East Lansing — Hassle James Harden. Slow down Steph Curry. Defend Damian Lillard.
Simply put, Bruce Brown’s rookie season was a baptism by fire. He was asked to do more than the typical rookie on the defensive end, with coach Dwane Casey knowing full well that it wouldn’t be easy.
When Reggie Bullock was out for the Pistons’ opener last season, Brown got the surprising starting nod in the opener — and for 55 more games. Things came hard and fast for Brown last season, but there won’t be as many surprises as he enters his second year.
One of the lingering questions over training camp at Breslin Center is whether Brown will continue in the starting role or whether Luke Kennard might ascend to that spot. For Brown, it’s not a big concern; he just wants to contribute.
“This training camp has been a lot easier. The game has slowed down a lot and I know what to expect; it’s been better for me,” Brown said. “I’m going to control what I can control and play hard every day. I’m not worried about if I come off the bench or start.”
That work has included a summer of honing his offensive game, with a focus on facilitating the offense and improving his 3-point shooting beyond the 26 percent from last season. He showed some encouraging flashes in the NBA Summer League, but the next step will be carrying that over in the regular season.
The summer work included some fine-tuning of his jump shot mechanics and playing point guard, which will make him a pick-and-roll threat, potentially with the starting unit. The defense has improved also.
“His anticipation defensively has gotten better in that he knows what’s about to come and the next play, what’s about to happen to him,” Casey said. “Last year, he was just busting his butt and not understanding what was going on. This year, he has a better understanding and feel for what’s happening on the court. That’s the second-year growth that we want to see from a young kid.”
Reading the tea leaves, it would appear that Brown will stay in the starting lineup, possibly because of his defensive prowess and ability to guard some of the top backcourt players in the league, as he did last year.
Brown’s offensive production didn’t match his defensive disposition and he’s looking to close that gap this season. He says the game is slowing down on both ends of the court for him and Casey points out Brown’s anticipation on weak-side defense as an area of potential growth.
When Derrick Rose was with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, Brown guarded him and left the veteran impressed. In training camp, it’s been more of the same.
It’s not that Brown is just a defensive player, but that’s where he excelled last season — and likely where he’ll make a mark in his NBA career, maybe even to the level of some of the better physical defenders of the past few years.
“That’s how he’s going to make his money, by defending and being able to knock down shots,” Rose said. “I was talking to him earlier about how he changed his shot offensively. Defensively, he’s going to be great. You can tell he’s locked in.”
Rose drew comparisons to Tony Allen, who is a highly respected defender in the league. While Brown still has a ways to go to get to that level, the seeds are already planted and the foundation is there.
“I was able to be really good friends with Tony Allen and I can tell mentally (Brown) is there. From talking to (Allen) and Bruce, he’s naturally just a defender in this league but you have to be able to knock down shots and I can tell that (Brown) has been working on his game because his shot looks totally different than last year and he’s shooting with a lot more confidence,” Rose said. “When you see a young guy trying to improve his game like that, you can tell he’s working and he’s going to help us a lot this year, especially if he’s in that starting role.”
Building on the success he had last season, it’ll be incumbent for Brown to continue to hone his game, especially on the offensive end. There’s some work to do defensively, too.
“That’s where the growth comes. When you’re on the ball, you know what’s going on — you and the ball,” Casey said. “If you’re on the weak side, something bad is about to happen. Anticipating that and getting ready for that, there are no surprises and he’s doing a better job with that. That’s usually a young guy’s biggest issue: weak-side defense.”
Pistons open practice
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Outlook: The second half of the final practice in training camp will feature an intrasquad scrimmage. Coach Dwane Casey warns not to look too much into lineups or rotations, but the team will look to get a glimpse at some of the young players.