Complete guard has the will, drive and intelligence to excel in the NBA -- and make a big difference in the world
POSTED: Apr 29, 2016 6:28 PM ET
Malcolm Brogdon made ACC history, becoming the first player to earn ACC Player of the Year and the league's top defender.
Two seasons into the job at Virginia, coach Tony Bennett knew he was going to have to find players to be able to compete in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, and he also knew where to go look for them. It was the spring of 2010, and Bennett, with a combined ACC record of 12-20 and ninth and seventh-place finishes in the league behind him, was in Augusta, Ga., taking up residence in a bleacher seat at the Peach Jam AAU tournament.
That's when he first spotted Malcolm Brogdon.
"Our first year, we had signed a nice class," Bennett said. "And you just knew that, to elevate our program to that next level in the ACC, you needed to find somebody special."
Virginia hadn't been recruiting Brogdon, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard, and at the time, Brogdon hadn't received serious attention from power conference schools other than Clemson. Virginia's interest elevated rapidly when Bennett showed up at the Peach Jam.
"The first time I saw him play, I said, 'that's the one,' " Bennett said. "But I didn't know who was recruiting him. I thought surely Duke and North Carolina were on him. And I didn't know anything about him academically."
A day or so later, after Brogdon's team had been eliminated from the tournament, Bennett went outside the gym to give him a call. And Brogdon, pretty much the same way he does everyone who meets him, impressed Bennett immediately.
"Within like a minute," Bennett said, "you could tell he was different, just by the way he spoke." Which is to say articulately, and in a commanding baritone. Little wonder Brogdon's future teammates at UVA would call him the "president."
Brogdon was equally impressed with Bennett.
"I'd never met coach Bennett," Brogdon said. "But he offered me a scholarship the first conversation we had. I knew right away there was something different about coach Bennett. We shared the same faith. I'd done research on his background, and the way he coaches his program. I loved how he was rebuilding it, and how he invited me to be one of the building blocks."
One day, Malcolm Brogdon could rule the world.
– Virginia coach Tony Bennett
First impressions may sometimes be deceiving, but they weren't in this case. Brogdon and Bennett pegged one another correctly. Over the next five years (Brogdon redshirted in 2012-13 after breaking his left foot with four games to play in his freshman season), Virginia finished tied for fourth, tied for fourth, first, first and tied for second in the ACC, with four trips to the NCAA tournament and one to the NIT. In 2015-16, the Cavaliers were the No. 1 seed in the Midwestern Regional and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brogdon, as Bennett knew from the minute he laid eyes on him, was indeed a catalyst and a blender, the guy around whom that success was built. Brogdon averaged a solid 22 minutes and 6.7 points as a freshman before he was sidelined by the foot injury. Typical of Brogdon, he didn't waste time during his redshirt season.
"Malcolm and I spent a ton of time together that year," said Mike Curtis, Virginia's strength and conditioning coach who spent six years in the same job with the Memphis Grizzlies. "I went through his return-to-play period after his injury every day, getting him to a place where he could go back out and compete. I got to know him pretty well.
"Malcolm wanted to come back better than ever. He sets goals for himself, and lives every day in pursuit of those goals. You don't find many guys, even in the NBA, who have that sort of mentality."
Brogdon returned from his one-year hiatus as well rounded a player as there was in the ACC. In 2013-14, his redshirt sophomore season, he averaged a team-high 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists while earning first-team All-ACC honors. It wasn't a surprise Virginia finished 16-2, won the league's regular-season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
A year later, Brogdon led Virginia in scoring again and showed up on several All-America teams. And again, the Cavs finished 16-2 and won the ACC regular season. Their NCAA trip was short, ending in the round of 32, but that quick departure might have fueled this season's Elite Eight run. Brogdon, who could have declared for the NBA Draft a year ago, put together his best year yet, averaging 18.2 points and racking up numerous honors, including consensus first-team All-American, the ACC Player of the Year and the league's defensive player of the year. No player in ACC history had won both those awards in the same season.
"Malcolm is so complete, and so good," Bennett said. "With him, it's always about adding things, improving little by little."
That continues to this day. Brogdon, still on campus to finish his Master's degree in public policy, has spent considerable time working on, among other things, his 3-point stroke, even though he's always been a solid shooter from behind the arc. He knocked down 75 3s this season at a .391 clip, but he knew that, for the next level, he had to get better.
If you're going to go out and find a shot doctor, why not get the guy who holds the NCAA record for 3-pointers in a game? That would be Keith Veney, who, playing for Marshall in 1996, tossed in 15 3s (in 25 attempts) while scoring 51 points against Morehead State. Veney believes good shooters don't necessarily have to be textbook, that there can be variations in mechanics as long as a couple of things happen at launch time.
"Reggie Miller didn't shoot like Glen Rice," Veney said. "Rice didn't shoot it like Ray Allen. And Ray doesn't shoot it like Steph Curry. All those forms are different. But they all end the shot the same way. As long as the finger on your shooting hand is pointing to the basket and you have a high follow through, you're good to go."
Anyone who can shoot nearly 40 percent from 3 would definitely be considered a good shooter. But typical of the driven Brogdon, he wants to become a great one. He's put in hours alongside Veney, with a specific task of getting his guide hand out of the way.
