Weight: 275 lbs.
Date of Birth: April 1, 1988
Years Pro: 6
Before NBA: Stanford University
Drafted: 10th overall, 2008 NBA Draft
Nickname: B-Lo, Brookie Monster
It’s been a long and weird offseason for the gargantuan Lopez, who played in just 17 games last season before succumbing to a season-ending foot injury smack in the team’s throes of December despair. But after multiple surgeries and months of unshaven boredom, the doctors have cleared Lopez for contact, and he’s entered training camp without the 15 pounds he gained before last season.
Foot injuries are often a death knell for big men, and the jury’s out on if Lopez is an exception. Here’s what we do know: Lopez has twice broken the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot, which connects the heel to the outermost (pinky) toe,once in 2011 and once last season. He’s had three surgeries on that foot, including one that repaired a screw inserted during the initial surgery that had bent. Lopez also underwent left ankle surgery to tighten the ankle ligaments and repair a torn tendon this past March, following two in-season ankle injuries prior to his foot injury.
Lopez walks a bit bowlegged by nature, which adds more pressure to those outer bones. Nets team doctors performed a special surgery that realigned the bone, designed to balance Lopez and lessen the weight on that bone and reduce the chances of further injury. There’s no guarantees, but it’s a start. Slimming back down to 275 doesn’t hurt either.
That’s an awful lot of medical talk before we even get to Lopez the player, who when healthy (there it is again) established himself as the league’s premier post scorer, an improving rim protector, and an average-at-best rebounder. The Nets were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Lopez on the floor than off in his 17 games last year, bested only by Deron Williams and Paul Pierce in the same timeframe.
The book on Lopez starts on the block. He’s an extraordinarily gifted scorer, often acting as a release valve for the Nets offense when out of options. He’s not a great passer, even for a big man, but makes up for it with his ability to score inside and out, with range out to 20 feet and a soft touch. Even as the Nets fell apart last season, he was headed for numerous career highs, including field goal percentage, offensive rating, PER, and true shooting percentage.
But his offense is well-documented. In The Art of a Beautiful Game, 7’4″ human and former NBA center Mark Eaton tells author Chris Ballard about his eureka moment as a defender:
…while playing a pickup game at UCLA, Eaton had an epiphany, spurred by some unsolicited advice from a retired Wilt Chamberlain, who was then in his 40s but still running the floor against men half his age. “We had a guy on our team named Rocket Rod Foster, to this day the fastest guy I’ve ever seen,” says Eaton. “He’d get to the basket about the same time that I got to the top of the key. So I was standing there, huffing and puffing, and I felt a large hand on my shoulder. It was Wilt. He said, ‘You’re never going to catch that man, first of all. Second, it’s not your job to catch him. Your job is to guard the basket, then cruise up to half-court to see what’s going on. Because if a quick shot goes up, you have to go back.” Eaton pauses. “That day, a lightbulb went on. I figured out my niche in basketball. This is my house, the paint. This is where I live.”
Lopez comes from the Eaton school of slow big men, evolving into a surprisingly ace on-ball defender and rim protector by employing the same methods. He knows his opponents want into his real estate, and plants himself in the way, daring them to go above or through him. His biggest assets are his wide body and incredible length — he officially measures as an even seven feet tall, which begs the question how tall he’d measure if he stood up — and once he’s got a player in his zone he knows to stay close to the basket and let them force a bad shot over his extended arms.
In his 17 games before injury, opponents shot 39.7 percent on shots at the rim on 9.2 attempts per game against Lopez, which would have led the league among similar players had he kept that up throughout the season. (For a comparable player, Roy Hibbert allowed opponents to shoot 41.1 percent on 9.8 attempts per game, the best in the league among qualifying players.)
Even more staggering was Lopez’s post defense. In his limited sample of 44 possessions, Lopez only allowed his man to score just six (6!) times, and committed only two fouls, according to mySynergySports’s tracking data. That’s right: guys trying to post up against Lopez either missed their shot or committed a turnover upwards of 80 percent of the time, ranking him comically ahead of the rest of the NBA. It’s a small sample size, and there’s no way Lopez could stay that effective for a full season, but it’s also a testament to how good he can be…
…on the ball. Because once he’s got to move, Lopez has the lateral speed of an alligator; if he’s pushed beyond that precious 12-foot radius around the basket to try to cut off guards, the Nets have already lost. And opponents know that too. Most of that has to do with his slow foot speed, which isn’t getting much faster after multiple surgeries. In today’s athletically evolving NBA, the big man who can’t defend block-to-block is rapidly facing extinction, relegating the 26-year-old Lopez a relic to a past generation.
That makes Lopez the biggest test of Lionel Hollins’s coaching acumen. How do you integrate Lopez, who seems straight out of 1994 right down to his pre-internet love of comic books, into today’s fast-paced league?
He’ll bring 20 points a night with his eyes closed.
But can he stop them, too?