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Troy Brown Jr. and the gift (and curse) of surviving as an NBA role player



Troy Brown Jr. found himself in an unfamiliar position in the opening moments of a recent Lakers game against the Oklahoma City Thunder: handling the ball himself on a change in possession. Once he crossed from the left sideline to the middle of the floor to use a ball screen from new teammate Jarred Vanderbilt, Brown saw a brief window to make a play — and, perhaps, a statement.

As his new teammate sealed Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey and rolled toward the basket, Brown zipped a one-handed bullet-pass past the ears of multiple Thunder defenders. Before they knew it, Vanderbilt was racing to catch the pass in stride and finishing with an uncontested dunk.

“That was a … beautiful find by Troy Brown,” described Thunder broadcaster Nick Gallo on the game’s broadcast, pausing briefly in the middle as he tried to find the words to describe a sequence that was rare to most watching, if not to Brown himself.

“It’s kind of funny when I’m passing and people are like, ‘Oh, he’s a really good passer,’” Brown told The Athletic in front of his locker in mid-January.

In a perfect world, the 6-foot-6 Brown would be making those sorts of plays regularly as a primary ballhandler, rather than sprinkling them in every few games. He grew up as a five-star recruit in Las Vegas, parlaying his playmaking prowess into 2017 Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American honors. Oregon made Brown the crown jewel of its 2017 recruiting class, and a year later, the Washington Wizards chose him with the No. 15 pick in the NBA Draft.

Four and half years later, while donning Lakers practice gear and sitting on a black fold-up chair at the Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Facility, 2,700 miles from the Wizards’ own facility, Brown admitted he’s learned there are few certainties in the business of the NBA and the life of a role player.

The Lakers are Brown’s third NBA team in five seasons across three different time zones. In each spot, Brown has started and come off the bench, played with and without the ball and changed roles several times. The journey has forced him to accept what most successful role players eventually realize but not all can admit after being stars their whole youth: It’s not about him.

“I feel like, in order for me to last in this league, I’m more of a 3-and-D wing,” Brown said. “That’s more of what the game is evolving into.”

His old high-school role – his preferred role, if it was somehow realistic – was never going to happen on a Lakers team led by usage-heavy superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis and several additional lead ballhandlers. Even with James out for at least three weeks due to a right foot tendon injury, Brown’s responsibilities in Los Angeles are simple: Knock down open 3s, defend the opponent’s best perimeter scorer and fill in the dirty-work gaps around the superstars. Anything more, and the 23-year-old Brown risks trying to do too much.

“His game is simple, man,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said when asked explicitly about Brown’s versatility. “He’s definitely a 3-and-D guy, but he’s a guy you can fit and put on the court with a variety of different players. He doesn’t necessarily need the ball in his hands.”

Brown understands the importance of his role, even if it’s somewhat out of his comfort zone. The Wizards trading him to Chicago ahead of the 2021 trade deadline was a signal that he needed to shift his priorities to play more off the ball as a floor-spacer and lockdown wing defender.

That ability to fit in has allowed him to emerge as a vital contributor for the Lakers this season. Brown is averaging 7.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists with a 56.5 true shooting percentage while starting 35 of 59 games and enhancing a variety of different lineups. In a season full of adjustments, Brown has embraced the role-player credo that’s required for longevity: Adapt to survive.

“You have to kind of carve out a role with whatever your situation is,” Brown Jr. said. “So that’s how I kind of try to look at it.”

Yet even as he serves a vital purpose for the Lakers, he can’t help but reflect on the “gift and curse” of his situation, to use his words. The same qualities that are allowing him to outplay his veteran’s minimum contract – his versatility, his self-awareness, his coachable attitude – also keep his role constantly in flux and make it hard to achieve the stability players like him crave. It’s a double-edged sword he has learned to accept.

“Sometimes it’s tough because I feel like I’m always the guy that has to adjust because I can do so many things on the court,” Brown said. “But I feel like that’s the same thing that keeps me in the NBA.”

Troy Brown Jr. got to show off his playmaking for the Wizards during the 2020 NBA bubble. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Brown looks back fondly on one memorable stretch of his career: the 2020 bubble in Orlando at the end of his second NBA season. With leading scorers Bradley Beal and Dāvis Bertāns not present for the two-week, eight-game stretch, Brown assumed a leading role for a short-handed Wizards team, averaging 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 32.9 minutes per game.

“If we’re being honest, growing up, I was more of a point guard,” Brown Jr. said. “I had the ball in my hands, more of a playmaker. … I’m just trying to fit into my role and be able to do everything on the court.”

