NBA guard/forward Dillon Brooks, from Mississauga, Ont., is in the final year of his three-year contract with the Memphis Grizzlies. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

After lost sophomore season, Brooks proving his worth again in Memphis

This NBA season could have been a lot different for Dillon Brooks.

The guard/forward from Mississauga, Ont., faced an off-season of uncertainty after injuries limited him to 18 games in his sophomore 2018-19 campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies. He didn’t make a single start after having 74 in his rookie season, and with the final year of his three-year rookie deal not guaranteed, a rebuilding Grizzlies team could have cut ties with the once promising prospect.

Instead, the Grizzlies showed faith in Brooks, with the team picking up the final year of his deal and new head coach Taylor Jenkins making him an integral part of his system. While Brooks remains an offensive enigma with his streaky scoring, he has proved his worth to a young Grizzlies squad with “pesky” defence and an infectious energy.

“Playing with passion, playing with grit and making it contagious throughout the team,” Brooks told reporters before the season when asked what he hoped to bring to the team. ”We’re going to need that because games are going to be up-and-down, and somehow I’ll have to channel it, keep it going and make it contagious.”

There is no question Brooks’s play is contagious when his shot is falling; the Grizzlies are 5-0 when he scores 20 or more points. But the offensive numbers in his game log read like a roller coaster.

A 30-point performance on Oct. 16 against Oklahoma City is followed by three points on 1-of-8 shooting against San Antonio, seven points on 3-of-7 shooting against Miami and six points on 2-of-12 shooting against Chicago.

That’s followed by a run of four games of at least 16 points over his next five starts — including a season-high 31 points in a win over the Minnesota Timberwolves — followed by two games of single-digit scoring which included a dismal 0-of-7 outing against Orlando. He seems to have stabilized lately with double digit scoring in his last three games.

Despite the ups and downs of his offensive game, he has been consistently tenacious on defence. Brooks has admitted that he fouls a lot — he was among the top-10 most penalized players in the league heading into Tuesday’s action at 3.9 fouls per game — but his energy has impressed Jenkins.

“Shots maybe not falling or there may be foul trouble but his spirit has been consistent,” Jenkins said after Brooks’s 31-point game. “He’s been ultra-consistent in just being a tone-setter for us defensively.”

Added Brooks: ”I foul a lot, but I am just physical. I want to guard the best player. I want to try to shut them down and make their life a little harder even if they score 30 or whatever, it’s a hard 30 to get.”

The former Oregon Ducks star was only Memphis player to appear in all 82 games in 2017-18, a bright spot in an otherwise miserable 60-loss Grizzlies season that saw coach David Fizdale fired, veteran centre Marc Gasol benched and star point guard Mike Conley limited to 12 games due to injury.

What was supposed to be a promising follow-up season went wrong right from the start. He was used as a role-player off the bench by coach J.B. Bickerstaff before suffering a serious knee ligament sprain just 11 games into the season. He returned after missing 21 games, only to suffer a season-ending toe injury seven games later.

This season is proof that Brooks’s rookie campaign was not a fluke. He is setting career-high averages in points (13.7), rebounds (3.7), assists (2.1), and his free-throw percentage has improved dramatically, up to 81.3 over 73.3 last season and 74.7 in his rookie year.

“The great thing about DB is his defensive effort’s consistently been there, and as you look back at our wins he usually has a big night for us offensively,” Jenkins told reporters a day after Brooks had another big game against Minnesota, scoring a game-high 26 points including going 4-of-5 from the three-point line in a 115-107 Grizzlies victory on Friday.

“As we’ve continued to coach him and show him the path is being aggressive when necessary, not trying to force anything, and last night was a testament to him making aggressive moves. He didn’t have a couple of finishes fall but he didn’t put his head down and get discouraged. He kept competing defensively.”

CANADIAN CONTENT — The Toronto Raptors’ otherwise routine 126-98 win over the visiting New York Knicks on Wednesday did have one interesting footnote. At one point in the game, Toronto’s Chris Boucher (Montreal) and Oshae Brissett (Mississauga) were on the floor at the same time as New York’s RJ Barrett (Mississauga) and Ignas Brazdeikis (Oakville, Ont.). It’s believed to be the first time four Canadians were on an NBA court at the same time.

BIRCH TREE — Montreal’s Khem Birch has been getting significant minutes for the banged-up Orlando Magic, and the six-foot-nine centre has been effective on the glass on both sides of the floor. He had 12 rebounds (11 defensive) in a loss to visiting Toronto on Friday, and followed that up with 10 rebounds (six offensive) in a win over Golden State on Sunday.

BACK HOME — Miami centre Kelly Olynyk was set to make his return to Toronto on Tuesday for the Heat’s game against the Raptors. A stalwart of Canada’s national team, Olynyk was born in Toronto, where he once played youth basketball against Stephen Curry. His family moved to Kamloops, B.C., when he was in middle school.

CHECKING IN — Denver’s Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., struggled from three in his last five games heading into Tuesday, shooting just 29 per cent from range. He has made up for that with opportunistic defence with an eye-catching 2.8 steals per game over that span. … Minnesota forward Andrew Wiggins of Vaughan, Ont., had a streak of 11 straight games of at least 20 points ended Sunday, when he scored 18 in the loss to Memphis. Wiggins also had seven assists, six rebounds, a steak and two blocks in another strong game. … Cleveland centre Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont., had a streak of four games with at least 10 rebounds heading into Tuesday night.

KEEP AN EYE ON — Murray and the Nuggets travel to New York to take on Barrett and the Knicks on Thursday. Murray has been a fan of the emerging Knicks guard, going as far as to say in an interview on “The Undefeated” that Barrett will be a better pro than his former Duke teammate Zion Williamson, who was selected first overall by New Orleans this year but has yet to play this season.

CanaDunks, a look at Canadians in the NBA, is published every Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.

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