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Brook Lopez Is Still Developing

By adding a 3-point shot to his arsenal, the center has avoided basketball obsolescence and become the perfect player for this year’s Lakers squad

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This offseason, hours, podcasts, think pieces, and strong drinks have been devoted to figuring out how blockbuster acquisitions like Chris Paul and Paul George will fit in new roles next year. But what about the less-acclaimed pieces in these trades, the guys exchanged for the superstars? Can a highly paid role player offloaded as part of a "salary dump" ever blossom in a new situation? Or can someone on the cusp of 25 minutes a game fall out of the league? This week we’re looking at the prospects of those players, the Unintentional New Beginnings crew.

Brook Lopez is basketball evolution incarnate.

When the 7-foot center entered the league in 2008, taken with the 10th overall pick by the then–New Jersey Nets, the average NBA team was shooting 18 3s per game. Nearly 10 years later, Lopez is a Laker, traded in a deal that involved sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s contract to Brooklyn. And now, teams are shooting 27 3s per game, with teams like the Houston Rockets skyrocketing up to 40 3s per game this past season.

Lopez was a constant force in New Jersey, and more recently, Brooklyn, as things changed around the league. But buried deep in the bowels of one of the most boring and irrelevant teams in the league, Lopez changed too. He’s adapted to a game that has migrated to the 3-point line with a willingness to release his grip on playing in the paint. That flexibility to embrace a shot that had been foreign to him for most of his basketball playing career is rare, but has proved valuable for a guy whose position has been diminished, if not made extinct.

Feast your eyes on this heat map of Lopez’s shot attempts in the past five years of his career. In 2012–13, Lopez ventured to the 3-point line only once. In 2013–14, he didn’t even bother going there at all. 2014 and 2015 were years of rare appearances in that region of the court. It wasn’t until this past season that Lopez really decreased his presence in the midrange and increased it in the strange lands beyond the arc.

(NBA Savant)
(NBA Savant)

Put this in the basketball analytics Louvre. It is true what they say. A man can change.

Brook Lopez’s first made 3-pointer was born out of happenstance, luck, and desperation.

With 12 seconds left in the third quarter of Game 4 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Bulls, Lopez received the ball with his back to the rim. He was in his comfort zone well inside the arc. Lopez took a couple of dribbles and tried to back down Nazr Mohammed. As he attempted to turn near the top of the key, he lost his handle on the ball, which was promptly stolen by Nate Robinson. But Robinson lost it, too, as he went out of bounds and jumped to save it. He threw it back into no-man’s-land above the 3-point line. With five seconds left, Lopez corralled it, spun around, and fired it toward the basket. It swished from 26 feet.

It would take Lopez nearly two more years to make another 3 — during a regular-season game in January 2015 against the Pistons — but at the time no one could have guessed that the lucky shot born that night in 2013, and Lopez’s adoption of shots like it, would save his career, and make him an asset worth trading for.

"I’m not trying to float around the perimeter during the entire game, but if that’s the call I’m confident I can knock it down," Lopez told the New York Post after a practice in 2015. The coach of the Nets at the time, Lionel Hollins, gave as lukewarm an endorsement of Lopez’s new shot as he could. "I’m not running any plays for him, but if he’s out there and it happens, it happens."

In 2015–16, Lopez attempted at least one 3-pointer in 14 of his 72 games. It was a faint sign of things to come. He made just two the entire year. One against Philadelphia in March was surprising enough to result in this interview, where Lopez hitting a 3 was treated like a UFO sighting.

Then, in the first week of the 2016–17 season, Lopez attempted 15 3s and made five of them in four games. Before that week, he had attempted 14 3s and made only three in his entire career. Any talk of a streaky start quickly evolved into a realization that Lopez had fully adopted the long-range shot under new coach Kenny Atkinson. In the first full month of the season, Lopez attempted 79 3s. By the All-Star break, Lopez had made 90 3s.

