It Wasn't Pretty, But Bruce Brown Was The Young Infusion The Pistons Needed
This is the second season review. Previously was Reggie Jackson. These will continue to come fast and furious.
Bruce Brown was the 42nd pick in the draft by the Pistons, one of two 2nd round picks that the Pistons made. After starting off the season outside of the lineup he eventually busted into the eyes of Dwane Casey in a November game against the Houston Rockets where he impressed with his athleticism, activity, and defensive acumen. Brown would spend the rest of the season in the rotation, and would end up winning the starting job in a December game against the Sixers. He wouldn’t relinquish that spot for the rest of the season other than a couple of exceptions. Brown was often a honorary starter, in games where he started he only averaged 20 minutes per game, but he played the 5th most total minutes of anyone on the team.
Brown’s counting stats were unimpressive: 4.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game. He did average half a steal and half a block per game, which is nearly 1 of each per 36 minutes, but most of what his value wasn’t in the box score.
Brown played a lot and somehow made the starting lineup click in ways that no one else seemed to be able to accomplish, but the total lack of production was a glaring issue.
Not great for Brown here. His offensive abilities were billed as being raw coming in and that may have been an understatement. Brown was a total non-shooter, hitting just 25% of his threes and wasn’t able to harness his remarkable athleticism into even being a competent finisher inside. His active cuts and hustle in transition got him some nice freebies but he severly struggled to finish through any sort of contact or deterrents inside. His handle was also often pretty sloppy and he had a tendency to dribble himself into bad spots that resulted in turnovers or really ugly shots.
None of those are the biggest issues, all rookies have them, the problem is that Brown didn’t flash a full package very often. He occasionally made offensive plays where he got one piece of the puzzle, but he rarely put it all together. For example, he would often make good use of his great first step to blow by his man only to drive straight into the help defense and puke up a terrible floater.
That said, there were still those flashes of things that could become a useful player. First off, for how poorly he shot the ball, he did shoot 35.7% from the corners which isn’t great considering that every three he took was comically wide open but it’s certainly something that can give some hope for the future. Brown has a truly great first step with or without the ball in his hands, the vast majority of his buckets came when he caught a defender slacking and blew past them for an open layup or dunk. Lastly, the passing showed real flashes, Brown rarely made great plays in facilitation but he got noticeably more comfortable as the season went on with hitting the basic reads. In particular he got quite good at dumping the ball off to the baseline when he drew help from the opposing big.
Anyone with Brown’s first step is hugely intriguing on offense, if he can tighten up his handle and harness his athleticism into better finishing in traffic he will be a guy who can get to the rim almost at will, and as stated above there is at least some sign he may be able to figure out his shot. There is a good chance he never figures out much on offense and remains a near total zero on that end, but there is also a real chance that he becomes a rock solid guy to have on that end.
Overall though, for this season, Brown was a huge offensive drag. Much of that it comes from basic rookie stuff, but it’s still the reality. No one guarded him at all and smart cutting can only do so much to dampen the negative impact that has on your offense. Brown literally didn’t score in 16 of the games he played in, he scored less than 5 points in more than half of his games, especially in today’s NBA that just isn’t going to cut it. So the tools are there, but if Bruce wants to reprise his role as a solid rotation guy next season, he must come back with something real to work with on offense.
Defense is where Brown really earned his keep on the Pistons. It is worth mentioning that his defense was not as good as it sometimes looked or his position as a starter might indicate. Brown still regularly fell prey to the classic rookie blunders of fouling a lot (4.4 fouls per 36 minutes) including a bad tendency to foul jump-shooters. He also would often have trouble navigating screens and find himself out of position for one reason or another. None of these are huge worries since all rookies go through it but it is something Brown must look to improve in the future if he is to become a true top-shelf defender.
The one area where Brown struggled that can’t simply be chalked up to him being a rookie is that he might be a half-step too slow to really stick with some of the game’s quickest point-guards. While it is far from a criminal offense to not be able to effectively stay in front of guys like Kemba Walker, there seemed to be a breaking point in quickness where he just couldn’t quite keep up with guys anymore. Maybe with a combination of experience and NBA workout regimen he can make that up, but there’s a good chance he will not really be the guy to contain true waterbug point-guards.
All that said, the potential Brown showed on defense was sky-high. First off, at 6’5 he is towards the shorter side for a wing-defender, but his combination of dogged determination, strength, and length meant that he typically looked comfortable defending bigger wings like Kris Middleton and Jimmy Butler. Given how big of a hole the Pistons have in the “Big wing defender” area this is a very good thing.
What stood out the most was probably Brown’s explosiveness. He would block shots that are simply not blocked. Several times this season a ball handler would drive, stop, and go into a step-back jumper only to have Brown block it. Occasionally it would visibly frustrate opponents who had to think twice about whether or not they really had enough space to get their shot off over the bouncing Brown.
Brown’s ability to stick with all but the quickest ball handlers, strength, and incredible explosion, give him all of the traits you want in a high-level defender. But there are a lot of young players who show these signs, the thing that should really get Pistons fans excited for Brown’s future on defense is the endless desire and fight he shows on that end. Brown is one of the few players who seems to truly love to play defense, the sort of guy who might purposefully miss while playing one on one just so he can play defense again. (which would also explain his poor shooting) Especially on the perimeter, a lot of defense is about wanting to be a great defender, Brown already does a lot of the little things well. He sits in a great low stance almost all the time, is hugely active, and plays defense with his hips and not his hands. He needs to work on discipline, but he’s got all the tools and the desire to make the most of those tools.
A pleasing rookie season for a 2nd round pick. Brown has a lot of work to do but somehow he made it work. Every starting wing combination the Pistons tried failed until they inserted Brown, even if his offensive numbers were terrible and his defense wasn’t as good as it sometimes looked, it worked. Of course you’d rather not be in a position where the 42nd pick is starting and the collective response is “well it’s better than the other options” but it’s still solid value for that level of pick. Hopefully the Pistons upgrade their wing rotation this Summer to the point that Brown has to fight to stay in the rotation, but he will certainly be up for that fight.
Why do we think that the starting lineup worked with Brown and no one else?
Mostly because Glenn Robinson and Stanley Johnson were terrible. Part of it working with Brown is certainly just luck, the Pistons shuffled through starting lineups enough that none of them were particularly heavy sample-sizes, but a lot of Brown’s success stems from two big areas. First off, he never stopped the offense. His lack of shooting was a major issue, but he never held the ball for a long time or generally muck up the offense. There is real value in a guy not doing stuff when it means that Blake Griffin is spending more time doing stuff.
Secondly, it really highlighted just how terrible the Pistons perimeter defense was everywhere else. Stanley Johnson was good but didn’t always bring it every night and got traded, other than that their perimeter guys were just terrible. So Brown, rookie warts and all, was a huge breathe of fresh air simply for being an actual positive on the defensive end.
What is the biggest place he must improve?
He’s got to find some way to put the ball in the basket. Shooting would be nice but even if he just becomes a high-level finisher inside or builds on the occasional floater he busted out. Somehow he has to bring something on offense.