‘‘Coming off of the bubble [at the end of last season], [the Wizards] kind of told me I was going to be playing backup point guard. Then coming into the season, I kind of was playing [power forward]. Then after that, I kind of went to the bench.”-Troy Brown Jr., via Joe Cowley
A Diamond in the Rough
It’s one of the best feelings in sports when your team finds a valuable contributor from seemingly nowhere. And when the Chicago Bulls acquired former first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. in a three-team trade with the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, they found something special from the bargain bin of players on the trade block.
The Bulls made a flurry of roster changes this offseason, and those changes created a lot of questions. One of those questions being a bench unit lacking the firepower of a contender. This makes it imperative that the Bulls maximize the players they do have on the bench, and none may be more important than fourth-year forward Troy Brown Jr.
Historical Washington D.C.
When an NBA team needs new talent in a certain position, one of the best ways to address that is through the NBA Draft. And boy, do the Wizards love throwing draft picks at the same weakness every year. Since 2011, the Wizards have made eight first-round draft picks. In 2012, they grabbed Florida guard Bradley Beal with the number three pick, a great selection. However, it’s the other seven picks that are concerning.
In 2011, Washington used the sixth and 18th overall picks on forwards Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, respectively. Both players failed to ever eclipse five points per game and were out of the league after just three years. A rough start, but surely it gets better!
Then in 2013 the Wizards again landed the third overall pick, this time using it on Georgetown forward Otto Porter Jr. Otto is a solid NBA player, but with no career accolades to show for it, he’s an underwhelming third overall pick. Annnnnnd the Wizards traded Porter Jr. to the Bulls in 2019 for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, only to get rid of both players a few months later.
But, in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 the Wizards fixed their ways, hitting on picks and addressing a variety of needs along the way! Nah just kidding, they drafted forward Troy Brown Jr., then forward Rui Hachimura, then forward Deni Avdija, and finally forward Corey Kispert.
It’s safe to say the Wizards don’t have the best track record when it comes to developing forwards. And drafting a trio of players who play the same role as Brown Jr. wasn’t putting him in a position to succeed.
Flashes From the Rough
The Wizards decided it was time to start fresh entering the 2020 season. They revamped their front office and looked ahead to a new season with a healthy John Wall. But when Wall tore his Achilles before the start of the season, it became a lost year for the Wizards. And it was with that 2020 Wizards’ team that Troy Brown Jr. saw his most consistent playing time.
In just 26 minutes a game Troy Brown Jr. put up averages of 10.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. Those numbers are solid, but by looking a bit deeper we can see that Troy did some really impressive stuff.
Brown Jr.’s signature offensive skill is his ability to finish at the rim. In his 260 drives to the basket during the 2020 season, Brown scored points on 67.7% of them — a number that put him 13% above the NBA average. Despite standing only 6-foot-6 he’s also scored on 66.1% of his attempts in the restricted area, yet again putting himself above the league average.
Here he picks up a loose ball and attacks the Spurs defense in transition. Brown Jr. shows off some of his craft as he Euro-steps around the defender and finishes a reverse layup in a crowd of four San Antonio defenders.
And this finishing ability synergizes well with his dribbling ability. While Troy’s physical frame represents that of a modern NBA wing, his ball-handling looks more like that of a traditional point guard.
Many NBA wing players would have either shot the three or reset the possession here. However, Troy’s ball-handling makes him a more dynamic weapon for the offense. Here he’s matched up on DeMar DeRozan, who is the Spurs’ worst defender. Troy is able to use his handle and quick changes of pace to attack off the dribble. He then again shows his crafty finishing with a reverse layup to prevent the defender from contesting.
Similar to Troy’s ball-handling, his passing also looks much more like that of a point guard than a wing’s. And over the final 30 games of the 2020 season, Brown Jr. averaged 3.3 assists per game compared to only 1.1 turnovers.
The Nets’ defender stands in between Troy and his teammate which prevents Troy from using the screen. So instead he goes away from the screen which forces the opposing big man to step up and guard him. Instead of racing to the basket in an attempt to score, Brown Jr. slows down and surveys the defense.
