How Dillon Brooks became the trash-talking, sunglass-wearing soul of the Memphis Grizzlies | Giannotto
Dillon Brooks is talking about surviving in the NBA, but he’s describing psychological warfare.
With himself, and with everyone else on the court with him.
He brings up the Kobe Bryant documentary that ultimately convinced Brooks he needed to turn into something else on the court with the Memphis Grizzlies. Out of that came the in-your-face agitator who isn’t afraid of anyone or any shot, wears sunglasses and designer clothes to postgame press conferences, and brags about eating gold-encrusted steak.
He explains the old-school code he lives by in the NBA, one in which compliments from opponents are an admission of weakness because “I talk (expletive),” Brooks said last month in an interview with The Commercial Appeal. “If they gave me that satisfaction, I’m going to take it a whole different way. I just go out there and I got no friends. I just see red and I just try to kill whoever’s in front of me.”
He mentions the signal he looks for in every game, suggesting there is a very distinct method to the madness Brooks often inspires in whomever he’s matched up with. He pushes and shoves and obnoxiously claps and doles out a steady stream of trash talk until the refs won’t let him push or shove or clap or talk anymore. Or until that player pushes or shoves or claps or talks back when they never normally push or shove or clap or talk.
“Then I’m just laughing,” Brooks said. “That’s when I know I’ve got you.”
The Dillon Brooks blueprint
As the final month of this condensed NBA regular season fast approaches, there is a spirit carrying these Grizzlies to heights nobody outside the organization predicted for the second season in a row, particularly since Jaren Jackson Jr. has yet to play in a game.
It’s based on a refusal to accept their lot in life, or the expectations set by others, and it’s usually defined by the well-told rise of Ja Morant.
But it’s Brooks, the longest-tenured and most polarizing member of the Grizzlies, who embodies the unexpected stubbornness of the past two years better than anyone.
Brooks, 25, has become the soul of this team, the player that coach Taylor Jenkins cites to demonstrate “why we’re so competitive.” It’s mostly through sheer will, and a willingness to be the provocateur few want to be but every good team needs.
He is annoying and endearing – "a pest but not a prick" is how Paul Melnik, his high school coach in the Toronto area, put it – and an example of what often separates the players that carve out long NBA careers and those that flame out after a few years.
"There’s a blueprint in order to make money or be in this league,” Brooks said. “You’re going to come in and you’re not going to be able to score like you did in college. There’s thousands of guys like that in this league. You’ve got to play defense, play hard as (expletive), and wait for your opportunity."
“I want to make generational money," he continued, "and if you’re able to score at a high rate and guard the best players, those are hard players to find. If you look up all those players, they’re either hall of famers or they made $100 million-plus. That’s all I’m trying to do.”
That’s all, right?
Brooks’ complexity as a basketball player stems from that statement, or his desire to create a moniker for his on-court persona other than "Dillon the Villain," like Bryant had with “Black Mamba.” He is confident enough to talk about himself in the same breath as the game’s greats, and yet he is pragmatic enough to acknowledge the physical limitations that forced him to be who he has become in the NBA.
That’s why Brooks will trail the player he's guarding from the time the ball is inbounded to the moment the defensive possession is over. He’s always there, harassing you even if he’s punching above his weight class.
That’s why he finished third in the NBA in personal fouls last season and ranks among the top 10 in the league this season.
And that’s why, even though he’s been just as likely to take an ill-advised shot as force one on defense at times, his value in the locker room is unquestioned.
“He’s one of those guys that you see us on the schedule, other players know what he’s bringing to the table,” guard Tyus Jones said, “and that, yeah, he can easily get under guys’ skin.”
'You make your name in the playoffs'
By now, the approach is refined. Brooks has thought about this. A lot, actually. At his best, the antics are a strategic sideshow not the scene stealer.
It seems to be no coincidence this stretch of the season – in which the Grizzlies moved into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings – aligns with the best stretch of Brooks’ season. Just as Brooks’ best stretch of last season, which culminated with the 6-foot-7 wing signing a 3-year, $35-million contract extension in February 2020, was also the team’s best stretch of last season.
He’s shooting less, making just as many shots, passing more and pondering what's next. From the 2017 NBA Draft class, only seven players have scored more points than Brooks and none were second-round picks.
“I want to make the playoffs badly,” he said. “I feel like a lot of the players know who I am, but the whole masses don’t know who I am. You make your name in the playoffs. I feel like that’s my type of game. Not these little touchy calls and all that. Just grown men playing and I’m able to actually play physical.”
But it happened to Trae Young last Wednesday in Atlanta.
Brooks defended the Hawks’ young star most of the game, hounding Young with an array of subtle shoves and chest bumps and trash talk every time he touched the ball.
By the third quarter, with the Grizzlies pulling away for another win, Young uncharacteristically shoved Grayson Allen to the court out of frustration. As the ref doled out a technical foul, Brooks walked across the screen laughing maniacally.
He knew he got another one.
You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto