Up to this point, it hasn’t been easy for Markel Brown to chase his NBA dreams.
After two turbulent seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, one training camp with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a full year overseas in Russia with Khimki, Brown is looking to prove he belongs at basketball’s highest level once again – all he needs now is an opportunity.
On Tuesday, one day after a huge 20-point effort, Brown left the Oklahoma City Thunder in Orlando to join the Portland Trail Blazers ahead of the Las Vegas Summer League, which tips off later this week. As the cap-strung Trail Blazers look for affordable players to fill in their expensive rotation, Brown’s passionate play and strong defense could prove useful off the bench behind the superstar duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
For Brown, this may prove to be his best shot at getting back into the league that spit him out in 2016.
“I just want to go out there and show that I’m a consistent defender on the defensive end, a consistent, lockdown 3-and-D guy,” Brown told Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto in Orlando. “And show my toughness, go out there and play hard – I know I’m labeled as an undersized 2, but I want to go out there and show that my athletic ability can make up for everything.”
Brown was the No. 44 overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft, 38 spots after Marcus Smart, his backcourt partner at Oklahoma State, who was chosen by the Boston Celtics. At the time, it appeared as if Brown would earn a unique opportunity with the Nets, backing up long-time veterans like Deron Williams, Jarrett Jack and Joe Johnson on a team that was still expected to reach the postseason despite the loss of Paul Pierce in free agency.
But as Bojan Bogdanovic slumped and Andrei Kirilenko dealt with an ongoing back injury that would keep him out for all but seven games in 2014-15, head coach Lionel Hollins’ hand was forced around the All-Star break. Suddenly, Brown went from playing garbage time minutes to the starting lineup, often garnering more than 20 minutes a night.
With Brown as a starter, the Nets went 16-13 to end the season, a slightly above-average stretch that allowed them to sneak into the playoffs on the final day despite their 38-44 record. Often hailed as the team’s sparkplug, Brown’s perimeter defense was having a major impact, and his move into the starting lineup still stands as a crucial turning point in that disappointing season for Brooklyn.
And yet, even after a strong finish to his rookie year, Brown dropped back out of the rotation the following season, only returning to play big minutes once Hollins was fired in early January. With Williams long gone and Johnson on his way to the Miami HEAT for a late postseason run, Brown quickly became somebody worth watching on the bottoming-out Nets.
With no expectations for the remainder of the season, Brown made good use of his improved standing in the rotation, including a six-steal, three-block and a 3-5 effort from deep against the Indiana Pacers – a line that highlighted his athleticism and stat-stuffing potential. Even with his fluctuating playing time and often middling offensive output, Brown appeared as if he had earned himself another chance for a Nets franchise that had no choice but to patiently begin again from square one.
Instead, the Nets reversed course and rescinded Brown’s qualifying offer last July, opting to give incoming head coach Kenny Atkinson full control over the pick-deficient rebuild. After the Nets signed Jeremy Lin, drafted Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert and were poised to add both Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe on massive offer sheets – Brown, an undersized guard, was cut loose.
Brown was then eventually signed by the Cavaliers for training camp in 2016, but he was waived after six preseason games. His quickly winding road would next take him overseas to Khimki, a top-level Russian franchise that would teach Brown a whole lot about professional basketball.
“I’ve learned a lot – I learned how to sit on the bench, I learned how to wait my turn and go out there and be a fire starter,” Brown said. “And I learned how to be patient, just being able to pick and choose your shots. The way they play over there is really different.”
In Russia, Brown averaged just 5.2 points and 2.6 rebounds in 32 games alongside other wayward NBA veterans like Robbie Hummel and Alexey Shved. Khimki went 19-5 – mostly thanks to Shved’s 22.8 points per game and MVP-awarded campaign – but they would fall to European powerhouse CSKA Moscow in the VTB United League Finals 3-0. But for an athlete that has shown plenty of NBA-worthy potential, why hasn’t Brown been able to stick around?
During his first NBA stint, Brown was celebrated as an energetic wildcard – good enough defensively to slow down his opposition, while also contributing a few highlight dunks and the ability to chip in across the board. Still, Brown only scored more than 10 points on 12 different occasions in 2015-16, all of them after Hollins was fired and while the team was in freefall. Unfortunately, while his defense was satisfactory, the NBA is an offensive-driven league and Brown just hasn’t been consistent enough there quite yet.
For example, the Thunder’s Andre Roberson is currently a restricted free agent coming off a campaign in which he was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team. However, Roberson averaged just 6.6 points in 30 minutes per game and, coupled with a horrible 47.3 percent career mark from the free throw line, has many franchises wondering how much the tenacious defender is truly worth. And if the league is unsure about a strong, multi-position defender like Roberson, who stands at 6-foot-7, that ultimately doesn’t leave much of a market for the smaller, less flexible version in Brown (6-foot-3) until he proves otherwise.
But before leaving the Thunder for Vegas, Brown had some noteworthy outings in Orlando – first going for nine points, five rebounds and three steals in Saturday’s opener against the Detroit Pistons. Brown then followed that up with 20 points, two steals and a stellar 3-4 effort from three-point range on Monday versus the New York Knicks. Even if his early departure for Vegas isn’t a sign of a forthcoming training camp invite, it’s clear that Brown still has the ability to impact games at the NBA level.
Brown says he’s out to prove himself as a consistent 3-and-D guy, so if he has truly improved from behind the arc – he’s a career 29.7 percent shooter from three-point range – then he’s got a real shot of making the NBA again. From warming the bench to contributing just a little bit of everything, Brown’s willing to do whatever it takes.
“That’s what I’m here to do: come off the bench, provide good energy for my team and be ready when the ball is swung my way to knock down open shots,” Brown said. “I just want to go out there and feed off my teammates, bring the energy to the second unit and go out there and make runs.”
For now, Markel Brown is back in the NBA and he’s just looking for one more chance to prove that he belongs.
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