When Bruce Brown Jr. was initially drafted by the Pistons with the 42nd pick, it was not abundantly clear what his spot at the next level was. There was some talk after injuries forced him into some lead ball-handling duties in Summer League that he could play point guard in the future, but it seemed a pipe dream.
Last season did very little to change this. Bruce showed the occasional flash of nice passing and had a decent handle, but was miles away from being anything close to ready for lead ball-handling duties. He almost never had the ball, he couldn’t shoot, he didn’t finish inside well, and was often out of control on drives. After last season, Bruce seemed destined to be a David Nwaba sort of player, a high-energy defender who occasionally does stuff on offense, but is mostly a low-minutes pit-bull to unleash on opposing scorers. For what it’s worth, that is a fine outcome for a guy drafted 42nd, but it is miles from any sort of a ball-handler.
The biggest red-flag for the dream of Bruce as a point guard was his finishing at the hoop, or lack thereof. Bruce struggled immensely to finish in the paint. Despite nearly half of his shots in the paint being mostly open layups, either in transition, or as a cutter off of Blake Griffin post-ups, he still ended the year with poor finishing at the hoop. Per NBA stats, he shot just 49.1% inside of five feet, and in traffic, he looked even worse.
As far as NBA skills go, finishing inside is just about the hardest one to learn on the fly. There is a degree to which guys either can do it or they can’t, and it looked like Bruce couldn’t.
This year, Bruce still has a long ways to go, but he’s made the initial steps that show that he is actually a worthwhile prospect as a ball-handler. Even if long-term he is more likely to work out as a secondary or tertiary ball-handler, he may actually be able to do it.
Part of it can be seen in the basic eye-test and counting stats. Bruce had a pretty brutal start to the season, but got into a bit of a comfort zone over the past couple of months. Since the start of December, Bruce is averaging 10.2 points, 4.2 assists, and 4.8 rebounds while having just 1.5 turnovers per game. He’s shooting 44.9% from the field and 34.4% from deep.
That is a fairly tidy stat-line for a second round draft pick thrust into a rotation spot in his second season in the league. But looking into the advance stats makes this even more eye-popping. Over that same stretch (since the start of December), he has a true shooting percentage of 53.4%, he is assisting on 22% of all field goals while he is on the floor, and turning it over on just 13.8% of possessions.
Even back it out to the whole season, which includes his brutal start, and the size of Brown’s improvement becomes abundantly clear. Last season, Brown had a TS% of just 46.9% while being assisted on 68% of his field-goals. This season, Bruce has a TS% of 51% while being assisted on just 50% of his field-goals.
“Too many numbers, what does it mean?”
Bruce has effectively become a much more efficient player while, at the same time, doing a great deal more himself. The drop from 68% to 50% of his buckets being assisted on is a incredible drop, and this is on top of an increase in usage rate by nearly five percentage points. After last season, if he had managed to simply save par with the increased offensive burden it would’ve been a win, but to raise your scoring efficiency by four percentage points while more than doubling your scoring and assist output, and getting far less help in creating the points you are scoring, is an incredible achievement.
In more simple terms, Bruce has made the first step that everyone kept hoping Stanley Johnson would make, but never did. In fact, if Bruce’s current numbers hold up, he will already surpass the best scoring, assisting, rebounding, scoring efficiency, assist percentage, and three-point percentage that Stanley ever had as a Piston.
It’s weird how things work out sometimes, Stanley Johnson was a super-prospect who everyone was excited for after his rookie season, and Bruce is a second round pick who most people were asking (and not unfairly!) if he was an NBA caliber player after his rookie season. But here in year two, Bruce has turned the narrative on its head.
He may still not be a point guard long-term. The offense is a mess when he is without Derrick Rose, and his best pairings are with Rose and Griffin this season, suggesting that, at least for now, he is not ready to be the lead ball-handler on a good offense. This season, of Bruce’s four highest minutes lineups without Rose or Griffin, the highest offensive rating is a putrid 103.3 points per 100 possessions, whereas when Brown shares the floor with Rose, they have an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions.
Assuming that the talk of throwing in the towel, at least for this season, ends up being true. Bruce should get ample time at the helm the rest of the season, even if that comes at the expense of Rose and Reggie Jackson when he returns. He has earned a real look for a team that is likely in the opening stage of a painful rebuild.