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The Extraordinary Evolution of Brook Lopez

Brook Lopez’s transformation from a low-block laureate to a true stretch 5 has been remarkable. For the Bucks to come back from down 3-1 against the Heat, they’ll need to follow their adaptable big man’s lead. “I’ve changed my game a few times before,” he says. “And if I have to for some reason in the future, I’ll do it again.”

Daniel Zalkus

In the summer of 2018, newly hired Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer gathered his staff for a series of meetings at the practice facility to hash out a vision of what the team could be. Milwaukee’s previous defensive system—aggressive to the point of self-sabotage—would need to be thrown out. It was clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo was a force of nature on offense, but even more clear that in high-leverage games, the scoring efforts around him had sputtered, gasping for air. There wasn’t a team in the league more desperate for spacing. As Milwaukee’s staff sketched out their plans to bring the Bucks into basketball’s modern era, the soft echo of jump shot after jump shot filtered in from the practice court just outside. Brook Lopez, one of the team’s free agent additions that summer, was camped out at the 3-point line for target practice.

No one on the Bucks staff had told Lopez to work on his spot-up shooting. No one had to. It was clear to the 7-footer which way the wind was blowing. The NBA had become hostile to bigs who couldn’t reliably space the floor. Two years prior, then–Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson (who was hired off of Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta) had floated to Lopez that he should consider pushing his already dependable midrange game out beyond the arc. In that season, Lopez went on to attempt 387 3-pointers for Brooklyn after trying just 31 total in his eight seasons prior.

“That couldn’t have worked out more perfect, you know?” Lopez says. “I got a taste of it in Brooklyn. And then two years later, I’m throwing it full force with coach Bud in Milwaukee.”

Thus began one of the most remarkable transformations in NBA history: a star center who posted his way into the record books as the Nets’ all-time scoring leader, but gave up his work on the low block in the middle of his career to become the platonic ideal of a stretch 5. Since 2018, only two centers have hit more total 3-pointers than Lopez. It’s an incredible story. But it didn’t end with the grand opening of Splash Mountain; the game keeps turning, and just as so many of Lopez’s fellow back-to-the-basket centers were rendered obsolete, one-dimensional shooting bigs have been gradually and systematically run out of the league as well.

Yet there was Lopez on Monday night, delivering 36 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in a desperation game against the Heat, giving the Bucks options everywhere on the floor.

Lopez has turned himself into not only a great shooter, but also the perfect pressure release. When defenders converge around Giannis, Lopez offers a giant target, ready and waiting at the 3-point line. If an opponent sprints out to contest his shot, Lopez can put the ball on the floor and slow play his way into a bucket inside. Check him with a big, and he’ll clear them out of the lane, making room for Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday to get to the rim. But assign a wing to cover him instead, and Lopez will just walk them into the paint to feast on deep seals and low-hanging putbacks.

This is what he does. Endure. Survive. Lopez made his one and only All-Star team a decade ago, when he was the driving force for the Nets’ entire offense. Every other All-Star center that year has since retired or been left behind. Lopez has stuck around not only with the one massive change to his profile he made years ago, but because of every adjustment he continues to make. Evolution never stops. The only question—for Lopez and all his peers in the NBA—is whether they can keep up.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite all the different spaces Lopez can occupy and all the skills he brings to the table, the Bucks want him to play only one way: extra hot.

The order comes from assistant coach Vin Baker, whose odyssey in the game is a story all its own. Baker’s All-NBA career as a player—which began in Milwaukee—was derailed by addiction in the 2000s, and his journey back into basketball took him through five stints in rehab; a series of odd jobs, including a goodwill trip with Dennis Rodman to North Korea; a fruitful start in youth ministry; and, ultimately, work as a manager at a Rhode Island Starbucks. Baker would close up shop at nearly midnight and be back at 4 in the morning to open up for the commuter rush. He considers it one of the best years of his life—in part because of the structure it gave him in sobriety. All day, Baker took orders, managed the line, and brewed drinks to exacting specifications. One pump or two, with room or without, nonfat or whole or oat or soy or coconut milk.

