The Grizzlies had just wrapped up practice that day. And their starting shooting guard, who’s also the team’s longest-tenured player, entered a circle of reporters to discuss the progress. Brooks meant no offense to those gathered, but it was a rather light media contingent.
“We’re building a culture where this scrum will be a lot of people and you could barely hear me talk someday,” Brooks assured. “We have aspirations to get to the highest level.”
Brooks and the Grizzlies can expect their biggest scrums of the season during their two-game trip that starts Wednesday night in New York to face the Knicks in the world’s largest media market. The next stop after that is Friday in New Orleans, where the NBA is set for its first matchup of the top two rookie draft picks in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
No team has made as drastic of an in-season turnaround as the Grizzlies, who regrouped from that 6-16 start with one of the league’s youngest rotations to go 17-8 in their past 25 games. After improving to 14-13 at FedExForum with Tuesday’s 104-96 home win over the Nuggets, the Grizzlies (23-24) get a shot to improve to .500 overall with a win against the Knicks (13-35).
Memphis has not been at or above the .500 mark through 48 games since it was 27-21 in late January of the 2016-17 season. That was also the last season the Grizzlies made the playoffs after finishing 43-39 and losing in six games to San Antonio in the first round of the postseason.
Brooks arrived the next season and played all 82 games as a rookie second-round pick on a veteran-laden squad at the end of the franchise’s Grit’N’Grind era. Now in his third season, Brooks has essentially endured a complete roster makeover, two coaching staff shakeups and a significant restructuring of the basketball operations front office to get back in this position.
It’s perhaps also why Brooks takes a strong sense of pride in the rapid progress the Grizzlies have made with a young core that includes Morant, rookie forward Brandon Clarke and second-year standout Jaren Jackson Jr. under first-year coach Taylor Jenkins. Brooks, on course to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, has quietly inserted himself into consideration for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award with his spike in production.
Brooks entered the two-game trip coming off a team-leading, 24-point effort in the wire-to-wire victory over the Nuggets. The Grizzlies improved to 16-1 this season when Brooks has scored at least 20 points, and he entered the trip averaging 20.8 points for the month of January. His 41 made three-pointers through the month’s first 12 games were tied for eighth most in the league during that stretch. That consistent shooting and scoring have helped to stabilize a Memphis offense that ranks among the top 10 in the league in points, assists, points in the paint, fast-break scoring and three-point shooting.
“I feel we’re ahead of schedule with gelling, a young group with all new faces,” Brooks said as the Grizzlies carried a three-game winning streak into Madison Square Garden. “Half of these guys have never played with each other. I’ve barely played with Jaren. Jonas (Valanciunas) hadn’t played with Jae (Crowder) and Ja hadn’t played with any of us at the beginning of the year. But that’s a tribute to the coaching staff putting the right things together, making everybody confident in what they do. Ultimately, our pace and style creates that chemistry.”
And it’s all contributed to a solid comeback season for the franchise’s 23-year-old elder statesman, who has bounced back admirably after missing 64 games last season to knee and toe injuries. Brooks was initially unable to build on his encouraging rookie season, which included the No. 45 pick in the 2017 draft taking over the starting small forward job early that year. He locked up his spot with strong perimeter defense and streaky three-point shooting.
After basically losing almost an entire season a year ago, Brooks is rapidly making up for lost time by providing a big scoring punch on one of the NBA’s fast-improving teams. He is the team’s only player to start in every game this season, and he’s averaging 16 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists on 40-percent shooting from beyond the arc in 28.2 minutes.
Technically, Brooks was drafted by a Grizzlies playoff team. He’s one of the few Memphis players who regularly talks of fast-tracking the building process and returning to the postseason as soon as possible. It’s not that Brooks is impatient. He simply sees the glowing potential, and is powering a team that’s posted one of the league’s 10-best records over the past month.
The Grizzlies are currently in the eighth and final potential playoff spot in the West.
“It’s always a goal to make the playoffs,” Brooks insisted. “We haven’t been in three, four years now. It’s just finding a way to find our run, find our niche. We’re finding our playing style now to hang our hat on every single day, which is defense that transitions to offense. Our chemistry is there. Once we get better with what we do in the halfcourt, we can really be a great team.”
If the Grizzlies keep improving at this pace, Brooks might need to speak more loudly amid those growing media scrums.
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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace 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.