LOS ANGELES — Anthony Brown’s first NBA start was a 40-point drubbing against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He played 27 minutes, missed seven of nine shots and had the thankless task of guarding the perpetually irrepressible Kevin Durant.
It was a classic “welcome to the NBA!” day for Brown—who the Los Angeles Lakers selected with the 34th overall pick in last year’s draft. The surreal news of his upgraded role arrived with very little time to brace himself.
“Kobe was in the training room, and I guess he told somebody he couldn’t go,” Brown told Bleacher Report. “And then [Lakers head coach Byron Scott] came up to me and was like ‘You’re gonna be starting tonight, and you’ve got KD,’ and I was like 'Alright…cool.’ ”
Brown was glued to the bench in four of L.A.’s next six games, but he’s been a solid two-way contributor in the Lakers’ rotation since a New Year’s Day win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Now that Lakers medical staff is reportedly advising Kobe to rest his Achilles for 1-2 weeks, expect to see Brown on the court much more.
His individual statistics aren’t special, but thanks to a promising three-point stroke and reassuring size on the defensive end, Brown’s given the Lakers a few reasons to keep him around for the long haul.
“He can guard multiple positions,” Scott said. “I love the fact that he goes out there, he’s physical with guys, he gets into guys on the defensive end, and that’s something we need.”
Brown’s situation is strange, but it works to his benefit. The Lakers are rebuilding, and more focused on the future than today. Valuable contracts really matter: Brown is guaranteed $700K this year and $874K in 2016-17 before his salary bumps to $1.01 million in 2017-18, when it's also non-guaranteed, per Basketball Insiders. The Lakers will retain the 23-year-old through the next two years without putting any meaningful dent into their cap space, and beyond that he projects to be a credible fit.
In the meantime, Brown is operating in an unstable environment. His spot in the starting lineup is entirely dependent on Kobe Bryant’s day-to-day physical condition, stripping him of the consistent regimen most NBA players need to mentally prepare on game day.
But Brown knows he can’t let playing time variance affect him. He’s steadily improving every day, and the more he adjusts to the NBA’s breakneck speed, the higher his confidence grows.
This was clear on Tuesday night, when the Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans. Brown nailed two huge threes and finished with a career-high nine points, defending whichever New Orleans’ ball-handler needed the most attention at any given time.
“I thought he really showed that he’s an NBA basketball player,” Scott said after the win. “There’s no doubt about that. Defensively, we knew he could be a type of defensive stopper (at) different positions. ... The biggest thing is he’s got to hit those open shots on a consistent basis, and tonight he was able to do that.”
The performance didn’t go lost on his teammates, either.
“I think he was great tonight, and I think that’s great for his confidence going down the line,” Lou Williams said.
Brown’s strides first caught Scott’s eye in practice “about two or three weeks ago,” and the Lakers coach went so far as to compare his rookie-year development with Lakers’ guard Jordan Clarkson, who slipped in and out of L.A.'s’ rotation until late January last season.
“[Brown is] similar to JC, you know. Last year I just thought at this time he had gotten better and better,” Scott said. “The game had slowed down, and it was time to see if he can play at this level.”
That’s where the similarities between those two youngsters end. Brown’s skill-set can easily be absorbed in just about any modern NBA system. That makes him valuable for a team like the Lakers, who are ready to build from the ground up this summer. Brown doesn’t need the ball. He doesn’t need plays called for him. Ideally, he’ll compliment teammates in subtle ways and make life easier for them on both ends.
The most obvious way is by widening driving and passing lines. Brown knocked down a white-hot 44.6 percent of his threes over his last two seasons at Stanford. Those numbers leap off the page, and spacers are exactly what NBA executives are looking for today.
Brown’s accuracy has yet to translate at the next level, but he can feel himself starting to break through an obligatory adjustment period.
“In the first few games I was in, everything was rushed,” Brown said. “But when I slow down it just feels like regular shots for me. [There’s] nothing different in my routine or my approach, I just tell myself 'if you can’t get the shot off, make them block it.' ”
He’s 6-for-27 beyond the arc this year, which isn't good. But 27 shots is hardly a meaningful sample size.
“I’m a guy who considers myself a nice shooter and I just haven’t been able to knock them down yet. I’ve gotta keep shooting and can’t get gun shy.”
Shooters slump. All of them. What makes Brown more valuable than your average one-dimensional marksman is his ability to impact games on the other end. The Lakers outscore their opponent by 8.0 points per 100 possessions with Brown on the floor, and their defense performs at a rate that would rank first in the league, per NBA.com.
The sample size is only 247 minutes, and includes a bit of garbage time, but having a solid perimeter defender to throw on the other team’s primary option is always helpful.
Brown isn’t a perfect defender, particularly off the ball. But no rookies are. Watch here as he loses track of Utah’s Gordon Hayward while helping stifle Rudy Gobert’s roll.
Brown views himself as a 3-and-D cog right now, but in the future he envisions much more. Spot-up shooters who can’t put the ball on the floor are problematic for offenses that need to stay one step ahead of a rotating defense. That means running secondary pick-and-rolls, and attacking close-out defenders off the dribble. The Lakers plan to work with Brown on his ball-handling this summer.
“I feel like I should perfect [three-point shooting and defense] first and then after I perfect that, if there’s a time where I can come around and start doing more within the game, then that comes,” Brown said. “But to start off, I want to master those two things first.”
This approach is paying off. Scott is closing games with Brown on the floor. He trusts him, and the rookie has grabbed hold of more playing time with solid outings that help show he belongs.
“I didn’t want to make starting too big, like 'oh you’re starting!,' " he said. "I still want to look at it as a basketball game, but at the same time I want to take advantage of this opportunity, because it’s very rare.”
The Lakers carry no risk keeping Brown through the life of his contract. And if he continues to develop the parts of his game that have become invaluable elements for the league’s very best teams, it’s more than likely he stays in Los Angeles for a very long time. Brown can see the future now:
"When the team becomes more successful, when we add players to the mix, I’ll be able to basically do the same things I’m doing now," he said. "You know shooting the three, defending, and doing it at a higher level."
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.