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Canadian Bakin’: Dillon Brooks’ rookie breakout serving as bright spot as Grizzlies emerge from bleak stretch

By Lang Whitaker
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS - As a kid growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, Memphis Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks only needed to look as far as his bedroom wall to have his dream refreshed.

Brooks bought into basketball early on, and hanging on his wall back then was a poster featuring several NBA stars who, at the time, were the present faces of Canadian basketball.

Antonio Davis, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady,” Brooks recalled recently, rattling off the names of former Toronto Raptors immortalized on this poster. “I was a big-time Raptors fan back then. And then later there was the era of Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and all kinds of point guards – Mike James, Rafer Alston, Jerryd Bayless. And whenever I went to the games, I’d buy the little game program every time.”

Brooks is now feature-worthy material in his own NBA team’s game program as arguably one of the biggest steals in last June’s NBA draft as a second-round pick. Among all rookies who have played at least 35 games this season, Brooks ranks fifth in three-point shooting percentage, eighth in minutes, 12th in both scoring and made field goals and 13th in overall field goal percentage.

Entering Wednesday’s home game against San Antonio, Brooks is the lone Grizzlies’ player to participate in all 46 games this season. He’s been a clear bright spot who has helped Memphis emerge from a bleak, injury-riddled stretch of the season. Brooks’ recent resurgence coincides with an 8-6 stretch for the Grizzlies, who had previously dropped 17 of 19 games from November into late December.

In other words, Brooks is on the verge of joining the next generation of breakout NBA performers groomed north of the border. Despite being focused on one day playing in the NBA, Brooks’ path from the Toronto suburbs to rookie starter for the Grizzlies wasn’t anything close to a straight line.

Brooks dedicated himself to his craft over the years, developing his body and mind to reach the point where he is today. As a ninth-grader, Brooks says he was about six feet tall, but his height was really all he had going for him. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, as it were.

“I wasn’t too good, wasn’t really athletic,” Brooks says. “From that year to my grade 10 year, I just got disciplined and took a huge jump. I had a weight-room class every morning and then I’d run a mile or two miles, and that’s when I took a huge jump. In my first game I had a breakaway, and I went up and dunked it with two hands, just all over the rim, and guys started stopping me and asking, ‘How’d you do that?’”

Brooks made an immediate impact once he matriculated to the University of Oregon, starting 33 games as a freshman and averaging 11 points per game. His sophomore year, the Ducks added fellow future NBA players Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell, and with Brooks leading the way with 16.7 points per game, Oregon went 31-7 and made a run to the Elite 8. While Brooks had the opportunity to leave and pursue his NBA dream, he chose to stay at Oregon and put in work.

“Really, my first year we didn’t have a lot of NBA talent, except maybe Joe Young. And then my sophomore year, myself and Jordan and Tyler started to build something there, and we tried to establish a culture and win some games. And then once we didn’t leave and go to the NBA, we stayed another year and just got better, and created that culture of winning and playing together.”

As a junior, Brooks averaged 16.1 points and was named Pac-12 Player of the Year as he helped lead Oregon to its first Final Four in almost 80 years. Brooks declared for the 2017 NBA Draft, where the Grizzlies selected the 6-6 swingman with the 45th overall pick. When Brooks arrived in Memphis, he hoped to make an immediate impact. What Brooks didn’t foresee was a series of injuries to teammates creating a scenario that allowed him to crack the starting lineup by the season’s ninth game. But Brooks realized early on that by focusing on defense, he could keep getting playing time. So he repeatedly took on the challenge of defending the top wing players in the NBA.

“I felt like in order to be on the court on this team, you have to play defense,” Brooks said. “At Oregon, if you watched us play, we played a lot of zone. And I wasn’t really a defender at all – I just wanted to score. I try to adapt to every situation that I’m in, so I felt like once I got here I could play defense and work at it enough to stay on the floor. I can take shots and score and things like that, but I try and really think about the game and then translate that onto the floor.”

And that’s translated into Brooks quietly becoming one of the most impactful rookies in the league as the season approaches the February All-Star break.

We’ve seen it time and time again this year. Even in the preseason, whenever there was a matchup to be had, Dillon would find his way to that matchup. He’s competitive, he’s dogged in his defensive ways, and he’s just not going to back down. So everything you get against him, you’re just going to have to earn it.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff

“That’s who Dillon is,” said Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff. “We’ve seen it time and time again this year. Even in the preseason, whenever there was a matchup to be had, Dillon would find his way to that matchup. He’s competitive, he’s dogged in his defensive ways, and he’s just not going to back down. So everything you get against him, you’re just going to have to earn it.”

Brooks has been a persistent defensive pest. Just ask Portland’s C.J. McCollum, who couldn’t even get off a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds against Brooks’ defense as the Grizzlies secured a 98-97 win on Nov. 7 in Portland. Just ask LeBron James, who respected Brooks’ grit enough during a Dec. 2 game to approach him and offer encouragement after Memphis suffered a hard-fought loss in Cleveland.

Houston’s James Harden, Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Golden State’s Kevin Durant would likely share the same sentiment regarding Brooks, who took on the defensive assignment in those games, too.

“I want to get better every day,” Brooks insisted, “but I also have goals that I want to accomplish in my rookie year, and then going forward. My goals my rookie year were to start, to play a lot of minutes and to play well, and I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job with all of that. And one of my other goals is to go to All-Star Weekend and play in the Rookie Game.”

Rosters for the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge will be announced soon, and Brooks has presented a compelling case for getting to spend All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. Through the first half of the season, Brooks was averaging 8.1 points per game, while shooting 39 percent from behind the three-point line, the highest three-point percentage by any rookie in franchise history.

A decade after buying programs at NBA games, Brooks now finds himself featured in an NBA game program. He is now one of those basketball stars showcased on posters, and fans are wearing his replica jersey at Grizzlies home games. Yet while Brooks may have achieved his dream of making it to the NBA, other goals are waiting to be set and surpassed.

“I feel like I’m doing a good job and I’m just playing my heart out,” Brooks said. “I never thought I’d be looking at kids and they would dream to be like me. It’s a great feeling to have, and it makes you want to work a little harder. It’s surreal and it makes me feel great to give motivation to another kid who wants to be in my position one day.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker 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.