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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Recent strides by rookie Brooks provide silver lining as Grizzlies grapple with NBA’s longest losing streak

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – The precise details were a bit hazy.

But the points of emphases certainly weren’t lost on rookie Dillon Brooks as he emerged from the visiting locker room in Chicago after a sporadic effort in the first half of a recent game. Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff had just lambasted Brooks and a few other young players for their lack of focus.

“It was a lot of ‘cussing,’” Brooks recalled of the exchange. “He’s really been pushing me, talking to me.”

Look no further than there to comprehend the motivation behind the latest surge in Brooks’ production as he pushes to finish out a painful season for the Grizzlies on a high personal note. Make no mistake about it: these are bittersweet times for Brooks, whose game is soaring amid the team’s rapid decline to the bottom of the NBA’s overall standings.

Let’s say it’s been a turbulent juxtaposition.

A week after he responded to Bickerstaff’s no-nonsense admonishment with the best performance of his young career, Brooks heads into another matchup against the Bulls on Thursday at FedExForum. Last Wednesday, Brooks scored 20 of his career-high 29 points in the fourth quarter as the Grizzlies nearly rallied all the way back from a 21-point deficit before falling 119-110 in Chicago.

That was the highlight moment of a two-week stretch in which Brooks has clearly been the team’s best player, having scored at least 16 points in five consecutive games. Over that period, the Canadian swingman has averaged 20.2 points on 49.4-percent overall shooting, 44.4-percent on threes and 84.6-percent from the free-throw line in 31 minutes a game.

If there’s a silver lining to all of this losing, it’s been Brooks’ breakthrough. It’s the methodical development of a 6-foot-6 wing player taken out of the University of Oregon with the 45th overall pick in the second round of last June’s draft and who lacked a defined NBA position. Through equal parts determination, durability, defense and a deft skillset, Brooks has made a strong argument that the Grizzlies have found their starting shooting guard or small forward for the foreseeable future.

Dillon Brooks

Brooks’ progress isn’t a fluke. It’s the formation of a foundation on which he’s gradually built his confidence and case that Memphis may have landed the steal of the draft’s second round.

“I really understand the game a little bit, from all of these vets, just taking little bits and pieces from each one of them and trying to apply it to my game,” said Brooks, the Grizzlies’ lone player to participate in all 67 games this season. “Every time I go out there, the game is getting a little slower. I’m trying to make the right reads, not turning over the ball, trying to make the simple plays, and just trying to be myself. I don’t feel like a rookie. I play with a lot of confidence, and my teammates are recognizing that.”

The recent scoring punch has been needed just to keep the Grizzlies relatively competitive in stretches of games. Memphis lost perimeter catalyst Mike Conley back in November to what eventually became season-ending heel surgery, and leading scorer Tyreke Evans has been sidelined three weeks with a ribcage cartilage injury. Amid the team’s shift in focus to develop younger frontcourt players, center Marc Gasol has sat out some recent games and has seen his minutes decreased in contests he’s played.

In fact, the dynamic performance Brooks delivered in the fourth quarter last week in Chicago came as Bickerstaff decided to keep Gasol and veteran power forward JaMychal Green on the bench the entire period. That decision might have cost the Grizzlies a chance to win the game in the final minutes, when the group of reserves that played alongside Brooks ultimately wore down.

Brooks has worked to maintain his aggressive approach when Gasol and Green are on the court.

He’s listening and doing what coaches are asking him to do. He’s playing hard and competing every possession. We’re going to make mistakes, but it’s the mindset of trying to do the right things that’s going to carry over to next season. Obviously, he’s going into the summer with homework, and his list is going to be pretty long, I suppose. But he’s shown he can be part of a winning team, he works on his craft every day and he cares deeply about the outcome of the team.
-- Marc Gasol

“He’s trying, and that’s the only thing at this point that I care for – he’s trying to do the right things,” Gasol said after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s listening and doing what coaches are asking him to do. He’s playing hard and competing every possession. We’re going to make mistakes, but it’s the mindset of trying to do the right things that’s going to carry over to next season. Obviously, he’s going into the summer with homework, and his list is going to be pretty long, I suppose. But he’s shown he can be part of a winning team, he works on his craft every day and he cares deeply about the outcome of the team.”

That last part of Gasol’s comment underscores the reason why Brooks often speaks in hushed tones when asked about his improved play as the team continues to struggle. To Brooks, the increased scoring and persistent individual defensive effort only mean so much when they don’t result in wins.

And the victory drought in Memphis is reaching historic proportions. The Grizzles (18-49) have lost 18 consecutive games, which represents the longest skid in the Memphis era of the franchise. It’s also the longest losing streak of any NBA team since Philadelphia opened the 2015-16 season 0-18, and is the longest of any Western Conference team in the past 20 years.

Therefore, for Brooks, it’s difficult to embrace his strides within the team’s slide.

Dillon Brooks

“Yeah, it’s tough when you’re playing a great game and you don’t win,” Brooks said. “There’s nothing to be happy about because you want to play well and win. I’m just trying to give my best effort, play the best I can and make winning plays. And whatever defensive assignment I have, I’m going to lock down.”

But he’s learning to release the frustrations from mounting losses along the way. Memphis hasn’t won since Jan. 29 and remain the NBA’s lone team yet to win on the road since the calendar flipped to 2018. Nine of the 18 losses during the streak have come by double-digit deficits, including the last three by 17, 34 and 18 points. And Memphis has outscored its opponents just twice in the past 16 quarters of play.

It’s been Brooks’ resilience and consistency in the face of those difficulties that have impressed Bickerstaff. It’s the main reason the coach has been so tough on the promising prospect lately.

And to have the energy and the mental toughness to compete in the fourth quarters is tough. He’s proving he can do it. His work ethic and his ability to grind, he’s shown that. And that gives him the confidence to know that we can get it done.
-- Coach Bickerstaff

“We always talk about rookies not playing this amount of games, and then hitting the wall,” Bickerstaff said of Brooks. “And to have the energy and the mental toughness to compete in the fourth quarters is tough. He’s proving he can do it. His work ethic and his ability to grind, he’s shown that. And that gives him the confidence to know that we can get it done.”

Brooks is pushing to get at least one other goal accomplished. Playing in last month’s Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles offered Brooks a platform to showcase his talent alongside the NBA’s best rookies and second-year players.

Now, his goal is to carry that momentum through the final month of the season. Brooks entered the week as the second-leading scorer among all rookies in the month of March at 17.6 points a game, sandwiched between Rookie of the Year frontrunners Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons.

“I’ve been playing my best game this past month,” Brooks said. “I want to … try to be the best rookie this month, in the final month when teams are trying to make playoff pushes. And prove to everybody that I can play at a high level.”

Brooks has proved as much already.

Especially the way he responds to coaching – and cussing.

Watch: Rising Star - Dillon Brooks

Learn more about Dillon Brooks and his Canadian roots.