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The Many Shades of Bruce Brown

Coming into the draft, Bruce Brown was about as unconventional a prospect as they come. A guard who averaged almost more than double the rebounds as assists, Brown was a unique tweener out of Miami. He lacked the raw offensive talent and ball handling to be a lead guard, but at 6'4 190 pounds, he didn’t have the size that you’d expect in a wing or forward. He did however stand out on the defensive end. His knack for attacking the glass and making hustle plays paired with a 6’9 wingspan did raise some scouts' eyebrows.

Detroit

The Pistons took a shot at Brown’s unusual traits and selected him with the 42nd pick in 2018. They were already set at the guard position with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, and Luke Kennard so they slotted him at the wing. His offensive shortcomings shined through, shooting under 40% from the field and 26% from three on 4.3 points per game. His true shooting percentage was almost 10% worse than league average. To top it all off, he shot an almost impressively bad 44% from within 10 feet of the basket. In almost any other case, a 2nd round pick with these kinds of shooting would quickly find his way out of the league, but Brown averaged 20 minutes per game on a playoff team. He stayed on the floor by excelling at what he does best, hunting loose balls and rebounds while taking on tough assignments on the perimeter. 

In his second year, Brown transitioned to a full-time guard, playing a majority of the season at the point. He found success in this new role, doubling his points per game and jumping from 2.5 assists to 4.7. He also saw a boost in efficiency, now shooting 44% from the fields and 34% from three. Even with an increase in efficiency, his three-point shot still wasn’t a reliable weapon as it was only on 1.7 attempts per game. His ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the defense took a major leap as well, going from 2.9 drives per game to 8.5. Though Bruce saw individual success, the team around him crumbled after an injury to Blake Griffin derailed a season that saw the Pistons finish at just 20 wins. With shooting splits that still weren’t eye-popping and a high turnover rate, it came into question if Brown could be a real piece to a winning team.

A silver lining to the Pistons’ lost season was winning the lottery and having first dibs at the number one prospect in the country, Cade Cunningham. Due to Cade being yet another guard and first-year GM Troy Weaver wanting to surround his new building block with spacing, there wasn’t any room for Brown on the roster. On November 16, 2020, the Pistons traded Bruce Brown to the Brooklyn Nets for Dzanan Musa and a 2021 second-round pick.

Brooklyn

Brown would join the offensive juggernaut that was the trio of James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant. Because he no longer had the ball in his hands, his efficiency skyrocketed, shooting 56% overall and 59% from within 10 feet. His shot diet changed from on-ball drives to cuts and putbacks, leading all guards in offensive rebounds per game. As defenses had their hands full trying to contain the big three, Brown made his living slipping back door and rim-running off double teams. However, his long-range touch mysteriously regressed to levels even worse than his rookie year, shooting just 29% on less than one attempt a game. It slipped even further in the playoffs as he shot 18% in a postseason where the Nets were a few inches away from making the Conference Finals.

The following year his three regained its form as he shot 40%. Though this shooting clip was more of a facade as it was still on negligible attempts and opponents did not respect it, sagging off him whenever he spotted up. The overabundance of offensive talent the trio provided was able to make up for Brown’s spacing deficiencies, but with the chemistry falling apart and Harden requesting a trade, the Nets would have to make a change. So, Brown’s role would have to mold and shift again. To mute his shortcomings, he was used as a quasi-power forward/center; setting screens on the perimeter and rolling to the basket. Once a point guard responsible for handling the rock, Brown was now acting as an undersized big man, crashing the glass and setting screens for his stars. The only part of his game that’s stayed consistent over the years was his defensive identity. As Brooklyn's season came to a disappointing first-round close, Bruce found himself as an unrestricted free agent.  

Denver

"Nobody was really intersted in me."

Brown expressed that the pool of teams that were interested in him was dry. There was no doubt that he was an impactful player, but teams were wary if his quirky skillset could fit in their system. Like the Pistons before them, the Nuggets would take a gamble on this positionless anomaly and sign him to a two-year, $13.2 million deal with the second year being a player option.

More of a shapeshifter now than a basketball player, Brown morphed into a tertiary ball handler and creator for the Nuggets. His long-range shooting finally came around, shooting 36% on 3.5 attempts. It wasn’t prolific, but it kept the defense honest and opened up space for him on drives and he shot a blistering 81% at the rim as a result. The percentage of his 2s that were assisted was down 25%; gone were the days of being a roamer without dictating the action, Brown was now a reliable operator with the ball. His newfound creator skills and old tactics of cutting and moving off-ball melded perfectly with offensive hub Nikola Jokic. 

The key additions of Bruce and KCP turned the Nuggets from contenders to a powerhouse, finishing first in the West and cruising their way to the finals. As Denver took a 2-1 series lead against the Heat, Miami refused to go down in game four. After trailing by 13 at the end of the 3rd quarter, Miami clawed their way back and cut the lead to seven with five minutes left. The last five-minute stretch saw Brown score 11 of the Nuggets’ last 14 points, most of them coming from his own creation as the former roller was now the ball handler in the pick and roll. He sealed the game with an isolation pull-up three to take a commanding 3-1 lead. Denver finished the job a game later and the role player who could never fit in was now an NBA champion.

Indiana

His stellar season in Denver earned him a huge payday, signing a 2 year, $45,000,000 deal with the Pacers. In Indiana he’s no longer just an auxiliary piece to an offensive hub, he’s the combo guard right next to one, operating as the secondary ball handler beside Tyrese Haliburton. Much like him and Jokic, the pairing between Bruce and Tyrese is one of the most formidable in the league. When those two are on the court together they have an unreal offensive rating of 128.8, best in the league between teammates who have played at least 400 minutes together.

At every twist and turn, Bruce Brown has filled any role his team asked of him. Nothing better encapsulates his versatility and willingness to do whatever it takes to win than his own words,

“I think I'm just a basketball player — just put me on the floor and then I'll make plays.”




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