First he puts his defender in jail, which is a move where you use both your back hip and non-dribbling hand to keep a defender behind you and out of the play. Secondly, Troy’s pick-and-roll partner cuts to the basket. He’s wide open and all Troy needs to do now is get him the ball. To do this, Brown Jr. starts by raising his arms up and faking a pass high. This leads to the Nets’ big man shooting his arms up to try and deflect the pass. This is exactly what Troy wanted as he quickly brings the ball back down and fits in the easy bounce pass.
While these guard-like skills are impressive for Troy and certainly make him offensively talented, he isn’t good enough to be the guy running the Bulls’ offense. And as a result of this, Brown Jr. will need to knock down three’s to see much playing time.
While Troy’s career 105-for-318 (33%) three-point shooting is a cause for concern, he’s likely better than those numbers suggest. For one, Brown Jr. has shot 92-for-257 (35.8%) on just catch-and-shoot attempts. He hasn’t found much success creating his own shots from three-point range, but he has shown the ability to knock down shots others make for him. Which is all the Bulls are going to need from him.
In addition, during the 2020 season — which was Troy’s only season with a consistent role — he shot 56-143 (39.2%) on catch-and-shoot attempts. Those numbers not only offer a good sample size with a little over 2.5 attempts per game, but he’s also 1.5% above the league average.
As a result of these promising skills the former 15th overall pick showed, he claims he was promised the role of backup point guard for the 2021 season. However, the Wizards not only used Raul Neto and Ish Smith over Troy at point guard, but they also drafted Deni Avdija who was slotted above him in the forward depth chart. This led to inconsistent minutes for Brown Jr. and even a lot of coach’s decision DNPs.
Stereotyping Wings and Troy Brown Jr.
While Brown Jr.’s offensive production was impressive during the 2020 season, his defense was a different story. The Wizards’ defense was bad in general, however, they were even worse when he was on the court.
But, when Troy Brown Jr. arrived in Chicago he had a bit of a defensive renaissance. Not only was he a defensive positive for the Bulls, but he was also borderline elite. And the Bulls’ defense was eight points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court. It’s uncommon to see a player make a jump like this mid-season. However, when looking at Troy’s defensive stats and film it becomes pretty apparent as to why this happened.
The modern wing is expected to offer his team defensive flexibility. And with Troy Brown Jr. standing 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, he is prototypical wing size. And as such, the Wizards attempted to use Troy like a wing, throwing him in a variety of different situations.
While filling these various different roles for the Wizards, one big weakness of Troy’s became blatantly apparent. That weakness being Troy’s strength. Brown Jr. is not as strong as the average 6-foot-6 NBA player. And when tasked with defending players even bigger than himself inside, Troy was a massive liability.
Here he’s matched up against Jayson Tatum, who immediately begins to back Troy down. And Tatum easily brushes him aside for a quick two points.
Troy ranked in the 18th percentile when defending in the post, and the third percentile when switched on to the big man in the pick-and-roll. Those are horrible numbers, but once traded to Chicago he wasn’t asked to do these things anymore. With the Bulls, Troy spent 65% of his time defending opposing guards. It’s a significant increase when compared to his time in Washington where that number drops to just 51%.
We’re constantly told that the modern NBA wing needs to offer defensive flexibility. And while this is for the most part correct, there are a couple of exceptions. Number one being, players who excel at either protecting the rim or defending the point of attack can function as specialists. Because both of these defensive roles are so important, players who focus on one of these roles are still extremely valuable defensive players.
Brown Jr. is obviously not a rim protector, which means he needs to defend the point of attack to be valuable. The only problem is that he hadn’t shown a high-level point-of-attack defense before arriving in Chicago. Regardless, the Bulls made the decision to utilize Troy in a point-of-attack-focused defensive role.
Yet, rather inexplicably, Troy’s point-of-attack defense took a monumental leap. During his time in Washington, he ranked in the 40th percentile when defending pick-and-roll ball handlers, and the 10th percentile when defending dribble handoffs. In Chicago, those numbers SKYROCKETED. Troy ranked in the 87th percentile when defending PnR ball handlers, and the 90th percentile against the dribble handoff.
