There’s not a more mentally strong or confident player on the Grizzlies roster – and perhaps in the entire NBA – than Dillon Brooks.
Just ask Dillon Brooks.
But even the Grizzlies fifth-year swingman emerged from a pregame workout a week ago with plenty of uncertainty. He wondered how long it would take for him to regain his form after missing the season’s first month to recover from a broken hand he sustained over the summer.
Despite making it back in time to participate in training camp, Brooks was sidelined again after further exams revealed more time was needed for the hand to properly heal. So instead of opening the season in late October with his teammates, Brooks didn’t make his debut until nearly a month later, with the Grizzlies on the verge of four losses in a five-game stretch.
Simply put: Brooks is trying to make up for lost time at a delicate point in the season.
“The biggest hurdle is just catching up, wondering, ‘How can I make an imprint? How can I make a difference on the floor?’” Brooks said ahead of the Grizzlies two-game trip that starts Saturday against Minnesota. “Every night, being 11 games behind, it’s a hurdle trying to figure my way through the offense and defense, figuring out what I can do to make both sides better.”
With Brooks back and regaining rhythm with each game, his imprint is having a definitive impact on the Grizzlies. Through four games this season, the 6-foot-7 small forward is averaging 19.3 points, three rebounds and 1.3 steals in 26.5 minutes. And it didn’t take long for Brooks to find his shooting touch, considering he’s converting at a 46-percent clip from the field overall and 44.4-percent from three-point range.
But what’s been most impressive about Brooks is the how effective and efficient the team has been when he’s on the floor. In Thursday’s 12-point home win over the Clippers, Brooks played 27 minutes and led the Grizzlies with a plus-22 rating in plus-minus impact while contributing 18 points and serving as the primary defender on All-NBA forward Paul George.
Every night, being 11 games behind, it’s a hurdle trying to figure my way through the offense and defense, figuring out what I can do to make both sides better.
In his previous outing on Monday, Brooks was a plus-31 in plus-minus over 23 minutes on the court during a 136-102 rout of the Rockets. Teammates and coaches are seeing incremental progress overall defensively this week after a sluggish start to the season.
The expectation now is that with two days of practice time, in addition to the boost of consecutive victories, the Grizzlies can gradually improve an overall defensive rating that sits 29th among 30 NBA teams. With Brooks healthy as the team’s unquestioned swagger catalyst and perimeter defensive standout, there soon should be tangible evidence of a turnaround.
“One of Dillon’s great strengths, among multiple strengths, is his defensive intensity, execution and pure abilities,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We don’t have him to his normal substitution pattern just yet. But it’s going to give us a lot of versatility, having him. I’ve gained a lot of confidence with Dillon out to start the season, to see what Kyle Anderson can do with certain personnel, (and) what bigger wings like Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton have shown us. But now, when you have multiple guys and Brooks getting a bulk of that share, we have more depth throughout the game to give us a lot more defense intensity.”
Few players in the league embrace their defensive role with the level of intensity Brooks brings to the court each night. Five seasons into his NBA career, Brooks is still motivated by having slipped to the 45th overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft after a decorated college career as PAC-12 Player of the Year out of Oregon.
As the longest-tenured member of the Grizzlies, Brooks has played for three different head coaches. He’s seen the roster transform from a veteran-laden group anchored by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to one now fueled by 22-year-old stars in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.
Brooks is midway through a three-year contract extension that allowed him to solidify a starting role as well as give the Grizzlies one of the best return-on-investment deals in the league.
We don’t have him to his normal substitution pattern just yet. But it’s going to give us a lot of versatility, having him. I’ve gained a lot of confidence with Dillon out to start the season, to see what Kyle Anderson can do with certain personnel, (and) what bigger wings like Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton have shown us. But now, when you have multiple guys and Brooks getting a bulk of that share, we have more depth throughout the game to give us a lot more defense intensity.
The two-game trip is symbolic for Brooks because it wraps up with the Grizzlies facing the Jazz on Monday in Salt Lake City. The Grizzlies return for the first time since they lost last season to the top-seeded Jazz in five games during a breakthrough postseason run after the Grizzlies won the NBA’s Play-In Tournament to secure the No. 8 seed.
At the end of last season, Brooks was a key reason why the Grizzlies pushed through to become the youngest team in a decade to advance to the NBA playoffs. In that series against the Jazz, Brooks significantly increased his regular-season production to average 25.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 52.8-percent from the field and 42.9-percent on threes.
As a result, Brooks garnered league-wide attention as one of the NBA’s best young two-way players, equally capable of impacting a game on offense and defense.
Returning to Salt Lake City on Monday is a reminder of the form to which Brooks seeks to reclaim in helping the Grizzlies reach their potential this season.
“My whole thing is to be patient. I know I want to get back to where I was locked in at the end of last year, but I have to be really diligent,” Brooks said. “I’ve put in the work to earn that respect and to have that voice out there to be a leader on that end of the floor for my teammates, be that dog out there to lead us defensively and set the tone.”
Brooks is confident it’s only a matter of time before all the pieces fit together again.
Jenkins saw flashes of that elite wing defense in Thursday’s win against the Clippers, particularly how well Brooks approached the assignment of containing George. In the second game of the season with Brooks out of the lineup, George matched his season high with 15 made shots to finish with 41 points on Oct. 23 in a 120-114 home loss. On Thursday, George was limited to 23 points and never got the Clippers really clicking in a game they trailed by as many as 20.
I’ve put in the work to earn that respect and to have that voice out there to be a leader on that end of the floor for my teammates, be that dog out there to lead us defensively and set the tone.
“Dillon relishes the opportunities to guard some of the best offensive players in the game (and) I thought when he was on Paul George his discipline was phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “(Brooks) had a good offensive game tonight, but when he puts that effort forward defensively, it filters throughout the team, and everyone feels that. I’m glad Dillon is back and continues to work his way back into full game shape. I’m proud of what he’s done so far.”
Brooks insists the steps forward he’s taken this week only mark the start of his journey back to peak production. Breaking his hand in a random injury during an offseason workout only delayed the momentum he anticipated carrying into this season. His feel for the game, however, is returning with each game he’s on the court.
“It’s been a rough one, but it’s made me grow as a person and it’s made me even more hungry to play this season as well as I can,” Brooks said of the injury and recovery process. “But I feel good; my hand feels great. I feel like I’m getting a little more wind and conditioning with each of these games. I’m having great balance on my shot, playing with great pace and just keeping my teammates involved as I work my way back to where I want to be.”
His impactful feel for the game, however, is growing each time he steps on the court.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.