The Los Angeles Lakers were about to bow out of the Las Vegas Summer League with two consecutive defeats. Stuck in the consolation bracket after falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they were hoping to stage a massive comeback in the 4th quarter against the Utah Jazz so they could walk away with a win, but the odds were against them.
With the Lakers down three and only seconds left, the ball found it’s way to sophomore wing Anthony Brown. One step behind the arc on the left side, Brown snapped his wrist and let the ball fly.
It sailed about a foot over the basket, effectively ending the game.
The knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the play. Brown had played well that game and actually connected on three of his five threes, which was a marked improvement. It was just one shot, taken under duress in a Summer League game, where wins and losses count only slightly more than a Brock Lesnar fight after the drug test comes in.
Still, there is something going on here beyond the small sample size, a nagging uneasiness that has become increasingly difficult to brush aside with each poor-shooting game. When he fires up a brick, there is now an audible rumbling of frustration from the crowd as hope for a turnaround dissipates.
This is not how this story was supposed to go. Brown was an excellent shooter in college, connecting on a very impressive 44 percent from three in his final season, and 45 percent the year before that. He was one of the top shooters in the 2015 draft, and many thought the Lakers got a steal when they selected him with the 34th pick out of Stanford.
Unfortunately, his marksmanship appears to have stayed at Stanford.
With the Lakers last season, Brown shot just 29 percent from three, a disappointing mark which he matched in his five games in Las Vegas. Furthermore, that Summer League shot from the left side of the arc–the one that may not have landed yet–was no outlier. Brown has hit just 14(!) percent from that location as a professional.
Brown was never expected to be a star in the NBA, but there were reasons to be excited about him. In addition to his stellar college shooting, he is also a fantastic wing defender, something the Lakers sorely need. At the perfect shooting guard/small forward height of 6’7” with a 6’11” wingspan, he can defend at least two positions in the pros, and possibly as many as four in a pinch.
It’s that kind of versatility that coaches love in the modern NBA, where teams build offenses around the pick-and-roll and off-ball screens in order to force switches and create mismatches. A player like Brown, who can switch all day without putting his team at a disadvantage, is a luxury to have.
Brown appeared to fit perfectly into a “3 and D” role, where he could follow in the footsteps of high-level role players like Bruce Bowen and Shane Battier. Spotting up on the perimeter and doing the dirty work defensively may not be a glamorous job, but it’s a crucial one, especially now that we are in the golden age of point guards.
When a crafty quarterback slithers into the lane, he needs snipers on the perimeter who can punish the defense for collapsing, and it’s a big plus if that shooter can also take on the job of guarding the opponent’s best scorer. Teams are willing to pay big bucks for players who can check those boxes.
For example, Allen Crabbe averaged just 10.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 26 minutes as a reserve for the Portland Trail Blazers last season, and became a restricted free agent this summer. The Brooklyn Nets signed him to a four-year, $75 million dollar contract. Again, not a typo.
It was a massive, eyebrow-raising contract for a good-not-great player, but the Blazers didn’t run away from screaming like post-aftershave Kevin McCallister. Instead, they matched the offer because Crabbe plays fantastic defense and shoots 39 percent from three. He makes life easier on star guards Damian Lillard and C.J McCollum, and now he is very rich because of it.
Brown was supposed to slot into a similar role for the Lakers, where he would be a release valve for guards D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, but with his shot going M.I.A that notion is out the window. His defense is still an asset, but if teams can ignore him on the offensive end it will be tough for Lakers Coach Luke Walton to play him, as Brown himself acknowledged,via Mark Medina of Inside SoCal:
“Make more shots; that’s the number one thing. If I do that, I’ll probably get on the court. But without that, I probably won’t get on the court.”
It’s rare for NBA athletes to be able to pin their hopes on just one skill, but for Brown it’s reality. He’s an excellent defender, and if he can regain his form and consistently knock down threes, he will be a multi-millionaire and a key role player for the Lakers. If not, he could find himself out of the league in short order.
Brown has a guaranteed contract for this season, but next year has a non-guaranteed deal worth just over $1 million. At that price it seems highly likely the Lakers will keep him around and hope his shot gets on track, knowing that at worst they have a tough defender to push Brandon Ingram in practice.
Once that contract is up, however, all bets are off. If his shot hasn’t reappeared at that point, it could mean the end of the road.
Fortunately, in spite of his struggles, there is still reason to believe that things will eventually click for Brown. Free throw percentage is often an indicator of shooting ability, and he shot 79 percent in his final season at Stanford and 85 percent in a small sample size with the Lakers. His perimeter shot may not be falling, but he simply isn’t as bad of a shooter as his current pro stats suggest he is.
Brown badly missed a shot with the game on the line in Summer League. Now, with so much more at stake, he will have to prove that last season was a fluke, and that he is the sharpshooter that everyone projected him to be.