand at the arc with little utilization when he can just create opportunities for his teammates; he’s taken the screening know-how he honed and crafted from his on-ball reps earlier in the season and translated it to plays away from the action.
Here, he sets a timely “pin-in” screen on Fred VanVleet to free up space for Landry Shamet in the corner, which causes VanVleet to fight over the screen and leap toward Shamet, leaving Brown room for the layup at the cup. This is a great example of a golden basketball rule: The screener can many times be the most dangerous player on the floor. When a defense snuffs out a play involving an off-ball screen, there is a tendency to fall into a state of relaxation and once again focus on the ball. An opportunistic scoundrel like Brown lives for these moments — he’s more than happy to cut into open space should a defense just simply forget about him. The 24-year-old has shown that time and time again.
It’d be a disservice to leave out Brown’s defense. Oooooh lord, that defense! Though this is an article about Brown’s offensive game, his heightened offensive play has given rise to stonewalled, in-your-face defensive intensity.
Brown had perhaps his most impressive performance to date as a 1-on-1 defender against Toronto, guarding the likes of Fred VanVleet, Malachi Flynn, and Pascal Siakam in isolation (and on the season, he’s Brooklyn’s second-best isolation defender, per Synergy Statistics). Notice how proficient Brown is at sliding his feet to cut off driving lanes, keeping his hands raised to avoid fouling, while using his chest as a battering ram to push his matchup of their spots. Pascal Siakam has a 5-inch height advantage (at least), yet Brown makes holding the former All-Star to just 2-of-5 shooting look effortless. “YOU SHALL NOT PASS,” screamed Brown after every lockdown possession, banging a walking stick on the hardwood to produce sparks that lept into the bleachers. (At least, that’s how I like to imagine it).
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Bruce Brown this season, it’s to never count him out. Every time it appears he’s on a crash course with the outskirts of Steve Nash’s rotation, Brown arises more powerful, stronger, and determined than before. As a bit player whose skill set doesn’t exactly mesh with the modern NBA (you know, the whole “being a non-shooting guard” thing), Brown’s story of continual adaptation is inspiring, if not astounding. Set to test restricted free agency this summer, Bruce Brown will assuredly command a hefty bag.
He certainly deserves it.