If Marshon Brooks was the second-leading scorer in the country, how come we know so little about his game?
The first time I heard the name Marshon Brooks—and I mean heard it, spoken aloud; I must have read it a few times already in the NCAA points per game leaders, cradled beneath Jimmer Fredette’s and above the likes of Adrian Oliver, Charles Jenkins, Xavier Silas, and Anatoly Bose—was after he dropped 52 points on Notre Dame in Big East play.
On PTI, Wilbon called him “Pistol-esque,” and I’ve since watched the highlight of his performance a handful of times. It’s a whirlwind, a deluge of smoke and lights: spinning, twisting, squirming around defenders like a cat, he scores in every way imaginable, stuff of science fiction, his arms more like two ropes attached to his shoulders than a pair of human limbs, giving him a release where it looks as though he’s trying to put the ball down the back of his shirt. At one point in the clip, he gets a successful iso—maybe the only time this happens; otherwise the ND players look like they’re trying to carry his luggage—and he bypasses Ben Hansbrough as if Hansbrough weren’t just stuck to the ground, but growing out of it. I’m a Nets fan, and when the Nets ended up with Brooks after the draft, I thought, all right, cool.
But then I realized something strange, something I hadn’t ever quite thought about: in the age of multi-limbed broadcast Krakens stretched across the United States, and the Internet providing a wine list of amateur and professional sports games on a daily basis, I still, somehow, had never seen Marshon Brooks, the second-leading scorer in the NCAA, play a single game. Forget the fact that he was on a team that went 15-17, and 4-14 in the Big East. This kid averaged nearly 25 points a game.
And neither had most analysts, it seemed. People spoke of him like he was an enigma, like he could be anything from the next Kobe Bryant (Kobe 2.0) to the next Nick Young (do we even want the first? Also, this makes no sense, considering Brooks shot 48%, with a 54% eFG, vs. Young’s 44% and 50%, respectively. And this is on 18 shots per vs. Young’s 14) to the next Henry Domercant (which, well, creative comparison, DraftExpress.com). And yet: this is a fourth-year senior.
Unlike in the NFL, where players are perpetually masked and defined more as pieces on a chess board, NBA athletes all have their own compelling narratives that, at least to the obsessive, matter in how we enjoy the league itself. Which makes it all the stranger when a team drafts an obscure American guy or a cipher of an international, and the sports intelligentsia discuss him like they’re blindfolded, throwing darts against the wall, subsisting on tape and scraps from the combine.
The combine revealed one thing, in particular, about Marshon Brooks: he stands 6’5’’, but he’s got an impossibly long 7’1’’ wingspan. To find out a little more about Brooks as a player, as a narrative, and as a guy I’ll be watching as many as 82 times next year (God willing. Seriously, big guy, help us out here), I reached out to the individuals who would best be able to describe his collegiate arc: the sportswriters who covered him. At schools like Ohio State and Kentucky, where every box score features on the ESPN homepage, the local and college newspapers are just two horses in a crowded field. But I remember from my time with the Duke newspaper, The Chronicle, how intimate college sportswriters become with the styles of each guy on the team, and with a player like Brooks, tucked away in the dark corner of an overexposed conference and somewhat hidden by the glare, it seemed likely that that these local players could tell us something we were missing.
By different accounts, you could say Brooks’ NBA draft night either went either quite poorly, or spectacularly well. In the first camp, he’d been discussed as a lottery pick in the week leading up to the draft, and he ended up effectively as the 27th pick, though he was officially picked 25th. That’s only four spots from no guaranteed money.
But in the second camp: Kevin McNamara, a Big East beat writer for the Providence Journal, told me a story about being at Big East media day back in October of 2010. Coming from the Providence Journal, McNamara was trying to meet players he saw less often than the PC guys, until a Big East official came over to him and said, Kevin, are you going to interview Marshon?
McNamara told the guy that he interviewed Marshon all the time, so probably not. And the guy said, well, you gotta do me a favor, you gotta come talk to him a bit. Nobody’s coming to talk to him.
Remember, Brooks becomes the second-leading scorer in the country.
“I’m definitely surprised that he was a first round pick in the NBA. I thought he had pro potential, but this was largely untapped during his first three years in college,” McNamara said, though he added that he’d heard at least one person in the know speculate that Brooks might be the third-best American in the draft, behind just Kyrie Irving and Derrick Williams.
After Brooks’ junior year, PC’s two most important players, shoot-first point guard Sharaud Curry and forward Jamine “Greedy” Peterson, both left the team: Curry graduated, and Peterson got kicked off for indiscretions involving a local AAU team.
“In the summer of 2010, everything went kind of crazy,” said John Butler, a 2011 graduate of PC and last year’s sports editor for The Cowl, the student newspaper. In addition to the dismissal of Peterson, “two of our players were dismissed due to an off-campus incident where they beat up a student. We lost one of our assistant coaches, Pat Skerry [named head coach at Towson College]. It was a bad, bad summer.”
Between Curry and Peterson, there weren’t that many attempts left over for Brooks as a junior, though he still put up 14 points per game on 11.6 attempts. But all of a sudden, a gap needed to be filled.