"He has huge hands," Veney said. "Most people with huge hands are normally not great shooters. It's something you have to work on. Michael Jordan and Kawhi Leonard, they're two guys with big hands that took the time to become great shooters. When your hands are big, you have to let your [shooting] hand do all the work. That's where the hitch was in Malcolm's shot. We've been getting him to take the guide hand off the ball, and let his right hand do all the work ... to trust it, and know he can do it."
Veney cites Brogdon's intelligence and work ethic while making a bold prediction.
"He will be a great shooter in the NBA," Veney said. "He wants to be a great shooter, so he's going to do it. He's going to work, and he's going to will himself to be great."
Curtis thinks Brogdon will have no problem scoring in the NBA, if that's what he's required to do. If not, Brogdon would be content to defend, facilitate or rebound.
"The biggest question marks about Malcolm are how explosive he is vertically and horizontally in terms of movement," Curtis said. "He's not the best leaper I've ever worked with, but he's shown he can rise to the rim and dunk. He's quick enough and powerful enough, if he gets his shoulder by you, you're in trouble. No one's going to push him off line. That's where his strength comes into play."
Brogdon's strength has also made him a defensive stopper capable of containing several positions at the college level.
"I've never seen a guy who can guard so many different players," said Bennett, who played three years in the NBA. "Whether it was [Duke's] Brandon Ingram or Grayson Allen, [NC State point guard] Cat Barber or [Clemson's] Jaron Blossomgame, it was remarkable how he could control a guy and dominate a game that way. At the next level, that's no small thing, when you're a guy that can bother people defensively. Malcolm's got strength, balance, length and huge hands, and most importantly, he has the will to be a great defender."
Brogdon has the will to do a lot of things, no doubt stemming from the example set by a family in which accomplishment abounds. Brogdon's father is a lawyer in Atlanta, as is older brother Gino. His mother has a Ph.D in clinical psychology and is the associate provost for faculty at Morehouse College. And younger brother John is in law school. But every member of Brogdon's family has said he's the most driven of the group.
That drive extends well past the basketball court, worlds away, in fact. A trip to Africa, where he witnessed the scarcity of clean drinking water, made an impact. Brogdon had a chance to declare for the Draft a year ago, but considered that decision with typical intelligence and reason.
"I was thinking about the NBA after my fourth year, but I also realized I could get my Master's paid for, and have another year on the court to raise my Draft stock even higher," Brogdon said. "I felt if I could do those things, I could have my cake and eat it, too."
Brogdon's last year at Virginia was memorable. Besides basketball, he completed his Master's while living on campus in The Range, described on the university's website as "a community of graduate students in Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village."
The school doesn't let just anyone stay at The Range. You have to be invited. Brogdon was a perfect candidate.
Luxury accommodations these are not. The rooms were designed by Jefferson well before the age of modern conveniences. There are no private bathrooms, kitchens or air conditioning. But the tradition boggles the mind. Edgar Allen Poe was one of the first residents. Woodrow Wilson lived there.
"It's been an awesome experience," Brogdon said. "There's so much history here. It's been an honor and a privilege, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I've met tons of people during really great things. I've made connections and bonds that will last a lifetime."
Those connections may serve Brogdon well one day. His plan before, during and after the NBA, is to go back to Africa, actually anywhere where poverty and deprivation exists, and eradicate it.
"I want to make a difference," Brogdon said. "I want people to have clean water. People in this country take it for granted, the ability to drink clean water whenever they want. There are millions of people far less fortunate in this world, and it's my duty to do as much as I can to change that. I don't see that as insurmountable at all."
The first time I saw him play, I said, 'that's the one.'
– Virginia coach Tony Bennett on Malcolm Brogdon
No one who knows Brogdon would disagree. There are some who believe a career in politics awaits him. Brogdon has ruled out nothing.
"One day, Malcolm Brogdon could rule the world," Bennett said.
Curtis, the strength coach who worked in the NBA, says Brogdon reminds him of another player with whom he's worked.
"When [NBA] scouts call me and ask about Malcolm's character, I tell them this. I was fortunate enough [with the Grizzlies] to work with Shane Battier, one of the most high character guys I've ever been around. And I liken Malcolm to Shane Battier."
When Brogdon begins the process of interviewing with and working out for NBA teams, there's no doubt he'll make a favorable impression, probably after the first question he answers. If that question happens to be "what kind of NBA team would you like to play for?," Brogdon has a ready answer.
"I want to play for a team that has a strong defensive reputation," Brogdon said. "One that relies on a system and where assists are valued. And a team that needs what I do -- making other guys better, leading a team, being a defensive stopper every night. I want to be a good fit."
Brogdon was a great fit at Virginia. Bennett's first-glance assessment turned out to be more accurate than he could have imagined. Bennett won't forget that day at the Peach Jam, nor will he forget the unique young man that helped him change the culture and elevate the status of Virginia basketball into one of the nation's elite programs.
Bennett even has a tradition, in memory of Brogdon and the first time the two ever spoke.
"Every year at the Peach Jam, I go to the spot where I first called Malcolm and I call him," Bennett said. "Sometimes I'll get him, sometimes I'll have to leave a voice message, but I always remember to call, and I always will, no matter where he might be in the world.
"I've just got such great memories of watching him develop, and what he's done for our program. We've had so many guys help lay a foundation here. And Malcolm, he helped us get to that next level. That's been special."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.