“So people come into the store and order coffee and tea, whatever it is, and it’s already hot,” Baker says. “But they want it super hot. They want it turned up more.” While he was going over film with Lopez this season, it suddenly clicked. He wanted Lopez turned up every time he catches the ball. No more waiting before he makes a play. No more pausing to see how the defense reacts. “I want [him] to make the quickest decision [he] possibly can make,” Baker says. “Just because if he makes a quick decision, there’s just no way to guard him.”

Baker will prompt Lopez, in drills and in film sessions and in the breaks in a game, with a sort of call-and-response. “I’ll say extra hot,” Baker explains. “And he’ll say it back.” A mantra was born. The best way to stay ahead of the game is to move quickly. Attack the closeout while the defender is still in motion, turning their momentum against them. Fire up a shot before a defender even has a chance to load up and jump at Lopez’s towering release point. Turn and go in the paint before a double-team can take shape. By not giving defenses time to respond this season, Lopez has expanded the range of what he can offer.

“Obviously, you’re not rushing or anything like that,” Lopez says. “But just make a quick decision—a quick move.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in Lopez’s surprising and increasingly crucial driving game. He isn’t generally thought of as a driver, in part because his actual strides toward the basket probably don’t register as fast enough by a speedometer to qualify him as such. “It’s very old-man-game methodical,” he says with a chuckle. Yet, undeniably, it works. There’s almost no way for a defender to contest Lopez’s shot without closing out aggressively, but closing out aggressively invites the Bucks center to make his move, dipping and spinning his way inside. Lopez is so enormous and his touch is so soft that he doesn’t even need to get all the way to the rim to get a shot off. A floater will do just fine, or sometimes Lopez will drive in fits and starts until his trip to the basket turns into an impromptu post-up. It’s a full-circle moment; if Lopez attacks quickly enough and reads the floor well, he can go back in time.

“If it’s a fadeaway, if it’s a jump hook—he’s made a lot of buckets down there in this league,” Holiday told reporters. “Anytime he’s in the paint, he brings so much.”

All of these contingencies are part of Lopez’s individual work with Baker—or, as the Bucks call it, his vitamin. “We just take time every day to get our pick-and-roll work in from that,” Lopez says. “Shooting, and then from driving from that spot.”

For some players, working off the ball narrows their game to too fine a point; their entire contribution boils down to whether they can hit jumpers when the ball swings their way. It’s an unforgiving binary of makes and misses. Lopez, on the other hand, has turned spacing the floor into an expansive opportunity. He may be the largest player in the league who regularly sidesteps out of a contested 3-point shot into an open one. He can easily reroute a possession into a dribble handoff, sustaining momentum that might have otherwise been lost. And when he does put the ball on the floor to drive, Lopez can create all sorts of looks for himself and his teammates—all because of his size.

“I like looking to get downhill because I think it just gets more people involved,” he says. “It draws defenders—and if they don’t come, obviously I just lay the ball up. But it generates a lot of offense and playmaking for us outside of just getting up a shot.” Plays like this are part of the reason the Heat have had trouble guarding Lopez with wings like Max Strus and even smaller bigs like Kevin Love:

All of that starts, however, with the premise that a defender would want to chase Lopez off the 3-point line in the first place. After a trying series against the Celtics in the 2022 playoffs, the veteran center took a hard look at where his game had gone wrong. “I just wanted to figure out what I could have been better at—what I could have done better to help the team,” he says. Shooting was a natural place to start; in that seven-game series, Lopez—who was just months removed from back surgery—shot a woeful 8 percent from long range.

So he spent his summer in and out of a gym in Waukesha, Wisconsin, reworking his shot down to the degree of its arc. With a staff of coaches and the real-time feedback of the Noah Shooting System, Lopez examined every component of his form and delivery until they identified the ideal balance for his specific shot. That attention to detail netted the highest 3-point percentage (37.4 percent) of Lopez’s career and, just as important, the defensive attention that comes with it. “From that, obviously guys are respecting my shot more,” Lopez says. “They’re closing out harder, so then it was just about working on putting it on the floor and getting to the basket.”

