Trail Blazers forward Greg Brown III sees things more clearly now as he nears the end of his rookie season, a development one might understandably attribute to the addition of protective lenses to his uniform.
The 6-8 forward has been wearing goggles ever since suffering a corneal abrasion in his left eye in a loss to the Rockets on March 26, and while they’re not prescription lenses, he has shot 9-of-13 from three since donning the spectacles. So in three games since he joined the ranks of bespectacled big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Buck Williams, Brown III has made more three-pointers (nine) than he made in all of his previous NBA appearances combined (seven).
But while he might be getting a placebo boost from the goggles, Brown III’s increased role -- his hot shooting streak has coincided with the first three starts of his career -- the work he’s put in with the coaching staff, prodding from his teammates are likely the reasons for an uptick in his three-point percentage.
“The rim look kinda big with the goggles on,” joked Brown III. “I’ve been really putting in a lot of work on my shot. Me and Eddy (assistant coach Edniesha Curry), we’ve been in the gym every day working on my jumper, trying to make it pure. Really came down for me trusting myself and trusting my work. That’s what my teammates been preaching to me, they be like ‘G, we see you shoot the ball every day, just go ahead and shoot it.’ And then I think the goggles gave me some confidence, came out looking like Steph Curry.”
Brown III becoming a reliable three-point shooter would greatly improve his chances of sticking in the NBA as the 43rd pick of the 2021 Draft who spent one season at Texas, though it’s not the most important development this season for the 20 year-old. For Brown III, learning what it takes to be a professional in the NBA, not in terms of skills, but when it comes to how to approach each day, has been his most valuable takeaway thus far.
“I’ve learned, mostly, just the tangibles of being a pro,” said Brown III. “Taking care of your body, being on time, basically showing up to work every day on 10. Like, there’s no days off, you’ve got to come to practice ready, come to games ready, come to team meetings ready. That’s the biggest change I had to make because in college, you can kind of slack off one day, you can come kinda BS-ing and nobody will say nothing. Here, you can’t do that. They won’t say anything to you but you can kind of feel that you’re messing up.”
Finding a suitable work/life balance can be a challenge for anyone entering the workforce, but that’s especially true for young athletes who understandably want to enjoy the benefits that come with being handsomely rewarded for playing a game at an elite level. So for an individual like Brown III, a sweet, gregarious and curious young man whose every day enthusiasm is truly infectious, and the teams who employ them, it’s important to figure out how to retain that joy while at the same time working within the rigidity that comes with being a part of a team.
“Greg has come a long, long way since summer league when we first started coaching him,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “He’s a young kid but he’s maturing, not only on the floor but off the floor. He’s just a ball of energy, just joyful to be around every day -- he has to remember about 25 handshakes, that’s not easy to do, he got a handshake for every single player on the team, coaches included. He’s been fun. He’s been fun to teach, he listens to everything, he’s engaged when you’re trying to teach him and he’s come a long, long way. Obviously still has a ways to go, though.”
Brown III played sparingly through the first four months of the season, appearing in just 20 games -- and usually when the result was already decided -- while never seeing more than 12 minutes of action at a time. But between trades made to help improve the team in future seasons and injuries which have sidelined the majority of the remaining roster, Brown III has seen his minutes and role increase dramatically, a reward of sorts for the improvements he’s made on and off the court.
“Sometimes it does get kind of challenging, especially in the beginning of the season when I had to sit the whole game,” said Brown III. “When it gets to halftime, that’s especially when it got hard, the third and fourth quarter, watching them play. But that’s the time I really locked in and tried to learn, tried to see what they’re doing out there so I can be out there and I can replicate those same reps and do what they’re doing at the high level. The only way you can do that is be positive, lock in and trust what everybody is doing.”
As the emphasis in Portland has transitioned from winning games this season to laying the groundwork for success in future seasons, Billups and his staff have had an opportunity to accelerate the growth of players like Brown III. Practice is an important path to improvement, but there’s no substitute for playing regular NBA minutes. And with plenty of minutes to go around, it allows for a much quicker turnaround between working on something in practice and then applying it in a game. In short, it’s easier to keep young players engaged when they know they’re being taught something they can utilize tomorrow rather than at some distant point in the future.
“A lot of my talks with (Brown III), and a lot of our young guys, is you’ve added a very important part to your legacy, and that’s ‘professional,’” said Billups. “There’s a lot that comes with being an actual pro and as a coach, I signed up to coach NBA players. Nineteen, 39, age don’t matter to me. I signed up to coach pros, so I’m going to treat you that way, I’m going to teach you that way, I’m going to coach you that way and he’s all in on it. He’s all in on it. He’s made some great gains.”
At some point in the near future, Brown III will sit down with Billups and to discuss the improvement he made this season and what they’ll want him to focus on this offseason such as rebounding and protecting the rim -- he’s got the size and athleticism to be significantly better at both. But if nothing else, Brown III has seen what it takes to survive in a highly-competitive environment like the NBA, with or without goggles.
“I feel like that’s the thing I had to improve on the most, just coming in on 10 every day, not messing up as much, learning the coverages and the plays quickly and learn how to take care of my body, all of that. I feel like that’s been my biggest change throughout my rookie season. That’s what I’ve learned.”