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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Garrison Brooks

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We kick off our preview series with the returning All-ACC big man

North Carolina v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The calendar has turned to August and there is a flickering light at the end of this long, weird COVID-induced tunnel. With professional sports returning in recent weeks, and both the ACC and SEC announcing a framework for fall sports, optimism for winter sports grows. At least for the moment.

So, with that in mind, today we start our individual player summer previews for the men’s basketball program. Last year, starting in early July, we typically posted one preview per week on Sunday afternoons. Over the next two months, our aim is to provide multiple previews for most weeks in order to complete them prior to the season. (And, technically, the summer. Because, you know, “summer” previews).

Like last year, we’ll start with the seniors, followed by the juniors, sophomores, and then all six freshmen. First one in the chute this year, is Garrison Brooks. Enjoy!

Garrison Brooks

Power Forward, Center
6-9/235
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%
2019-20: 34.9 mpg, 16.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 53.9 FG%, 64.1 FT%

After two years of being the consummate role player and defensive stalwart among upperclassmen and freshmen lottery picks, Brooks had a break-out season in 2019-20. We foreshadowed that possibility after his sophomore year, but he was undoubtedly better than expected. His 16.8 ppg and 8.5 rpg were good enough for second-team All-ACC and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. A few more Ws in the win column might have nudged him to first-team, but c’est la vie. Brooks was among the few positives in an otherwise disappointing year, and he’s returning for a senior encore.

So, what will that mean for next year?

Deeper Bench = Better Brooks

More than anyone else, Brooks should benefit from the addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans in Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe and a healthy sophomore Armando Bacot. Adding two players to the rotation may seem counterintuitive to benefitting the returning senior. It’s not.

During his first two seasons, Brooks played most of his minutes at the “5” spot (center), on teams with plenty of depth but few post options. That required Brooks to guard, and be guarded by, the opposition’s center. That’s a lot of energy to expend for an undersized, offensively-limited center, but Brooks found a niche in that role. That changed last season with Armando Bacot’s arrival.

However, without a third post option due to Sterling Manley’s injury, Brooks was forced to play extended minutes at both power forward and center. That resulted Brooks leading the team in minutes played while facing more diverse defensive matchups. Injuries, inexperience, and a drop in overall talent also made Brooks the top scoring option for much of the year. All those factors fueled his breakout season. They also caused a dip in his efficiency.

Increased Efficiency?

A deeper rotation might cut into his minutes, but more post options theoretically will allow for more efficient shooting (more space for Brooks and priorities for the defense) and reduce overall fatigue. Those are two critical factors to Brooks’ offensive success and UNC’s defensive success.

With Bacot battling injuries and adjusting to the college game, UNC lacked a consistent dual post threat. That allowed teams to collapse on Brooks, negatively impacting his success at the rim. Check out these numbers from Hoop-Math. Using their data, attempts at the rim are defined as a lay-up, dunk, or tip-in. I’ve also added his two-point jump shot numbers.

Brooks Rim and Mid-range Comparison

Year FGM/A at rim FG% at rim % of total FGA at rim FGM/A 2-PT Jumper FG% 2-PT Jumper % of total FGA 2-PT J
Year FGM/A at rim FG% at rim % of total FGA at rim FGM/A 2-PT Jumper FG% 2-PT Jumper % of total FGA 2-PT J
2018-19 (SO) 89-113 78.8 55.9 27-89 30.3 40.4
2019-20 (JR) 116-170 68.2 43.9 89-210 42.4 54.3

Splitting time between both post positions, but without effective outside shooting (see: spacing) or an additional low-post threat (see: spacing), Brooks’ flipped the script on his production. His jump shooting increased in total attempts and efficiency, while his efficiency at the rim dropped. If he can maintain or improve the efficiency on his jumpers, while returning to his 2018-19 levels of success at the rim, Brooks will be a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate.

A deeper rotation of viable offensive options is one way that can happen. Improving his free throw shooting and developing a post move that doesn’t end in two dribbles and a contested shot attempt will also help. For what it’s worth, Brooks’ footwork and post moves did improve throughout last season, as unorthodox as he usually looks when operating (see below).

Defensive Resurgence?

A deeper rotation will also help Brooks on the defensive end. We have touched on his defensive prowess for the past three years, including this film review last season. The Heels will only go as far as Brooks’ defense takes them, but he struggled last year with increased playing time and carrying the team on his back at both ends of the floor, in addition to the increased responsibility of guarding more power forwards who operated at times from the perimeter. Per Sports-Reference, his DRtg finished at 104.5 for the season, a decline from 98.5 as a sophomore.

Most notably, the Heels allowed an unadjusted 1.02 points per possession on the season. The previous season that number was 0.97. That may seem inconsequential, but considering UNC lost six games by one possession and 11 by single digits, that’s the difference in finishing 14-19 and 25-8. Though he did struggle guarding some of the more athletic big men that he wasn’t required to defend in previous years, it’s hard to pin much of that on Brooks.

Without any consistent help in the post (or, truthfully, anywhere on the court), the rising senior was overburdened, physically and mentally. For comparison, Bacot had a DRtg of 99.0 in 24.5 minutes per game. It’s tempting to think what Brooks could do in 29 minutes, hitting 45% of his jumpers and 75% of his attempts at the rim, while returning to a sub-100 DRtg.

Brooks deserves all the attention and pre-season accolades that he’s getting and will continue to get. Even though UNC didn’t get the results, he proved last season he can carry a team, and truthfully, Brooks should touch the ball at least once during every UNC possession. He’s that important to this club’s success.

However, he needs help to get this team back to its winning ways. More post options next season should provide that help without significantly impacting his production.