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Monday February 8, 2010 11:59 AM

Appreciating Aaron Brooks


Rockets guard blossoming into big-time talent in third year

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff
Writer

HOUSTON - Watch Aaron Brooks for five seconds and one thing becomes patently apparent: the dude is fast. As in blazing, supersonic, take your breath away, don’t blink or you’ll miss him, Edward Cullen-esque fast.

Watch him for the better part of three years, however, and other, slightly less obvious characteristics come into focus as well. The wry humor. The impish grin. The signature style which sees him sport a red blazer and bow tie one day, before rocking Andre-3000 shades while snaking through the bowels of Toyota Center on a kid-sized kick scooter the next.

It’s all part of the AB charm which comes wrapped in a package that makes him one of the more unique talents in the NBA today. Now in his third season as a pro, Brooks has blossomed into the Rockets top scorer, averaging 19.5 points per game while notching career-highs in both field goal (43.1) and 3-point (39.3) percentage. And within that latter number lies the key to the Brooks conundrum for opponents: you can’t play him too close because he’ll consistently beat you off the dribble with his breathtaking speed; but back off and you’re just as likely to get burned by one of his long-range bombs from beyond the arc.

Ask Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey about the Oregon product’s development and he readily admits that Brooks is “Way better than we thought,” when the team selected him with the 26th overall selection in the 2007 NBA Draft. Like everyone else who had ever seen Brooks play, Morey and his staff knew that the 6-foot, 161 pound guard could fly. What they weren’t sure of, however, was whether or not Brooks would be able to overcome the inherent obstacles presented by his small stature and lack of pure point guard skills.

So how has he done it? By working hard to pair his otherworldly quicks with a handful of other gifts and attributes critical to his success. Beginning with:

Improved Shooting

The 3-point accuracy you already know about. Less obvious, however, but just as important is Brooks’ marked improvement at finishing when inside the arc. According to Hoopdata.com, Brooks is converting at a higher rate of success from all distances (especially inside 15-feet) as compared to his percentages from a year ago.

A closer inspection of the data also shows where the most room for improvement remains. Brooks shoots a shade under 50 percent at the rim, a number which stands in stark contrast to that posted by the player to whom Brooks is most often compared, Tony Parker. The Spurs guard converts close to 65 percent of the time in those situations; no surprise considering his deserved reputation as one of the game’s best finishers.

Still, one suspects the Rockets will live with that trade off for now given Brooks’ superiority from distance. That’s not to say Brooks is the superior player, of course; but that he has forced himself into the conversation at all – in his first full year as Houston’s starting point guard, no less – is high praise indeed.

In fact, it’s the type of discussion perfectly suited for NBA TV analyst Brent Barry, who knows both players inside and out after having shared the court with them during his playing days in San Antonio and Houston. Barry points out that while it would be foolish to ignore Parker’s multiple titles and Finals MVP award, it’s also impossible not to be tantalized by the immense promise Brooks has showcased since he took over the Rockets’ point guard position last year.

“To be able to shoot the 3-point ball while being as quick as Aaron is and to be able to get anywhere he wants to on the floor, means that he has a higher ceiling than Tony Parker in terms of maximizing his potential in the league. Tony has to work consistently on his shot and he’s still not a player that (Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich) wants to take 3-point shots; they’re going to be few and far between and usually those will be corner threes or end of the shot clock attempts, whereas Aaron is encouraged to be a 3-point shooter because of how dangerous he is out there and that just opens up space on the floor for him to be able to get around. That’s a huge difference between the two guys.

“I do think Aaron can finish around the basket; he’s got a nice little floater in the lane and he’s more athletic than guys understand. But his size is a little drawback; Tony still has a little bit of size on him and so do most of the elite point guards in the Western Conference whether you’re talking about Deron Williams or even a Chris Paul, who’s not a big guy but still has size on Aaron. Those are tough match-ups for him but his potential in terms of improving his playmaking ability, decision-making and just his overall mentality as a point guard is huge. There’s a big window of opportunity for him there and it should have Daryl and Coach Adelman very excited.”

Length and Size

Yes, it’s possible for even a diminutive player like Brooks to possess positive measurables in certain aspects of his build. With a wingspan approaching 6-4, AB frequently uses his long arms to help get shots over and around opponents on his forays to the hoop.

Perhaps even more helpful, however, are his unusually large hands. A master of the art of spin thanks to his passion for bowling (Brooks just bowled a personal-best 297 last week, falling 3 pins short of a perfect game in the final frame), Brooks can wrap his long fingers around a basketball and manipulate its movement off the backboard in such a way that seemingly impossibly angled shots suddenly enter the realm of plausibility once again.

“I think that’s what makes him so tough,” says Brooks’ teammate Carl Landry. “I’ve seen guys around the league who think they’ve got his shot timed for a block and somehow he still finds a way to get it over or around them. As a defender that’s incredibly frustrating.”

