Dillon Brooks is not a headline maker — he’s not the reigning Rookie of the Month or averaging anywhere close to a triple-double. But for the Memphis Grizzlies, the front office will feel like they’ve uncovered a hidden gem nonetheless.
Although he had an accomplished three-year career at the University of Oregon, Brooks, 22, dropped into the second round of last year’s draft, falling serendipitously into the lap of the Grizzlies. Two weeks into the season, Brooks cemented his place in the starting lineup and has refused to surrender it since. He’s started in 51 of the Grizzlies’ 59 games — all consecutively, to boot — a feat that is almost unheard of for the No. 45 overall selection.
For Brooks, it’s all about development during this difficult rookie season.
“[Being a starter has] given me a lot of strengths, but I just took the opportunity and ran with it,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “It’s given me a lot of experience, time for trial and error and a chance to learn from the older guys.”
Brooks is one of 11 rookies averaging more than 25 minutes per game, accompanied by many his class’ top lottery picks. But for what Brooks lacks in gaudy box score numbers, he has quickly become one of the Grizzlies’ most versatile contributors already. Despite the current basement-dwelling status in Memphis — a path that led to the dismissal of former head coach David Fizdale after starting 7-12 — Brooks has established himself as somebody worth watching.
“You know, I thought I would have to work my way in — by now, maybe I’d be starting,” Brooks said. “But it started with coach Fizdale, he had trust in me. Then J.B. [Bickerstaff] has that same trust, so I just keep playing the way I’m playing and keep starting.”
For his early development and successes, Brooks was chosen for the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge during February’s All-Star Weekend. Not only did Brooks prove that he belonged alongside some of the league’s biggest and brightest young talents, but he tallied 11 points and five rebounds in Team World’s blowout 155-124 victory. On top of that, Brooks was the only second-rounder selected to participate in this season’s competition and the next-lowest draftee was Kyle Kuzma at No. 27 — something Brooks takes as a great source of pride.
“There were so many great talents there, first-year and second-year guys. I was just glad to be a part of it.” Brooks said. “It meant a lot, especially in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, so it meant a lot. I just want to keep going with that success.”
Not many prospects make the transition from collegiate stud to second-rounder contributor so seamlessly, but Brooks has chalked up his early success to hard work and a do-it-all attitude. But with Brooks, there’s also a chip on his shoulder, pushing him forward game after game.
At Oregon, Brooks was selected to the All-Pac-12 team in back-to-back seasons, where coaches choose a 10-man first-team. In that second appearance, Brooks was flanked by Markelle Fultz (No. 1), Lonzo Ball (No. 2), Lauri Markkanen (No. 7), T.J. Leaf (No. 18) and the aforementioned Kuzma. The 6-foot-6 small forward has nothing but love for the other conference-best draftees, but admitted in Los Angeles that he believes he was taken far too late.
“Forty-five is too low for me and it’s only made me hungrier,” Brooks said over the break. “I just want to play and I knew whoever picked me, after the first round, really loved my game and really wanted me to contribute for their team.
“And that was Memphis and we’re doing some great things right now.”
Of course, that’s not to say that everything has come easily for Brooks in his rookie season either — it’s a process, but he’s still focused on improving with each successive opportunity. When Brooks scores more than 15 points, the Grizzlies are 4-1; but when he tallies less than five, Memphis is just 3-7. For a rookie carrying such a heavy load — he played a career-high 39:55 in a four-point loss to the Indiana Pacers back in January — Brooks knows he has to take the good with the bad (and sometimes ugly) and grow from those experiences.
“Because this season is so long and so grueling, if you just veer off, you might lose focus for a little bit within games, within week-long stretches,” Brooks said. “Another thing I’ve learned is how quickly games come on. You can have a bad game and have zero points, but then have a back-to-back and play another game.
“You need to brush things off and get to the next one.”
Only Marc Gasol and Tyreke Evans have averaged more minutes per game for the Grizzlies than Brooks (28.2) this year and the rookie has made a habit of drawing the some of toughest opposing matchups. In back-to-back games this month, Brooks was asked to guard Paul George, a three-time All-NBA third team superstar. And although it’s akin to being thrown to the wolves — George ended up with 61 points over those two games — Brooks is always hungry for more knowledge and eventual wisdom.
“I feel like I’m just a chameleon, I just adapt to whatever my situation is, whatever my role is,” Brooks said. “I just learn from each player that I guard — what kind of moves they did, how they get fouls and then try to stay away from that. Paul George is one of the best in the league and he’s so shifty. You’ve got to force him to where you want to go, that’s pretty hard.”
A recent 10-game losing streak has left Memphis dead-even with four other teams for the NBA’s worst record. The dismal record is an unfortunate byproduct of losing franchise point guard Mike Conley in November and Chandler Parsons’ absence in all but one game since the new year. The Grizzlies are no strangers to decimating injuries, but Brooks has certainly benefited from the extra minutes in the team’s first forgettable season in nearly a decade.
After seven straight postseason-bound campaigns, Memphis will likely earn their highest first-round selection since they picked Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 overall back in 2009. With Memphis bottoming out for a chance at the likes of Marvin Bagley III or Luka Doncic, the keys have been, more or less, handed over to the Grizzlies’ youngest players. But even with all the streak-ending lows that this season has brought to Memphis, Brooks has been an undeniable bright spot.
By this point, it’s safe to say that the former collegiate star should’ve likely gone in the first round last June — perhaps even higher if he wasn’t already 21 years old on draft night. Constantly engulfed by the hype surrounding Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum and the other phenomenal prospects in this class, it’s been almost too easy to forget about Brooks at times — but he’s proved those doubters wrong time and time again.
Still, Brooks is proud to be part of this class, regardless of where he was chosen.
“I feel like this class is one of the best that ever got put out there. You’ve got stars from the top to the bottom,” Brooks told Basketball Insiders. “There are a lot of guys that are gonna last 12, 15 years in the league. You’re gonna look back — like those little memes of Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki — you’re gonna see like five or six, seven people by their 15th year.
“So, this class is special — we got a lot of hard workers.”
But does Brooks believe he’ll be one of those decade-plus starters?
“I do, for sure.”
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