Yet Brown also understands his brief dalliance with a high-usage role is not realistic with this version of the Lakers — or most teams, for that matter. Even as he took on a leading role with the Bubble Wizards, he shot just 37.9 percent overall and 32.4 percent on 3s for a team that went 1-7. Aside from point guards and superstar ballhandlers, most NBA players have to contribute by spacing the floor, making timely cuts and running the lane in transition.

Given those constraints, it’s difficult for role players like Brown to establish themselves as anything more than a secondary ballhandler. That doesn’t necessarily make the sacrifice any easier, though.

“His maturity and basketball IQ is absolutely through this roof, man,” said Thomas Bryant, a former teammate of Brown’s in Washington from 2018 to 2021 and this season with the Lakers before a Feb. 9 trade to Denver. “For him to come on this Lakers team and be a juggernaut on defense, knock down some key 3s, make shots, sacrifice himself and his minutes and his body for the betterment of the team, that speaks a lot of value.”



‘It’s just about me being aggressive’: The resurgence of Troy Brown and what his growth means for the Wizards

The defense segment of Brown’s necessary 3-and-D role has always come naturally to him, given his size, length and competitive spirit. The shooting part has been a more considerable adjustment.

Brown is a rhythm player who prefers to have the ball in his hands to warm up his shot, so standing in the corner as a stationary shooter for large segments of possessions has been a challenge throughout his career. Entering this season, he had never shot better than 35.3 percent from 3 — roughly a league-average percentage. His inconsistent jumper contributed to his spotty minutes in Washington playing for Scott Brooks, and then in Chicago under Billy Donovan.

Ham has given Brown a bright green light from 3 this season, and he’s responded by shooting 37.3 percent on 3.6 3-point attempts per game — both career highs. That’s still short of Brown’s own goal of 40 percent, but it’s been good enough to earn more minutes.

“I’ve told him anytime someone closes out on you with their hands down, that’s a green light for you to shoot it,” Ham said. “And with his size and his ability to get it off, I welcome those shots.”

Ham has referred to Brown as a “Swiss Army knife” multiple times. Depending on the matchup and the availability of the rotation, Brown Jr.’s role fluctuated as he played shooting guard through power forward and slid between starting and the bench. When the Lakers remade their roster over the two weeks leading into the Feb. 9 trade deadline — acquiring Rui Hachimura, D’Angelo Russell, Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Davon Reed and Mo Bamba — Brown suddenly had more competition on the wing.

The last month has featured even more role changes. When the Lakers debuted their new rotation after their trades, Brown was the first player off the bench. But after James injured his foot Feb. 26 in Dallas, Ham inserted Brown into the starting lineup as the starting small forward. With Russell also missing time with a right ankle sprain, Brown has been asked to initiate transition sequences and pick-and-roll actions with Davis.

“I think it’s hard,” Brown said of fitting into a 3-and-D box. “I definitely see myself as a wing. I feel like with this team, a lot of times I’m setting a lot of pick-and-rolls, waiting on the opposite side for actions. It’s kind of good to get nights like (against Oklahoma City) and nights like (Jan. 30 against) Brooklyn, where I get to handle and play pick-and-roll. It’s not a problem or anything like that.”

Yet Brown is having a moment amid all the change. As the 31-34 Lakers have made their postseason push, Brown’s multi-positional defense, knack for making timely plays and recently elite shooting (he’s made 46.3 percent of his 3s since Feb. 9) supplement every Lakers lineup.

In the Lakers’ 113-105 win Sunday over the Warriors, Brown led the team in minutes (41 minutes, 11 seconds) while seamlessly switching between defending Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Jordan Poole around the 3-point arc. Ham said Brown “earned his weight in gold” with that performance.

“I think for me, it just makes me more valuable on the court to be versatile and to be able to do different stuff,” Brown said. “And when we have certain guys out, D. Ham feels comfortable putting me in other slots and different positions. I appreciate the confidence.”

At this point in his career, Brown, who will be a free agent this summer, understands he will forever be on a journey to discover and establish his place in the NBA hierarchy. There will always be a part of him that longs to take on the leading role he once carried in high school and college.

But he’s also seen how many players with his pedigree haven’t been able to develop the modern NBA’s en vogue complementary skill set. Several players from the first round of Brown’s 2018 draft class are already out of the league.

Meanwhile, he’s still here, willingly forgoing many of his desires and rolling with the punches to survive.

“I mean, it’s the NBA,” Brown said. “Honestly, I can’t say that this isn’t the craziest season I’ve ever had. I feel like I’m kinda used to it at this point. … You either make it or you don’t.”

(Top photo: Dylan Buell / Getty Images)  

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