Brook Lopez is growing up


Brook Lopez is growing up, just a little bit. Don’t worry, he’s still a happy-go-lucky seven-foot goofball who wants to play a Wookiee in a Star Wars film, and he’ll do a personal test when he goes as Chewbacca for Halloween. I’d still take the over on 4.5 times the Lopez twins get into childish hijinks together in New York City.

But the feeling around Lopez is different these days. He’s looser, but a little more focused. He’s taken to a new role, after years as a secondary component and more trade rumors than anyone can count.

There’s no more “Brooklyn’s Backcourt” billboards or past champions at the center of their marketing campaigns, outside hires that Brooklyn’s trying to trumpet as their own from Day One. Instead, they’ve got the player who was, y’know, actually there from Day One: Lopez was drafted by the Nets in 2008 when he was 20 years old, and he’s the only Nets first-round draft pick on the roster beyond this year’s rookies.

Barring a now-unlikely trade, the California-born center will have spent the entirety of his 20s in New Jersey & New York, and his ten years with the Nets organization will be more than any other player in franchise history. Against most odds, the Nets stumbled into Brook Lopez as the face of their franchise.

He didn’t even go to New York Comic Con this year. He said he hasn’t gone in a few years, blaming the job. “We had too much business to take care of (for me to go),” Lopez told The Brooklyn Game, noting the team’s preseason game Saturday in Albany and Sunday’s open practice. (Comic Con ran Thursday through Sunday.)

The organization has put it on Lopez to lead by example. “At the end of the season when I met with Brook, I said, ‘We definitely want you back, but part of that we want you back is we want you to be more of a leader,’” Nets GM Billy King said in September. “‘We want you to be more vocal. You don’t have to be rah-rah and jumping around waving towels. But I need you to push this group and help guide it where you want it to go.’ I said, ‘You’ve been here for a long time, but now, if you’re going to come back, you’ve got to put your stamp on it a little bit.’ And I think he’s accepted that. He was in Vegas when we got the group together. He’s been here since early September, he’s been around, pretty much all summer, stopping in. So I think he is taking ownership to it.”

Lopez seems up for the challenge, seeing part of his role to mentor the team’s younger players trying to stick in the league. “I feel like I have to be the leader,” Lopez told The Brooklyn Game. “I feel like I’ve grown into the role.

“I keep telling (the younger guys) that they’ve just got to be ready to take advantage of their opportunity when it comes, and be confident in themselves. They always have to have confidence. There’s going to be one day when we call on pretty much each and every one of them, and they have to be ready.”

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Leadership only means so much, and the forecast for this year’s Nets is bleak. Most predictions have them winning somewhere between 25 and 35 games and missing the playoffs. If they want to surprise anyone, it’ll start with how they involve Lopez in the offense, and how he responds to different situations.

Lopez’s newfound role comes with the territory of being the team’s undisputed best player. He surged in the second half of last season when he found offensive nirvana with Deron Williams: the two connected on a basic middle pick-and-roll that got Lopez easy shots at the rim and in the paint, and brought Lopez into offensive rebounding position if Williams kicked the ball out to a shooter or took it himself. Following the All-Star Break, Lopez averaged a robust 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, with nearly half of his rebounds coming on the offensive end.

But with Williams gone, Lopez will have to find another way to get touches, though the offense will still feature simple staples. “Each player has their strengths,” Lopez said. “Some are great in the pick-and-roll. Others do other things. I think we’re going to get a lot of that same pick-and-roll, and just try to grow out from there again. We’re going to do more of the same in that regard. But we want to make our look more diversified.”

If things don’t click in an unexpected way, the team could falter, and fast. But the potential for failure has led to preseason experimentation. In Lopez’s eyes, that means becoming a “more complete” offensive player: passing out of double-teams and, most notably, shooting three-pointers.

“I’ve got some interesting looks these past few games,” Lopez added, before referring to himself as a leader once more. “I’ve just been trying to make myself a more complete player and better leader.”

With the Nets wanting to move on from their mistakes from the past, how Lopez fits into that new role and produces could mean the difference between a surprise playoff run and a forgotten year.