LAS VEGAS — When Dillon Brooks settled into his seat next to Jaren Jackson Jr. at halftime of Saturday’s Grizzlies-Bulls game, soaking up the atmosphere inside Cox Pavilion, a Memphis official approached him, his smile as wide as the arena itself.
The two shared a long embrace and exchanged pleasantries before the conversation turned to basketball, where Brooks is now a member of the Houston Rockets, having left the Grizzlies in free agency, the team he spent his entire six-year career before the move. Despite the jovial tone of the exchange, it was clear that Brooks was already in semi-playoff mode.
“Four times,” Brooks said, referring to the number of games the Grizzlies and Rockets would play against each other during the regular season. “Four times. Four times. And I got him too!”
Brooks raised his voice with his last sentence, fully aware of the intended target, former teammate Desmond Bane – knowing he was within earshot at the right decibel. The Grizzlies wing didn’t hesitate to join in the festivities.
“He already said he won’t be able to protect me!” Bane replied with a smile. “He already said ‘I’m coming out of a pin-down and he can’t hold me!'”
Bane grabbed Brooks and the two play-wrestled, starting at the baseline and spilling onto the court before embracing. The love still burns strong in Memphis, but Brooks is ready to bring that same passion, fire and energy to his new Rockets team.
Brooks, fresh off signing a new contract with Houston that will pay him $86 million over four years (with incentives that could reach up to $90 million), sat down with Athletics to discuss his new team, what he brings to the table, early expectations and more.
Why Houston? What enticed you to take your talents to the Rockets at this point in your career?
You know, it was like the same type of thing with Memphis. A nice young core. I feel like I can make an impact there. And just give my veteranity and my defensive love of the game, bring that sense of professionalism and try to change that.
This is a Rockets team with a ton of young talent, but has really struggled defensively over the last two, three seasons. Now you’ve entered the picture fresh off a season in which you earned All-Defense honors. What do you bring to the table?
Just a lot of gravel. A lot of heart, a lot of knowledge, also good defensive play. And I’m here to teach, you know what I’m saying? I can’t wait to work with Tari (Eason). I feel like he can be a great player in this NBA – especially a great defender – and develop his game, his athleticism and everything. But I can’t wait to work with him. And yes, pretty much. And just, you know, just that veteran savvy.
Being paired with a head coach in Ime Udoka who also preaches defense, how does that bode for the future of the team trying to reset the culture and help these guys grow?
Just trying to build the right way. This is an offense-driven league, but to win championships, to win games on a consistent basis, you have to have defense. Everyone can score. Everyone can find a way to make plays. But how can you get a stop? And that was part of my reason I chose (Houston). Ime Udoka is a fantastic coach. And I want to be trained by a great trainer.
Have you had any conversations with Fred VanVleet or any of the other guys on the team since you agreed to sign with the Rockets?
I talked to Jalen. I can’t wait to work with him, he can’t wait to work with me, develop our game together. Talked to Fred a bit. He can’t wait to get to work – that’s all he preaches. Let’s get to work, let’s get to work. And then I met (Alperen) Şengün as well and (Jae’Sean) Tate. So I met a few of the guys. And I can’t wait to meet more of the guys and get used to everything.
You are someone who will always speak your mind and you are not afraid to get in other players’ faces. The team needs an edge like that. So with that chip on your shoulder, with how everything ended with the Grizzlies, what are you trying to bring from Day 1?
I’m just trying to be contagious. I just want to be contagious energy, you know what I’m saying? And I feel with my veteran presence, my leadership, my energy, it’s contagious. And guys play hard and guys want to play both sides. So I can’t wait to get that effect and change it.
One hundred percent. I think they have seen it. You know that was two years ago. But just getting to my spots, being more of a downhill threat and just trying to be a better floor spacer.
What is your motivation? What moves Dillon Brooks?
Fight up. I try to find motivation every single day, every single match, but I can get it. You always want to play with that fire, especially as a defenseman, because if you take a day or a play off, guys take advantage of that. And that’s one thing that we’re probably going to try to do in Houston — hold people accountable and the details of everything.
There’s been a lot of talk about you, but not a lot of discussion about you finishing second team All-Defense. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure. I do not care. I know, every single night, guys think about me. It’s on their mind before the game even starts. So I’m not worried about that. It’s just one thing you put down as good recognition and try to keep replicating every single season. But I’m glad I joined the team.
Are there any early expectations like making the Play-In tournament or playoffs this season? Any personal goals for yourself?
Small steps. I feel like it’s going to start in training camp with our habits. Our attention to detail, how hard we play and then going game by game and trying to get better. But of course we will go to the playoffs and the Play-In and change it all that way. But it’s going to take baby steps. It’s going to take guys who listen and guys who are ready to play. Guys are excited about this.
You mentioned making these young players better. How can you help someone like Şengün, a talented offensive center who also wants to improve on the other side of the ball? Because that position is considered the last line of defense and the most important, how can your presence on the field help him?
Just being in the right spots on drop coverages or if we switch, just being in the right spots, understanding that there’s always a game plan for everybody, especially when we have to switch. So how does a player like to go right or left, his strengths, film work and stuff. That’s the way I can help him get better on the defensive end. And so, in the end, it’s just the will and the fight.
Do you agree with the idea that VanVleet will be able to give you more effective shots? Your 3-point percentage dipped last season, but how does playing with someone like VanVleet help your effectiveness and efficiency?
Yes, definitely. He finds ways to get guys open and I just have to start knocking them down, that’s all. I can’t wait to play with Fred. He’s a skilled guard, loves to find his teammates, but ultimately can find a way to score as well. I can’t wait to play him and our games mix well.
I know every top defender has certain tricks to their game. Are you willing to share all your secrets with these guys to help bring their defensive level up, or are there some tools you want to keep to yourself?
I will definitely share. I always share my gems all the time. And I will definitely share because we have to change. Every guy wants a chance to protect anyone. So obviously I have to teach them. That’s why I went through this seven-year league thing, because I have the knowledge of how to guard these guys. I’ll give them a few tricks, just different things to be in the right positions, stuff like that. I can’t wait, I can’t wait to get to work.
(Top photo: Scott Cunningham / NBAE via Getty Images)