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UNC Basketball 2018-19 Most Improved Player: Garrison Brooks

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The sophomore big man showed substantial growth this season

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament- Iona vs North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This morning I’ll kick off Tar Heel Blog’s end-of-season superlatives. First “award” in the chute? Most improved player for the 2018-2019 season.

This one can be tricky. Is it the most improved from the previous season? The most improved compared to expectations? The most improved over the course of the season? For any and all of those questions, there are plenty of possible picks. Coby White, Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson and Garrison Brooks all have a legitimate case, depending on your personal criteria for the award.

Basing the selection on improvement from last season and throughout this season, this season’s pick is Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks. Listeners of the Carolina Insider podcast with Jones Angell and Adam Lucas will understand that reference.

A quick comparison of very basic stats from his first two seasons:

2017-18: 14.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.9 to, 0.3 spg, 52.8 FG%, 58.7 FT%
2018-19: 23.0 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 0.8 to, 0.6 spg, 57.4 FG%, 63.9 FT%

On the surface, these aren’t huge jumps. Solid. Consistent. Steady. In this case, though, stats don’t tell the entire story. It’s important to remember where Brooks started this season and where UNC finished. You can almost chronicle his (and UNC’s) evolution on this site alone.

Before the first game, there was legit concern from fans and the coaching staff about which big man, Brooks or Sterling Manley, would make the necessary leap to earn playing time at center. Roy Williams publicly sated he was waiting for someone to take control of the opportunity. Brandon predicted Manley would get the first shot, and I later stated the importance of Manley’s emergence to UNC’s long-term success. Welp. We were slightly off base.

At the same time, constant chatter calling for Nassir Little to start over Brooks (or, comically, Cam Johnson) clogged social media through the first half of the season. Brooks didn’t display the offensive scoring abilities fans are used to seeing at the center position and his defense noticeably struggled against high profile teams. Remember the issues with the pick-n-roll against Michigan, or the interior presence of Kentucky?

Little’s high ceiling potential and Brooks’ seemingly serving as a liability on both ends had fans frustrated and some better-connected basketball writers perplexed. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie was one of the more vocal proponents for more playing time for Little.

That doesn’t include the season-altering whipping that Louisville brought to Chapel Hill in early January. That game brought out this scorching hot take from another popular UNC fan site. Yikes.

Yet, Brooks persevered to the point of becoming indispensable. Midway through his freshman season, Brooks lost his starting spot to a less-than-100% Cameron Johnson and saw his role drastically reduced as he split time with Manley off the bench. This season, he blocked out the noise, stepped up when Manley was sidelined with lingering knee issues and simply improved throughout the ACC season. Here are his conference stats from last year to this year.

2017-2018: 12.3 mpg, 2.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.7 to, 0.3 spg, 59.5 FG%, 50.0 FT%
2018-2019: 25.7 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.6 to, 0.6 spg, 57.4 FG%, 57.1 FT%

And this year’s non-conference stats compared to conference stats:

2018-2019 (NC): 18.8 mpg, 8.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.8 apg 1.3 to, 0.6 spg, 55.6 FG%, 67.6 FT%
2018-2019 (ACC): 25.7 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.7 apg, 0.6 to, 0.6 spg, 57.4 FG%, 57.1 FT%

Again, on the surface, these look like average increases or even regressions. That would be a questionable conclusion. Understanding his role, playing within his limits, and doing the dirty work helped key UNC’s 14-1 record over the final 15 regular season ACC games. In February we pointed out that fans should be more appreciative of Brooks’ efforts. The below tweets also display what he brought on the defensive end. (I apologize for the self-promotion).

Some notes from his performances against Harvard and Davidson, right before ACC play began.

Against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech:

First half at Duke:

Sensing a theme? After wins against NC State (detailed here) and at Duke (detailed here) we highlighted his importance on that end of the floor, though admittedly some advanced stats didn’t even quite back up these observations. Brooks’ personal defensive rating was 98.4 for the season and 100.7 in conference play. Both were just 12th best on the team. I believe the answer to his effectiveness largely lies in the pace at which teams scored with Brooks on the floor.

Opponents were often more efficient against the Heels when Brooks’ was on the floor (thus, a higher DRtg, which measures efficiency), but they often scored at a slower pace because of the difficulty he caused opponents. Brooks was rewarded with a team-high 12 defensive player of the game awards by the coaching staff. Seven of those awards were against ACC competition. Both were team highs.

But here’s the crazy thing. Despite the low scoring numbers, he was perhaps more important on offense. Those stats show some dips, but notice the improvement in his assists and turnovers as the year went on. His A:T was just shy of 3:1 (very good) in ACC play after being 1:1.5 (very bad) before the New Year. He didn’t even commit a turnover in 10 ACC games.

His overall efficiency numbers also back up his importance on the offensive end. An offensive rating of 125.7 for the season was fifth best on the team, trailing Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Brandon Huffman and Caleb Ellis. In ACC play, his ORtg jumped to 130.3, trailing only Johnson.

Those numbers led to an increase in Brooks’ overall efficiency (ORtg – DRtg = +/-Efficiency). Last year, Brooks’ average efficiency for the entire season was +4.6 and just +0.8 in conference. This season, that ballooned to +27.2 and +29.5. Only Cameron Johnson was better. Seriously.

My biggest regret of this season is we didn’t do a complimentary film-review of Brooks’ growth on both ends of the floor. His shot-altering interior defense and his improved efforts on pick-n-rolls keyed an elite UNC defense to a regular season ACC title. His understanding of UNC’s offense, and his role in that system, led to one of the more prolific offenses in Roy Williams’ time at Chapel Hill.

Despite all of those improvements, Brooks should flourish by moving back to his natural position at power forward next season. If that happens, and Brooks can consistently score in double-digits, he may just find himself as the most improved player next year as well.