Halfway through last season, before he ever entered UNC’s rotation after recovering from knee surgery, fans were already clamoring for Cam Johnson to be a starter. The same was true this season, when seemingly anybody with a pulse yelled for Nassir Little to be inserted into the starting line-up, despite some very obvious growing pains. Through it all, the player most often drawing the ire of the fans was starting center Garrison Brooks. Even now, 11 games into the ACC season and with UNC flirting with a potential top seed in the NCAA tournament, Brooks is perhaps the most underappreciated player on UNC’s roster.
That is categorically asinine.
I get it. People are always excited about the next best thing. No matter how encouraging the results are in real time, the future always promises more hope than the present. It’s easy to get giddy about Little’s potential, Armando Bacot’s size in the paint, or even Leaky Black’s mismatch capabilities at the four. It is also just as easy to get frustrated and overreact to the most recent stumbles. Through it all, everyone is missing Brooks’ steady, tough, gritty, workman-like performances on a nightly basis.
That’s a shame.
It’s been talked about ad nauseam, but this UNC team is different than most previous versions. It relies on outside shooting, struggles to generate scoring inside the paint, and at times has been pushed around by bigger, more physical teams. It also has four starters that can explode on any given night — Coby White, Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and yes, even Kenny Williams. Three of those players are seniors and one is a future NBA first-round draft pick.
Would a classic UNC big man be helpful? Sure. Is it needed? No, it is not. After a stellar start to the ACC season, this notion still baffles people.
Relegated to the bench as a freshman and amid a groundswell of noise calling for him to see less time this season, Brooks has simply shown up and produced. Some point to more potent offensive lineups without Brooks as evidence that UNC is a lesser team with him on the court. Advanced metrics are good tools and there is truth that North Carolina has more explosive offensive options and combinations. Adrian Atkinson, Inside Carolina’s advanced metrics/stats/analytics guru, often provides good perspective of such metrics. (If you’re a social media user, he’s a good follow on Twitter).
However, there are other numbers that show Brooks’ value. In ACC play, among North Carolina’s top-eight rotation players, only Cam Johnson has a higher individual efficiency rating. Per Sports-Reference, with an offensive rating of 132.2 and a defensive rating of 103.5, Brooks comes in at +28.7. Johnson is slightly higher at +30.3. The next closest Tar Heel in the main rotation is Brandon Robinson at +16.3. That’s a steep drop-off to a reserve that plays 14.5 minutes per game.
Brooks has also turned into a sure-handed facilitator. In UNC’s 11 ACC games, he has only been charged with six turnovers. His one turnover on Monday was his first since coughing up the ball twice against Miami way back on January 19th. Combined with 25(!) assists, Brooks has an A:TO of 4.16 in conference play.
But that’s not all he does on offense. As Atkinson points out in this tweet, Brooks has proven just as critical in getting players open for made buckets as he has been in finding them off the pass. He also leads the team in “screen assists”.
UNC Leaders in Hockey Assists / 40:— Adrian Atkinson (@FreeportKid) February 11, 2019
UNC Leaders in Screen Assists / 40:
Some get angry over Brooks’ perceived inability to guard pick-n-rolls or propensity to pick up cheap fouls. Both are fair, but misplaced criticisms. The struggles with the ball-screen defense has often been multifaceted and that foul trouble has *mostly* disappeared. Besides, without a healthy Sterling Manley, Brooks is the only option to counter any team with multiple big men. As an undersized center at just 6’8”, he still produces while regularly battling bigger, more physical players.
That also manifests on the defensive end, where North Carolina is arguably better with Brooks. There has been a habit of teams scoring less frequently when Garrison is on the court. For fun, I sometimes compile how UNC does with and without him. Here are a few tweets from some games. (Note: I sincerely apologize for the shameful self-promotion. They won’t give me the key to the Tar Heel Blog twitter machine because I can’t be trusted to behave.)
After taking down Harvard and Davidson:
UNC against Harvard and Davidson:— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) January 3, 2019
w/ Brooks: 33 minutes played, 35 points allowed
w/o Brooks: 47 minutes played, 82 points allowed
Brooks will be fine against 75% of the ACC.
“Can he step up against the top 3 teams?” is the question that needs answering
The first half of the first meeting against N.C. State.
UNC is +14 in 8 minutes w/ Brooks.— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) January 9, 2019
If that’s too arbitrary for you, how about this?
In those 8 minutes, State has 11 points.
In the other 12 minutes, they have 31 points.
Against Virginia Tech. Is this good?
If my public school math is correct, against Virginia Tech:— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) January 24, 2019
UNC w/ Brooks: +18, 51 points allowed in 29 minutes
UNC w/o Brooks: +3, 31 points allowed in 11 minutes
Is that good? That seems good.
And recently against Georgia Tech:
If my math is correct (debatable), UNC against GT:— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) January 30, 2019
w/ Brooks: 26 min, 28 pts allowed
w/o Brooks: 14 min, 26 pts allowed
Haters gonna hate though.
These very basic, out-of-context numbers are not finite, and do not happen every game. However, there is enough of a pattern that indicates a deeper contribution than what appears in the box score. His defensive prowess is backed up by his team-leading six defensive player of the game awards. Of course, there were also his contributions in the rematch against N.C. State.
Brooks has also shown the ability to improve, sometimes at a rapid pace. In the first game against Louisville, reserve big man Steven Enoch finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Louisville won the battle in the paint 32-26 and out-rebounded the Heels 40-31. Brooks was dismal, with just five points, zero rebounds, and two turnovers in 13 minutes.
When UNC visited the Cardinals a month later, Enoch was scoreless with just four rebounds. North Carolina had a 38-26 advantage in the paint and won the rebounding battle 49-32. For his part, Brooks finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 0 turnovers. Improvement all around.
If you’re still a cynic, then consider the Virginia game. After struggling in a physical first half, Brooks was borderline possessed in the second half. In the first 12 minutes and 35 seconds of the second half when North Carolina turned a 36-29 deficit into a 51-45 lead, Brooks had four points, three rebounds, two assists, and one steal. He would finish with 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists against a top-five team – all above his season averages.
Yes, he is also going to have other uneven performances. That’s what happens when you’re *checks notes* a sophomore playing out of position in a system that relies on post play. Brooks is still adjusting to his own strengths and weaknesses, and learning what he can and can’t do. Every game, he takes another step forward.
Brooks is not flashy. He lacks a go-to post move and can rush shots. He’s at least a year away from putting a team on his back. There are flaws in his game. I won’t deny those valid gripes, but truthfully, Brooks is exactly what this team needs: a player who knows his role, doesn’t chase stats, and simply wants to win. UNC is a top-10 team with him. They are not a top-10 team with anyone else starting in his place.
So, relax. Sit back. Enjoy the show.
Because right now, most fans don’t even know what they’re missing.