Brook Lopez has valuable NBA skills even in the evolving modern game, and has proven that above all else, he has earned a spot on the roster as a key piece of Brooklyn's future.
Despite a lot of recent uncertainty on the roster and in the front office, Brooklyn has one piece of their future already, and his name is Brook Lopez. Brook played 73 of Brooklyn's games this year, and averaged 20 points for the third time in his career. Brooklyn was not a fantastic team this season by any stretch, finishing 21-61, but they were a sobering 0-9 in the games that Lopez sat this year. While Brook has some weaknesses that are often viewed as deadly for modern-day NBA centers, his offensive punch is powerful, and he manages to play far better defense than one might think given his visible faults.
Any discussion of the merits of Brook Lopez should begin with his prodigious talent for scoring. Lopez was one of only 20 qualified NBA players to average 20 or more points per game this season, and did so efficiently with 56.2% True Shooting. His shot chart points to how he was able to put up points despite not having many great scoring options around him:
As one would expect from a 7-footer, Brook Lopez took a lot of his shots right by the rim. His numbers were slightly above league average around the rim, and he particularly did well in the post: he shot 63.5% on post-ups and scored 5.9 points in the game from post touches, according to the official NBA stats page. However, the area in which he truly shines as a center is with his mid-range touch. Brook is tall enough where he can shoot over most other players even without much lift on his jumper, and his percentages from the mid-range are well above NBA averages. He also shoots nearly 80% from the free throw line, which opens up his interior game—unlike DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond (although both represent almost the opposite of Brook Lopez as good centers), opposing teams can’t afford to hack Brook when he gets on the block.
In addition to his great shooting touch, Brook Lopez has a great basketball IQ, which showed this year through his vastly improved passing. Lopez sported a decent (for a center) 12.6% assist rate on the year, but that jumped to 19.0% after the All-Star Break--that number would have been 4th among centers behind passing wizard Joakim Noah and the Gasol brothers. As opponents focused more on Brook after the Deron Williams and Joe Johnson buyouts, he showcased a surprising degree of passing touch, even as his own unassisted scoring rate jumped dramatically to nearly 49% by the end of the season. Brook averaged 2.0 assists per game for the season (his first season with more than one per game since Deron Williams went to Brooklyn), but averaged 2.8 per game during the last three months of the season. Even with his 20 points per game, Brook showed in the last couple of months of the season that he is ready for an even bigger role in the Brooklyn offense going forward, especially now that Brooklyn has lost two of its higher usage players.
Unfortunately for Brook, he is not a good athlete by NBA standards; the main area where this hurts him is in his rebounding, and unfortunately all the evidence points to him not being able to overcome this problem in the future. Lopez gathered 13.1% of available rebounds this year while he was on the floor, an abysmal mark for a center that put him in the company of Lou Amundson and Kendrick Perkins; for reference, his rebounding rate was closer to that of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook than it was to Draymond Green, who is at least 5 inches shorter and spends most of his time at power forward. Brook can and does make up for this weakness with the rest of his game, but nonetheless his rebounding troubles have an impact on the team. He has learned
how to do a decent job of boxing out his man to help his teammates get
rebounds (although he isn’t anywhere near as good at it as his brother
Robin), and Brooklyn as a whole actually got 2% more of the available
rebounds with him on the floor than with him on the bench according to NBAwowy.com. This number is
somewhat misleading, however, as the Nets without Lopez were a much
worse unit on both ends of the floor that was also frequently played
with worse rebounders throughout the line-up when Lopez and the rest of
the starters sat out. For the Nets
to be successful going forward, Brook will need a great rebounder at one
of the other frontcourt spots to maximize his game.
Despite lacking great foot speed and other athletic measurables, Brook Lopez is actually an above-average defensive player even with the admittedly poor defensive team around him. He is pretty strong, but is slow compared to even the average center, much less the average player in the league. His defense is far better than one might think it is by just watching the games, but that is mainly because his failings are noticeable and his defensive successes are far less visible:
In this clip, Brook does basically all of the right things defensively—he stays back by the rim, and rotates over to contest LeBron (admittedly a very dangerous offensive player) in the post, but then doesn’t have the speed to get back to the rim in time to prevent an easy dunk by Mozgov. This play is rather indicative of his overall defensive game. The defensive numbers for Brook overall are respectable, especially compared to the team around him. Opposing players shot 2.3% worse overall when being guarded by Lopez, which sadly enough was the only negative number for the entire Nets team on the year defensively. He is aided in that regard by both his strong basketball IQ and just being 7 feet tall. Although he is slow on rotations and has difficulty with quicker centers, Brook always seems to know where he is supposed to be on the floor. He is usually at the rim regardless of the pick-and-roll situation because he isn’t fast enough to switch onto perimeter players, but he has gotten pretty good at staying low and sliding into position both on the ball and off the ball to protect the rim. His block numbers are decent overall, and he does a very good job of doing what he can on defense. Even on plays where he simply isn’t fast enough to get in the way of the ball to contest a shot, he will usually at least try to do what he can to disrupt a shooter. His basketball smarts help him with his ever-improving defense, and allows him to be an above-average defender overall despite being way below the NBA average in the very visible categories of vertical leap and lateral movement speed.
Saying that Brook Lopez is imperfect as a player is not a new observation. He certainly has his weaknesses. However, the best part of Brook Lopez's game is that he has some incredible skills offensively, and the basketball knowledge to cover up for his biggest weakness and contribute defensively. Brook's biggest problem in the public eye is that his comparative weak point (athleticism) is simply more visible on every play than the weaknesses of most stars. LeBron's often below-average jumper stands out when he plays poorly, but most of the time he uses his incredible athletic gifts to play great basketball despite that weakness. Similarly, Stephen Curry occasionally struggles because he isn't an All-NBA Defensive player. When he is attacked on defense (or is playing somewhat hurt, as very much might be the case during these finals) he sometimes gets tired, which can lead to a decline in the quality of his leg strength and thus his jump-shot accuracy. While Brook Lopez's athleticism is an obvious weak point, it often covers up the real benefit that he provides offensively with his scoring gifts and defensively with great positioning. This also makes it far easier to notice when he misses a rotation on defense or fails to get to a rebound; it's not for lack of effort, but for lack of athleticism. Brook Lopez's Top-20 offensive game and his above-average defense more than makes up for his admittedly below-par rebounding and speed, and he has proven his worth as Brooklyn's star for the future.