Strength

Yet another Brooks’ attribute that falls in the “more than meets the eye” category. No, he’s not going to be winning a World’s Strongest Man competition anytime soon but Brooks does possess the sort of subtle strength which could make him a world class middleweight if he were to ever show interest in the sweet science.

“Pound for pound, he’s the strongest guy on the team,” says Rockets Strength and Conditioning Coach Dave Macha. “He’s got great technique and form. For example, he finished at 70 pounds (each arm) for 5 reps on the dumbbell incline press. Well Carl Landry finished at 90 for 5 reps on the same exercise and of course Carl’s got 80 pounds on Aaron from a body weight perspective. AB is also probably our best squatter in terms of depth of squatting and weight that he can lift. That helps him to be explosive.”

It also helps Brooks on the defensive end – the area in which he’s probably made the most improvement since entering the league. With the Western Conference loaded with elite talent at the point guard position, it was imperative for Brooks to make strides defensively in order to provide at least a modicum of resistance at that end of the floor. To do that he not only required better principles, technique and understanding of the game, but also an improvement in his functional strength.

The results speak for themselves. Despite giving up inches and pounds on nearly a nightly basis, rare is the time when Brooks is simply overpowered at the defensive end. According to 82games.com, this season AB is limiting his point guard counterparts to an effective field goal percentage of .465 – a number that is .045 points lower than his own – while also boasting a 2.4 point advantage in overall player efficiency rating (17.5 compared to 15.1). In other words, Brooks is winning his individual matchup more often than not, despite going up against bigger names and bigger bodies on a regular basis.

“As far as on the ball strength I think he surprises people with just how strong he really is,” says Macha. “Aaron is just rock solid. For him it’s about maturation. As these guys get older their bodies will mature and they’ll be able to hold the weight that they need a little more effectively. With Aaron that will do nothing but help him.”

Leadership

No voices command more respect and attention in the Rockets’ locker room than those possessed by Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes and Luis Scola. But by its very nature, the point guard position demands that those who aspire to play the role rise to accept the mantle of leadership inherent within its rank.

Here, too, Brooks has grown by leaps and bounds, as he’s learned to lead while staying true to himself. Soft spoken and controlled, he’s not the type to vociferously lay down the law or get in other players’ faces to deliver a fierce tongue-lashing. Brooks’ fire often manifests itself in more subtle ways; acting as a sort of controlled burn which typically simmers just below the surface before bubbling over after big shots.

“He’s what I call our mojo leader,” says Battier. “When he’s aggressive and scoring and slashing, we seem to pick up on that and seem to play better. Aaron is not a man of a lot of words, so we’re not expecting any sort of rah-rah speeches from him anytime soon but what we need him to do is be aggressive and be the leader with the ball because we really do follow his lead.”

That his teammates willingly do so is perhaps the strongest testament possible to just how far Brooks has come since his days as the low man on the totem pole when he first set foot in the Rockets’ locker room.

“His ability to control this team is amazing,” says Landry. “He came in here as a fifth guard behind guys like Mike James, Steve Francis, Rafer Alston and Luther Head. He got sent to the D-league in the middle of his rookie season and now, two years later, he’s a leader on this team and a floor general. His ability to bounce back within two years is the most incredible thing I’ve noted about him.

“It’s good because he stays calm so you never really see him sweat. But at the same time he’s an assassin. He’s aggressive, he’s always in attack mode and that’s good because the opposing team may underestimate him because he’s calm, cool and collected all the time but deep down inside we all know he’s going out there to get the job done."

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So having come this far while defying so many apparent limitations already, the question now becomes: where does Brooks go from here? He figures to only get better as he becomes more comfortable running an NBA offense, not to mention the benefit he’ll receive when Yao Ming returns to the court and alleviates some of the burden Brooks has inevitably had to carry in his absence.

Perhaps the most compelling indicator of AB’s promise arrives when Morey, so often the master of tempering expectations, defies his own inclinations and admits that the sky is indeed the limit for his young point guard.

“It’s really hard to tell how good he can be. He can shoot it so well and he’s obviously quicker than just about everyone. I wouldn’t put a ceiling on him. I think he can be an All-Star. That’s obviously something that’s very difficult but I think he’s one of the guys on the team that it’s really hard to tell where he might stop.”

Barry, too, believes that Brooks is capable of being counted among the league’s best.

“There’s going to be a huge turnover in our league at the point guard position in about three years. Most of the guys that we’re talking about –Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, etc. – will be finishing up their playing days whereas Aaron is basically just getting his started. So that window of opportunity to take over an elite spot as an elite point guard in the Western Conference is certainly there.”

Should that day arrive, expect Brooks to approach it the same way he’s handled everything else throughout his first three years in the NBA: with jaw-dropping speed, a Cheshire grin and a style all his own. After watching him for the better part of three years, we can say that much for certain. Everything else? Best to just sit back, enjoy the show and simply imagine the possibilities.

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