Today we finish up with our upperclassmen summer previews for next year’s UNC basketball team. If you’ve been out of the loop, check out our previous work at the links below. As a reminder, these run every Monday or Tuesday and are in descending order of seniority. Graduate transfers and preferred walk-ons will be covered in the final installments.
If you’re as sharp as most of our readers are, you’ve deduced that today’s player preview is Garrison Brooks. The rising junior is UNC’s most experienced returning player and their only returning starter. After two years of holding down the paint at the center position, Brooks will (hopefully) spend most of his time at a more advantageous power forward position.
Five weeks ago, I mentioned that Brandon Robinson was one of the two most important players for UNC next season. The other partner of that duo, in my mind, is Garrison Brooks. Some will clamor for Leaky, or point to Cole Anthony, or even Armando Bacot. I fully acknowledge there are more talented players and bigger voids to fill on the perimeter, but for a system like UNC’s, dominant post play is mandatory for success.
Aside from the point guard position, North Carolina’s best teams have had under-appreciated or less-heralded players in one of the two post positions. Jawad Williams. Ed Davis. Kennedy Meeks. While there isn’t a Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough, or Brice Johnson on this year’s team (we think), there is a post-player that has often been misunderstood and lacked the true appreciation he deserves - Garrison Brooks.
His first two seasons haven’t been flashy. He was benched as a freshman and didn’t light up the scoreboard as a sophomore. What Brooks did, however, was make noticeable improvements – with and without the ball – and turned into the team’s best defensive player. Shortly after we named him our defensive player of the year, the basketball program did the same at their end-of-year banquet. As I wrote in February, it’s time to give this man his due.
Check out these stats from his first two years.
2017-18: 14.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 3.5 rbg, 0.5 apg, 52.8 FG%, 58.7 FT%
2018-19: 23.0 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.3 apg, 57.4 FG%, 63.9 FT%
That’s steady growth for a guy who played out of position, banged against opponent’s biggest players. and served as the team’s sixth scoring option. In ACC play, he finished with a 2.8 A:T ratio, trailing only (ahem) Brandon Robinson’s 4.0 A:T ratio. His +/- efficiency of +29.7 in conference play trailed only Cameron Johnson. Anyone strictly hung up on his final averages missed a complete and all-around performance last season.
Of course we have to ask, what does this mean for next season?
First and foremost, with so many new faces expected to play significant minutes, Brooks must continue to make his presence felt on the defensive end. Too often the past few years, communication break downs or lack of overall awareness have killed the Heels. Brooks was even part of those issues, such as the games against Michigan or Kentucky. We chronicled both of those debacles here and here. Most of those problems disappeared in ACC play.
To become the leader this team needs, Brooks will be one of the prime candidates to reel everyone in and get them rowing in the same direction. It won’t show up as additional blocks in the box scores and he won’t start shooting the gaps for easy steals. But, if Brooks can become the vocal leader on the court and show some expanded versatility by guarding quicker post-players, then North Carolina has a chance to be a top-tier defensive unit again.
If you need a refresher on what Brooks brings on defense, here’s a quick reminder from the win against N.C. State. Plus, don’t forget in last season’s ACC Tournament semifinals, Duke took the lead in the final minutes after Brooks fouled out with 2:32 to go. Defensively, the Heels will go as far as Brooks takes them.
He can also continue to become an assist machine while keeping the turnovers to a minimum. He committed just 10 turnovers during the entire ACC schedule, while averaging 25.7 minutes. That’s insane efficiency and a large reason his A:T ratio was so high. If he can even come close to mimicking the lack of turnovers, while capitalizing on assist opportunities out of the high-post as the trail man, then Brooks’ passing game could be the biggest surprise of his season.
Finally, let’s address Brooks’ offense. For two years, Brooks hasn’t shown much of an offensive repertoire at the rim. Opportunistic scoring, being in the right position (whether by rim running or finding open space), and overall aggression has led to limited and uneven success. He lacks the smoothness of Meeks and doesn’t have the athleticism of James Michael McAdoo or Isaiah Hicks.
To continue his growth, the development of a few post-moves is needed. Drop step. Up-and-under. Power dribble. Finishing through contact. Literally anything will help. The Heels will expect him to be a top-3 scoring option on any given night. If, as anticipated, Brooks sees more time at the power forward position, some of this could come to fruition. In theory, opponents will guard him with smaller players than previous years, making success in the post more plausible.
Of course, more time at the “4” also would lead to more opportunities from 6-15 feet. Success at the mid-range game would help open passing and driving lanes. That means Brooks needs to improve on his 30.3% success rate on jumpers outside of six-feet (per hoop-math.com). Nothing drastic, but just enough to keep defenses honest. It’s a skill that made Robinson (39.1%) , Black (39.3%), Johnson (41.5%), Maye (35.7%) and Williams (38.9%) so dangerous last year, but hasn’t quite developed into a weapon for Mr. Pickle.
Add all those components to Brooks’ rebounding abilities (which will continue to improve) and the rising junior has the chance to solidify himself as UNC’s anchor for the next two seasons. Nobody should be surprised if he approaches 30 minutes per game. A double-double average is a legitimate possibility, if not an expectation. Just make sure to notice all the other things he does well. For two years, most people have not.