The last time most Michigan State fans saw Gabe Brown he was busy scoring a career-high 15 points in a Sweet 16 victory over LSU last March in the NCAA Tournament.
On Tuesday night at the Moneyball Pro-am in Dimondale, Brown was busy wowing the crowd, hitting deep shots and hammering home electrifying dunks. He scored 59 points in his team’s win, an impressive showing even in the league that hardly puts and emphasis on defense.
What will Brown’s game look like this November when he surely takes on a bigger role as a sophomore for coach Tom Izzo? Probably somewhere in between.
“It's different this year because freshman Gabe, he’s making mistakes on the court to where he couldn’t play,” Brown said. “This year I’m trying to correct those mistakes. Coach has been on me heavy about defending and rebounding and things like that, so I gotta correct those things.”
Scoring and playing with confidence has never been a problem for the Belleville native. After one season, though, Brown knows it’s the defense and rebounding that Izzo emphasizes that will lead to more consistent playing time.
Brown averaged just 7.9 minutes a game as a freshman, but late in the year he started to see the floor more regularly. Outside of just three minutes of action against Duke in the Regional Final, Brown double-digit minutes in three other NCAA Tournament games.
He wants to see that sort of playing time consistently this season, which has led to a summer of hard work.
“I improved in my strength, especially being in a weight room,” Brown said. “I improved in my weight and improved with my jump shot being consistent. I improved with just my ball-handling and like coming off screens and things like that, pick and pop.”
Nights like Tuesday, even in the pro-am when defense is really more of a suggestion, show what Brown is talking about. He took his share of deep 3-pointers but he was also strong going to the basket.
The result is an increase in confidence, something that was helped significantly by his late-season contributions in the NCAA Tournament.
“It brought my confidence way up,” Brown said. “I always knew I could play basketball and all that but I'm playing against grown men, NBA players for instance. So for me to go out there to score and help my teammates and coach is still on me and still proud of me for what I did is great.”
The confidence wasn’t always there. At times last season, Brown was unsure of where he stood.
However, Brown credited Izzo and his teammates for not letting it get the best of him.
“That was a big change as a freshman,” Brown said. “You never know what's gonna happen and for me, some games I didn't play so it was really down the whole season. But coach always was there for me, all the players was there for me to keep my head up. Now coming into this year I’m looking just to help my teammates out and just really be a great basketball player.”
The Spartans will be counting on Brown to take a big step.
With Matt McQuaid off to a professional career, there’s minutes to be had. However, the wing position is a crowded one. Joshua Langford is back after missing most of last season with a foot injury and Kyle Ahrens is healthy for his last season. Add in the surging Aaron Henry and newcomers like Malik Hall and the battle for minutes will be intense.
Brown is up for the challenge as Michigan State pushes to repeat as Big Ten champions and get back to the Final Four.
“We still have got a chip on our shoulder,” Brown said. “We still want to be the best that we can be.”
And Brown figures to play a big role, one much more significant than last season.