There is always some part of Lopez’s game that is being carefully recalibrated. “I think it’s having that realization of what you need to do to stay in the league, stay effective, stay a person who can change games,” Lopez says. If there’s any great secret in what has allowed him to be so effective for so long, it’s that. Lopez has an intuitive understanding of how the pieces of the game fit together and what he, personally, needs to change to make the puzzle come together just right. You don’t sign up to play with Giannis and expect to live in the paint; you figure out how to keep the lane clear for the most powerful finisher in the sport. And when the shots don’t fall, you don’t overcorrect by abandoning them entirely; you wait until the offseason, tear your shooting form down to the studs, and build it back stronger.

It’s remarkable to see just how far Lopez has come. His run with the Nets feels like a basketball lifetime ago and looks it, too—everything about his approach on both sides of the ball has changed completely. Footage of him all the way back at Stanford bears even less resemblance to what he’s doing now.

(In the great tradition of internet highlight reels, there is a 10-minute mix of fuzzy, low-resolution plays by Brook and his twin brother, Robin, from their time at Stanford—soundtracked by the Rocky theme, John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire,” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Lopez approves. “Those are perfect,” he says. “No notes.”)

Lopez has never been overly precious about how he should play. “Every player, however long they last—for one game or for 20 years—they have those things or that thing that got them into the league,” Lopez says. Most are loath to give them up. It’s a lot to ask of any professional athlete, considering that changing your game means putting your identity (and by extension, your livelihood) on the line. Lopez is living proof of the potential rewards for those who can evolve. No other center in his draft class is still playing such a prominent role, much less for a team with championship aspirations. Lopez, meanwhile, is a versatile scoring threat at 35 years old, the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, and a lifeline for the Bucks, who need him to stage a comeback in this series against the Heat.

Zoom out, however, and Lopez’s career looks like several in one. There’s no singular style, no one signature move—not even a particular defining team, considering he’s an all-time great Net but won a title with the Bucks. Lopez has been whoever he’s needed to be—a 7-footer who fits in whatever container you put him in.

“I think that’s kind of cool,” he says. “I don’t really know anyone else that’s like that, really. And I’ve always just seen myself as a basketball player. That’s the work I’ve tried to put in in the summer. When you do your offseason work, you don’t just do one thing.”

Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat - Game Three Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

It’s a bit counterintuitive for a team with multiple All-Stars and a two-time MVP, but for the Bucks to survive their first-round series against the Heat, they’ll have to follow Lopez’s lead. Some of that can be taken literally; Milwaukee could do worse than lobbing passes to its massive center right in front of the rim at every opportunity, a clear point of emphasis that allowed Lopez to notch 16 points in the paint in Game 4. “That’s one of our strengths,” Bucks wing Pat Connaughton told reporters earlier in the series. “I don’t think we always utilize it as much as we should, but when we do, he shows why we do.” More broadly, staving off elimination will require the Bucks to adapt to the Heat on a much more fluid basis—to read the moment and its needs, as Lopez has done so often in his career.

It must be endlessly frustrating that the Heat never seem to disrupt a play the same way twice. Just when you start to get used to the way Miami applies pressure, Erik Spoelstra will change a matchup, toggle his team’s coverage, or throw in a momentum-killing zone. Overcoming it all requires taking some strategic detours. Historically, the Bucks have been fairly conservative when it comes to dramatic system-level adjustments; they run what they run, and it works or it doesn’t. Yet on a personnel level, all four of the core Bucks can be moved around the floor to expose weaknesses and exploit them. Lopez can score outside and in. Holiday doesn’t have to be a functional point guard—he can start possessions down in the dunker spot and body whoever tries to challenge him. Khris Middleton can make plays out of the post or stick to the pick-and-roll. Giannis is a defense-shifting terror when he attacks head-on, but he can be even more terrifying when he stalks along the baseline, waiting for the moment when a defense loses track of him. What ails Milwaukee isn’t a lack of options, but a difficulty in identifying the best one at the right time.