“It was very clear that Marshon had to step up to a major level,” McNamara said. “People say, wow, Providence could’ve been really good had Peterson stayed, but while Peterson averaged a double-double and was the only player in the Big East to do that, he took a load of horrendous shots. If Peterson had stayed, neither one of them would’ve been a first-round draft pick.”
Locating Brooks’ rise in this context lends the story an added layer of destiny. Many NBA draft picks are groomed from the minute they take their first official visit at school X. The NBA draft, never a given, becomes more of a capstone for them than any sort of revelation. Not so here.
“In my opinion, Marshon really burst,” Butler said. “He won back a lot of people who were turned off over what happened this past summer. Not only was he a good player, but he’s also a charismatic, likable guy. Students rallied around him; he was, across the board, liked by everybody. He had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder, was a little bit cocky, but people like that.”
“For one thing you have to keep this in perspective. He was the only senior who played this year, and he was pretty much playing with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. When the game was on the line, it was common knowledge that you didn’t want the ball in anyone’s hands but Marshon’s.”
So, the stage is set. As far as delivery systems for drama, sports might be the most efficient, the most certain, the hypodermic needle of spectacular narrative arcs, and basketball, with its small corps of players and its predisposition to style, couldn’t be better suited. Put in a position where he can either become something incendiary or just one sad part of a losing squad, Brooks explodes, averaging 24.6 points and seven rebounds per game, an eye-opening number of boards for a two guard. His FG% and eFG% are remarkably high for a volume shooter, largely owing to his kaleidoscopic scoring repertoire. He puts up a PER of 28.8, and on the road against a top-15 Georgetown team he scores 43 points and pulls in 10 rebounds, then logs the famous 52-point performance at home against Notre Dame weeks later. Responding to the exclamation point of a performance, he flashed a true gamer’s nonchalance.
“He said he wasn’t surprised when he scored 52 in a game,” said Nick Aiken, a rising senior at PC and the assistant sports editor during Brooks’ senior year. “The first question someone asked him after the game was about [the 52 points], and he said, I don’t care, it doesn’t matter, we lost the game.”
Aiken echoed the doubts about Brooks before the season—“I didn’t even know if he’d be the best player on the team”—but he said that for a team like the Friars, who aren’t used to breaking Big East records, having an all-nation talent was a unique privilege, different than the basketball team itself being successful.
In the run-up to the draft, the majority of flack Brooks took from analysts stemmed from two flaws in his game: not the inability so much as the unwillingness to play defense, and a tendency to hoist attempts with the shot clock shy of 30. McNamara said both can be explained, if you know anything about the team he played for.
“When you’re a two-guard, leading scorer, defense gunning for you, and you shoot almost 50 percent, I don’t know what bad shots they’re talking about.”
I asked him about the early shot-clock shots, and he said they definitely weren’t a problem.
“[Brooks’ coach at PC] Keno Davis is a very good offensive basketball coach,” McNamara said. “Free reign offensively. The way he thought about basketball was, I want to out-attempt the opponent two to one, if at all possible. He wanted to play at breakneck speed, so he would have no problem with Marshon putting up a shot in the first 10, 12 seconds of the shot clock, because Providence rebounded the ball very well, they attacked the glass. Marshon’s rebounds almost doubled between his junior and senior year, so he went and got the ball off the glass a lot as well. The flip side of that is that they were a historically bad defensive team for all three years of Keno Davis’ coaching there, and that’s what got him fired.”
Because Brooks played such a quick game, it’s unlikely that he’ll have trouble adjusting to the NBA’s significantly shorter shot clock. And though Brooks does have quite a bit to show on the defensive side once he starts covering professional two-guards, any NBA coach should look at his length and stature and think, this guy can be molded and taught. When your coach instructs you to deprioritize defense like Keno Davis did, you’re hardly the one to be blamed. If you watch any interview with Brooks from before the draft, it’s clear he recognizes this as well; he constantly makes reference to his need to mature on defense, his potential as a defensive stopper, and his desire to one day be thought of as such.
Getting a guy like this—a vertiginous scorer who wants to play defense, a guy with NBA potential trickling from his pores—is exciting, for a fan. Compare it to your team picking a running back, or a quarterback. It might not be the most crucial addition, or most likely to see immediate dividends, but as watchers of athletes we are attracted to physical fireworks—not so much the highlight play as the highlight player, a show you can look forward to every night. Dude is exciting. And (again, sort of God willing—feel bad that I’m putting so much responsibility on God here, but hey) he’ll be playing in Deron Williams’ band, no longer solo; Brooks has rightfully gushed since the draft about how excited he is to be on the loving end of a virtuoso point guard, for once. And as McNamara points out, he’s got at least two NBA-ready skills: rebounding ability, which usually translates well from college to the pros, and a floater made parabolic by his Gumby arms.
The thing is, I know every NBA team has just bought a similar script, though the particulars might be entirely different. We can all talk ourselves into the primacy of our own art. Unlike with art, though, it will soon be proven, unequivocally, how good Marshon Brooks really is.
—Photo via DraftHype.com