#10: Brook Lopez

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When the New Jersey Nets drafted Brook Lopez 10th in the 2008 NBA Draft, he signified a new direction for the franchise. For the first time, they’d landed a 7-footer that deftly combined legitimate post moves, a true mean streak, and a love of comic books. Lopez commandeered a position relinquished by Nenad Krstic after his awful ACL injury and taken by Josh “By Default” Boone. But more importantly, he at least signified something, a something that draft picks Sean Williams, Marcus Williams, Antoine Wright, et al had failed to fulfill. Lopez was the first Nets pick in years I pumped my fist and whooped at while watching the draft. He was the cornerstone, the future. He mattered.

Three years later, Brook Lopez’s tenure in New Jersey has split evenly between ability & absurdity. His relationship with the Nets began on that draft night, with a hilarious montage of Lopez’s reactions to the draft that culminated in his obvious displeasure at a certain Nets coach. He was, in this man’s opinion, robbed of the Rookie of the Year award, though his bland efficiency for a 34-win team stood no chance against Derrick Rose’s story, unreal athleticism and upside (and as expected, Rose shot past him like a bullet).

He ranked as an efficient #1 option on a 70-loss team that narrowly missed historical infamy. Instead of a third-year leap in 2011, Brook shuffled his feet — he took one step forward scoring, and one backward on the glass and on defense. As his footwork advanced and surprisingly quick moves and counter-moves left defenders frazzled in the post, Lopez eschewed his bread & butter, moving further from the blocks and shooting more midrange jumpers. Maybe Avery Johnson pushed him out with oddly designed playsets. Maybe mononucleosis took its toll all season. Or maybe Lopez caught Smooveitis – a debilitating basketball disease that leaves big men with the insatiable desire to shoot long jumpers all day, every day. Time will tell.

Lopez’s decisiveness on the offensive end has not translated on the other side of the floor. The only option he takes advantage of on a game-by-game basis is “backpedal.” Lopez’s decision in this instance is not one of game theory, but of Brook theory — his own lack of quickness leaves him both unable to hedge on pick-and-rolls and ineffectual against quick guards diving into the lane. He’s not backpedaling because it’s the right thing to do (though it might be in many instances), he’s doing it because he can’t do anything else.

Additionally, his intensity on defense has seen a rollback since his rookie season, and Lopez no longer attacks defenders nor the boards with ferocity. His block rate and rebound rate have thus declined precipitously in each of his three seasons as a result. He understands his own limitations, which is great. But he has limitations that matter, and that isn’t.

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He walks awkward, talks awkward, and seems to think awkward. But one thing’s for sure: he doesn’t play awkward. The Nets have never had a player like him – a legit 7-footer (though he looks about 3 inches taller than 6’11” Dwight Howard in this picture) with a soft touch around the rim, that can score over either shoulder in the post, has range out to 18 feet, knocks down his free throws (making him a key asset in the fourth quarter), and even under physical duress has never missed a quarter in 246 regular season games.

Night in and night out, Lopez carries an offensive burden unlike any Nets big man ever. His 2010-11 usage rate of 27.3% both led all NBA centers and set a franchise record for highest USG% by a center in one season. That mark is more impressive when you consider his unusual durability, average NBA athleticism, and not to beat a dead disease or anything, but his year-long recovery from mononucleosis. The Nets are still far from a full roster, but with Deron Williams at the helm for one full season, Brook has at least one more legitimate scoring threat to share that offensive load.

I still think the best is yet to come with him. I think he’s closer to the 15.8% rebound-rate guy than the league average rebound-rate guy. I think he’s closer to 2 blocks a game than 1, and I’d take the over on 20 points-50% shooting. I think he’s got many weaknesses in his game, but for the most part, he’s been a victim of circumstance. Though I’m not exactly unbiased.

I will say this: in an admittedly small sample size of seven games that Brook, Deron, and Anthony Morrow all played 25+ minutes in last season, Brook averaged 22.1 points and 7.3 rebounds on 52% shooting — all above his season averages. After a summer of recovery, with D-Will running the show and Morrow spacing the floor, Brook has an opportunity to take his game to the next level. I hope he takes advantage of it. It may be his last shot in a Nets uniform.