A similar dilemma has plagued the Bucks’ typically formidable defense. Milwaukee has been caught between attempting to blanket Jimmy Butler inside and stamping out the Heat shooters outside but has succeeded in neither. Allowing Butler to score 56 points and the Heat to shoot 41 percent from 3-point range is clearly a losing proposition. And yet wouldn’t the entire series be different if a few wide-open Bucks had hit their 3s, or a few closely contested Heat shooters had not? That question in itself is classic Bucks: a tension between system and result that some of the best defenders in the league will now have to resolve—starting with the center holding down the paint.

“That’s become something where we’ve learned to trust each other a lot more,” Lopez says. “We’ve kinda let players at times make calls in the spur of the moment in the game—like Jrue Holiday, who you know is this incredible, all-world defender. He knows what he’s seeing out there.” Lopez does, too. Part of what makes Miami’s absolute eruption in this series so impressive is that it comes at the expense of some of the league’s best defenders. It’s hard to ask Holiday to defend Butler any better than he already has on a possession-to-possession basis, but there are about 56 reasons why he’ll have to. Antetokounmpo may be playing through injury and running himself so ragged he reportedly needed an IV for fluid intake after Game 4, but he changes plays just by being around them. Lopez, for his part, was the best high-volume rim protector in the league all season long.

The magnitude of that last fact can get lost in the twists and turns of a series like this one and in the shadow of a transcendent performance like Butler’s. Sometimes the great ones win. “On the occasional nights that happens, you just shrug your shoulders,” Lopez says. “There’s a lot of talented players, talented teams in the NBA. Those things happen.” What gives the Bucks room to hope—or even expect—that they can hold off the Heat for three straight games is that, over a long enough time frame, the odds tilt toward Lopez—the game-changing deterrent at the heart of their system.

That Lopez has become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate is a transformation in itself—maybe not as striking as the differences in his offensive game, but even more significant. In his younger days, Lopez was a big who took up space and blocked a few shots. By his own admission, he hadn’t really figured out the nuances of positional defense until he came to Milwaukee.

“It was really just having that timing down of where to be and when just right,” he says. “Because I’m not the quickest guy out there, but I still have a lot of advantages—a lot of natural physical gifts, gifts that other people don’t.”

It took time for Lopez to figure out how to make the most of his size and to turn himself into the kind of defender an opponent like Miami would have to scheme to avoid. Lopez is an expert when it comes to baiting out shots that he can then smother or block—so much so that he even catches well-schooled veterans by surprise. It’s as much about leveraging his length as it is managing to disguise it. There’s a reason so many of the Heat’s ball screens for Butler are set by players not named Bam Adebayo. The best course of action is still to keep Lopez and his enormous wingspan as far away from the ball as possible.

The Bucks managed to limit the number of 3s opposing teams attempted this season by hugging up on shooters all around the floor—putting even more pressure on Lopez to defend in space. That tweak has largely worked as intended, even in this series; there’s only so much that can be done when Caleb Martin is knocking down triple-threat jumpers with Giannis in his face and when overall the Heat are hitting contested shots at a bewildering rate.

“No system is foolproof,” Lopez says. “No system is perfect.”

These are the moments that test a player’s commitment to that idea—and their belief in themselves. Fortunately for the Bucks, this is hardly the first time they’ve been on the ropes. Down 3-2 to the Nets in the second round of the 2021 playoffs. Left to close out the Hawks without Giannis in the following round. Down 0-2 to the Suns in the NBA Finals. All footnotes, now, in the story of a championship season. Milwaukee has the talent and the pedigree to win. To endure. To survive. The key, as Lopez could attest, is knowing when to trust in what they have and when to evolve into something new.

“I’ve seen a lot of different things,” he says. “I’ve changed my game a few times before, and if I have to for some reason in the future, I’ll do it again. I’ll find a way.”

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