Indianapolis — A year ago, Bruce Brown was in his second year at the University of Miami, playing the likes of George Washington, Hawaii and Middle Tennessee.
He was guarding players such as Jair Bolden, Sheriff Drammeh and Giddy Potts. In Brown’s first year with the Pistons, the competition level has risen slightly — and he’s guarding some of the top players in the world, including James Harden, Steph Curry and Bradley Beal on a nightly basis.
After he was picked 42nd overall, he seemed to be a long shot to make any significant impact this season, especially being selected after the Pistons took Khyri Thomas in the second round.
Brown has been one of the best value picks in the draft, having started in the season opener and playing in 26 games this season. He’s become one of their best perimeter defenders and is earning playing time — almost 18 minutes per game — for his work on that end of the court.
That he’s making a mark by holding his own against some of the NBA’s elite scorers is something of a surprise, but not to Brown.
“I thought I would be able to do that. Coming into the league, I knew my defense would get me on the floor,” Brown said Friday. “I look forward to (the challenge). My whole life, I’ve played defense. That’s something I’ve always had, so it’s nothing new for me.”
As the Pistons try to solve their first-quarter woes of falling into deficits, Brown has become an asset for his defense. His offense hasn’t caught up, but there’s plenty of reason to see why coach Dwane Casey trusts Brown to make fundamental plays on offense and be the best wing defender in the starting group.
“He does a great job every night, especially being a rookie. Every night, I tell him there’s no other rookie who can guard like he can guard — and I firmly believe that,” Blake Griffin said. “You look at all the different guys he’s been thrown at in his first year, and he’s done a great job on all of them.”
If there’s a calling card that’s going to get playing time for a rookie, it’s good defense. The more Brown does it, the more comfort he has. He still gets some touchy calls against him but that’s part of being a rookie; he’s working through that part and figuring out how he can be a contributor in the starting unit.
“I’m just confident in myself. I watch a lot of film and work hard every day. I’m getting more comfortable out there on the floor,” Brown said. “The guys are helping me by talking to me and making it easier for me.”
That doesn’t make it much easier when some of the best shooters and scorers in the world are in opposing jerseys. Brown admits he still gets some nervous energy before games, but it’s quickly dissipating now that he’s more than a quarter of the way through the season.
Casey saw the constant energy in Brown that he thought the starting group was missing and made the change, after he had just moved Luke Kennard to the starting lineup. Brown has stepped into the starting role and is taking advantage of the opportunity.
“It’s about what we needed, or what Bruce Brown brought,” Casey said after Wednesday’s win over the Wizards. “Luke, in this league, is going to be a good shooter.
“But it’s more than just shooting for him — and everybody. It’s cutting, moving without the ball, running the floor, defending. I just thought it was a night for Bruce against Beal and (John) Wall and that group of guys.”
It’s a nonstop flurry of the league’s elite on the assignment sheet for Brown. He admits Curry might have been the toughest assignment because of his constant motion and ability to score either on the drive or from deep in 3-point range. His best outing may have been against Harden, but it’s all a learning experience.
“Steph (was most difficult) because he was consistently moving, and I was getting tired,” Brown said. “Everybody else seemed to be dribbling in place.”