Last season Bruce Brown showed more than you’d expect from a second-round pick. But at the end of the day, he was just a guy.
The onus for him this season is to go from “just a guy” to “a guy you need.”
And he certainly has the potential to be that. In the season tune-up series for Brown, I brought up Stanley Johnson - and in a lot of ways, Bruce can be what we always hoped for in Stanley. Or, going back even further — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
They bring many of the same virtues to the court. Energy, toughness, disruptive perimeter defense. But where Johnson and KCP have faltered because of a limited (or non-existent) offensive game, and their defense was never impactful enough to overcome their negatives on the offense.
In short, they look destined to be “just a guy.”
But there’s a space in the NBA today for a player who is able to blend in on offense, punish you a little if you don’t take him seriously, is able to handle the ball a little bit but mostly earns his minutes by being a force defensively. That’s a player who can be “a guy you need.”
Strengths = good, weaknesses = bad
The key for Brown is leaning into his strengths rather than his weaknesses - something Pistons players traditionally have failed to do.
Brown shot 25%from three last season. In his college career, his mark was 31%. His free-throw shooting is fine but mediocre, his percentage on long twos is bad. There’s no indication that he’s ever going to be anything other than an eyesore from the perimeter. Remember this one from last year?
And his shooting in the preseason looked similarly cringe-worthy.
Johnson was also a terrible 3-point shooter but worked diligently to improve. At the point when the Pistons traded him last season, he was taking more than half of his shots from three. The work on improving the weakness is commendable. But the strategy for being a helpful player...isn’t.
Sure, Brown is going to need to occasionally put up some threes. Last season about 30% of his shots came from 3-point range. That is about as high as he needs to be until he’s proving that he can knock them down at a mid-30% clip.
Where he can be more helpful off the ball is as a cutter. Even though he was a rookie last season, he showed the smarts, length, and strength to actually be a weapon in this way.
That’s much more useful than just hanging out behind the arc and launching threes that have a one-in-four chance of going in.
And when the cut isn’t there, Brown also showed a nice ability to punish an aggressive closeout.
As a rookie he got little love from the refs - we’ll talk more about that later - and on the offensive side he saw just 1.5 free throw attempts per 36 minutes. But his aggressive physical style should force a bump there if he emphasizes these two aspects of his game. We saw the start of it in the preseason where he was going to the line twice as often as last year, with three free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.
Add to that a strong transition game and somewhere in there, you’ve got the makings of a player who can give you some reasonable efficiency.
He’s starting with 47% true shooting from last season, so it’s an uphill battle for him. But the tools are at least there.
Where the tools aren’t there is at point guard - at least for now.
I talked about this in his Tune Up, so you can check it out there rather than me repeating myself too much here.
Part of it is the same logic as his 3-point shooting, focusing on his strengths rather than his weaknesses. But the other part comes from watching a whole lot of video. And he just doesn’t show point guardyness. This guy isn’t a point guard.
And if you can’t run the pick and roll, then you definitely aren’t a point guard for a team with Andre Drummond.
A secondary ball handler or guy who can put the ball on the floor from the wing? Sure. But the guy running your offense? No.
That’s not to say he can’t ever get there. But he’s not there right now. And the best thing for his development is to put him in a position to experience success and grow from there, not force him into a spot where he’s in over his head and crossing fingers that he figures it out.
A defensive force from day one
Of course, it’s the defensive side of the ball where Brown earns his value. And he’s a legitimately valuable defensive player.
Though the league is certainly going more toward an emphasis on offense and it’s probably true that the “defense wins championships” is no longer the case, there’s still importance.
The two aspects that I look for from a player defensively is creating disruption and forcing tougher looks on-ball. I like what I see from Brown on both fronts.
The numbers also agree, especially inside the arc where he held opposing players to 4.4 percentage points below their regular field goal percentage. With Brown regularly drawing the best perimeter offensive players in the league, that kind of success at stopping them as a rookie is impressive.
He also has that pain in the ass quality that you love to see in a defender.
With the league today, teams are so good at getting players where they want them and generating open looks. Players that make it harder for offense to attack, forcing tougher looks for opposing teams best players, those guys make a difference.
Despite Brown’s impressiveness as a defender, he’s not there yet. He needs to stop fouling players on the shot.
The Buddy Heild one in the second clip was especially damaging, as it prevented the Pistons from holding off a Kings comeback and contributed to the Pistons losing on a Hield game-winner.
Brown committed 87 shooting fouls last season, second most on the team behind Drummond. For a guy to play just 1449 minutes and average more than one shooting foul per game - especially as a perimeter player - that’s just unacceptable.
On a per possession basis, the Pistons allowed the fifth most free throw attempts in the league last season. Brown was the biggest culprit for that figure.
Some of it was a matter of a rookie taking on some of the toughest assignments in the league and refs giving the benefit to the offensive player. But too much of it is on Brown. It’s an area he must improve on this season.
All the way into midseason, I wasn’t sold on Brown. In January I wrote “I’m still a skeptic though. I just don’t really think there’s room in the league for a wing who contributes so little on the offensive end.”
With retrospect, I think it was still reasonable. But I’m definitely warmer on him heading into this season. He certainly brings some decent things to the floor and makes sense from a roster construction perspective.
The key is what his next step looks like, especially offensively. Does he lean into his very clear strengths or emphasize his very clear weaknesses? That’ll be the biggest thing to determine whether he is a guy you need or just a guy.