We’ve heard a lot of Bulls’ players publicly say they appreciate how head coach Billy Donovan allows them to play to their strengths. And Troy Brown Jr. is the most glaringly obvious example of this. Troy’s lack of strength limits him as a defender inside, but he’s far from unathletic. He has a smooth blend of physical skills that enable him to be an elite perimeter defender.
Here Troy is able to quickly shift his hips multiple times which prevents Kyrie Irving from creating any space. Then he uses his long 7-foot wingspan to contest Kyrie’s desperate fadeaway.
Most NBA teams saw Troy Brown Jr. as a stereotypically wing-sized player who couldn’t offer the defensive versatility that wings need to. However, Arturas Karnisovas and the Chicago Bulls saw his collection of unique and valuable physical traits and made him into an elite point-of-attack defender.
Here Kyrie Irving has the ball on the fast break and attacks Troy. Against most players Kyrie would likely score and draw a foul, however, Troy is impressively quick and controlled when backpedaling. He is able to smoothly moonwalk down the paint and contest Kyrie’s shot without fouling.
In this clip, Troy’s man tries to attack him off the dribble. However, Brown Jr. efficiently and quickly shuffles his feet to move laterally and stay tight to his man. And to top it off, he uses his long 7-foot wingspan to tip the pass.
Here Troy uses his length to tip this pass at the point of attack. And he’s nearly able to recover the ball for a steal as well.
His combination of quickness both laterally and backward is extremely uncommon. And those skills combined with his long wingspan, tall stature, and hip mobility give Troy as good of perimeter defensive tools as anyone in the NBA. And when he was on the court for the Bulls, the defense thrived because of him.
But Wait, There’s More
Before we finish, I wanted to quickly cover some of the other important skills Troy Brown Jr. offers to the Bulls in addition to his offensive and defensive functionality.
Troy has very active hands defensively, constantly trying to create steals. Here he reaches over to poke the ball away from Zach LaVine’s man.
He’s a savvy cutter offensively. Whenever he sees an opportunity to attack the basket off-ball he does so. And when paired with his great finishing around the basket, it leads to a lot of points.
Before any action a player performs in the NBA, a decision has to be made. These decisions need to be made both quickly and accurately. Luckily for the Bulls, Troy is a great decision-maker. Here he turns to the basket and quickly identifies the pass to Daniel Theis. Even the angle Troy uses to approach the basket is slanted inwards as to bait the Memphis rim protector to stay under the basket and defend Brown Jr.
Saving Private Brown Jr.
When the Bulls acquired Troy Brown Jr. as part of a three-team trade that sent center Daniel Gafford to the Washington Wizards, many interpreted the trade as a bad move for the Bulls. While Gafford has played well in Washington, he would have been the backup to Nikola Vucevic in Chicago, and backup centers come a dime a dozen. In contrast, offensively dynamic wings that offer point-of-attack defense are both valuable and rare commodities.
Washington’s large collection of forwards meant sporadic playing time for Troy Brown Jr. Combined with the fact that he was so grossly misused defensively, he wasn’t viewed as anything special. However, the Bulls saw through all of this and as a result were able to bring him in at a very low price.
Offensively Troy offers a skillset similar to what you would expect of a point guard. His plus ball-handling allows him to create chances for himself offensively and attack weak defenders. This combined with his impressive finishing skills at the rim makes him a candidate to provide serious offensive production on a nightly basis. Brown Jr. nicely complements those skills with his passing, creating chances for others that most wings can’t. And while there are questions about his three-point shooting, he showed the ability to effectively shoot from deep during the 2020 season.
Defensively Troy was misused by the Wizards, and his lack of strength severely limits his ability inside. Yet, his blend of length, lateral quickness, and speed when going backward makes him a fantastic perimeter and point-of-attack defender. And in his short stint with the Bulls last season, he thrived in his new-look defensive role.
With the Bulls looking to contend in 2022, they will need solid bench production every night. And Troy Brown Jr. projects as a player who can offer productive minutes for the Bulls during the 2021-22 NBA season.