In January, he told USA Today that the ability to shoot that shot originated from childhood games when his brothers would block his short-range attempts. "If I wanted to score at all, I had to score from long range," he said. In that same story, Lopez laid out the equation as clearly as he could in order to try to explain how in 2016, the shot that allowed him to score as a kid had resurfaced in the NBA: Repetition (hours in the gym) plus confidence (Atkinson letting him shoot and miss) equaled a shot that turned Lopez into a far more valuable and versatile player.

Brook Lopez was born in North Hollywood, California, alongside his twin brother, Robin. Though the small, often forgotten directional Hollywood region is closer to the San Fernando Valley than the Hollywood Hills, the locale unquestionably makes Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles a homecoming.

"It’s really a dream come true for me. It’s very surreal," he told the L.A. Times after the trade. "I’m a big Cali guy. It’s a dream come true to play for the Lakers."

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said Lopez was "exactly" the type of player the Lakers wanted to have as part of their core, the "perfect road map to our next generation of centers." Head coach Luke Walton, who appeared on The Lowe Post podcast during summer league, could not stop raving about Lopez’s 3-point shot.

"I knew he could shoot 3s and he hit a bunch last year, 130-something, but when you sit there and watch him shoot 3s, they’re beautiful," Walton said. This past season, the only two Lakers who shot and made more 3s than Lopez were D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young, both of whom are no longer on the team. It’s safe to say the Lakers are starved for sharpshooters. A center is an unlikely provider of such a desired commodity around the league, but the move could be fruitful for the Lakers. In 2016, no center shot more 3s than the 7-foot Lopez. And with relentless passer Lonzo Ball running the offense, Lopez’s looks should theoretically be more open. But there’s two sides to this coin.

Lopez’s 3-point surge did not come fully expensed by the basketball gods. The cost of this improvement was his bread and butter: his rebounding. Last season, as his deep shooting exploded to unforeseen heights, Lopez’s rebounding took a hit, declining by 2.4 total rebounds per game. Lopez’s 9.5 percent rebounding rate was the second lowest of his entire career, and it would have been good for only eighth-best on the Lakers last season.

The aforementioned heat map explains this simply. As Lopez began to wander out to parts unknown like the 3-point line and beyond, not only for pleasure but for production, the evolution pried him away from the area around the rim, where all the rebounds typically fall. It’s a bittersweet part of the adaptation of the game that Lopez has seemingly decided to embrace. More 3-point shots means fewer rebounds, fewer easy second-chance points, and fewer dunks. All are worthy sacrifices in the face of math, which will perpetually remind us that three is greater than two. "Now I just need to make sure I don’t fall in love with that because he’s a big boy and he’s got game on the block," Walton said on the podcast.

The move to the perimeter is the right one for Lopez, and on a Lakers team that is bringing back a couple of solid rebounders, and doesn’t have a knockdown 3-point shooter, his continued infatuation with the long-range shot will find a valuable niche in the short, left corner where he shot 50 percent this season. Don’t worry, Brook, Lonzo will find you with his eyes closed.

(NBA Savant)
(NBA Savant)

It’s no wonder Atkinson was so torn about the trade. "He embraced our culture. He was a pleasure to be around every day," Atkinson said. "That was probably the hardest decision that I’ve made being a head coach."

Lopez didn’t fit into the Nets’ timeline, but he seems to be entering the perfect situation in Los Angeles. The Lakers are building young, but are in need of competent vets in order to be a watchable basketball product this season. Lopez provides that, and more, even if the Lakers make one or two big acquisitions next summer. As presently constituted, Lopez’s fit appears foolproof. He’s bound to pleasantly surprise those who have not tuned in for Nets games with his talent now on a bigger stage, and he can show how a 7-footer can be both a force in the paint and a shooter.

Lopez hasn’t just suitably adapted, but thrived under his new shooting mantra. It suggests the Lakers trading Russell for him may look better by the game, and that the best of Brook Lopez may still be yet to come.