The unlikely transformation of Bucks center Brook Lopez

Jamal CollierESPNJul 6, 2023, 7:17 AM ET9 minutes of reading

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MILWAUKEE — HIDDEN INSIDE the cupboard off Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez, during a home game at Fiserv Forum in the final week of the regular season, sits on a blue bottle with a yellow label that reads “Brook’s Secret Stuff.”

It’s the first thing Lopez reaches for after he finishes his pregame shooting routine on the court and returns to the locker room, a tradition that dates back to his days as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.

Inside the bottle isn’t the same placebo that the Looney Toons used to fuel their second-half comeback against the Monstars, but Lopez appreciates the nod to the movie “Space Jam.” Lopez has been drinking his “secret stuff,” essentially a pregame energy mix, since shortly after he first entered the league, but it wasn’t until he arrived in Milwaukee that the team’s training staff leaned into his love of animation and created the bottle and mark him.

“I take it 30 minutes before every game, try to do it right on the dot, 30 minutes,” Lopez told ESPN in April. “[The Bucks’ training staff] took it from there. These are your secret things. We have to make it official.”

Last season, Lopez played as if he believed the drink injected him with Monstars-level talent. At age 34, he averaged 15.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 53% from the field and 37% from 3-point range. He scored at least 20 points in 26 games last season, matching his 20-point game total from his first four regular seasons in Milwaukee. And after undergoing back surgery that cost him most of the previous season, Lopez returned to play in 78 games and finished second in the NBA in Defensive Player of the Year voting, behind the 23-year-old Memphis Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

In his 15th season in the NBA, Lopez transformed into the best version of himself — and a version of himself that was almost unrecognizable compared to the player he was when he first entered the league. Lopez is now a 3-and-D seven-footer capable of spacing the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo while punishing teams inside on mismatches and making opponents second-guess themselves in the paint. And his return to Milwaukee on a two-year, $48 million deal bolsters a core that already won a championship in 2021 and is looking for another.

“We’re not here without what Brook does,” Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said near the start of the 2023 postseason. “Giannis is the MVP; Jrue [Holiday] is, in my opinion, the best point guard in the league; Chris [Middleton] is one of the best closers in the league, we have one of the deepest teams in the league, but Brook is right there as important as anybody.”

During his first six seasons with the Nets, Brook Lopez averaged 18.0 points per game. game — zero of which came from 3-point range.Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY Sports

WHO IS The Nets’ all-time leading scorer.

It’s a trivia question that can boggle even the most die-hard NBA fans. It is not Julius Erving, who played only three seasons with the then New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. It is not Vince Carter who scored more than 25,000 points in his career, but only 8,834 with the then New Jersey Nets. It’s not Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, who are second and fourth on the Nets’ career points per game list, but who didn’t spend nearly enough time in Brooklyn to rack up a high number of points.

With 10,444 career points scored as a net (in both New Jersey and Brooklyn), it is Lopez who still holds the distinction as the franchise’s career points leader.

Perhaps just as surprising, given the type of player Lopez has developed into, is that only 411 of those 10,444 points came from beyond the arc.

Lopez, the Nets’ No. 10 overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Stanford, made a living for the franchise as a back-to-the-basket threat averaging at least 20 points per game. game four times in a seven-season. ranging from 2010-11 to 2016-17.

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was the Eastern Conference All-Star coach for Lopez’s lone All-Star appearance in 2013, and remembered the type of player the center was back then.

“He was a low post, go-to guy, so he has those skills,” Spoelstra said during the 2023 playoffs. “He’s not just a spot five. I think that’s what people probably forget who he was in Brooklyn.”

During his final season in Brooklyn, 2016-17, Lopez began the development that would make him the player he is now. After attempting a combined 31 3-pointers over the first eight seasons of his career, he took 387 3-pointers (at the time, the eighth-most in a single season in Nets history), making 134 of them. During a single offseason, Lopez increased his 3-point attempts by 5.0 per game, the largest one-season increase in NBA history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. At the time, his 34.6% 3-point shooting was slightly below the league average (35.8%), but it was a good first step that continued into his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers – enough to pique the interest of Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks needed a big man who could space the floor properly with Antetokounmpo blossoming into a superstar, so the Bucks’ new staff under then-head coach Mike Budenholzer challenged Lopez to continue to develop.

Splash Mountain was born.

Brook Lopez gets a block and then scores a 3

Brook Lopez blocks Joel Embiid’s shot and then scores a sweet 3-pointer at the other end.

“It was really just trying to get him acclimated to the system,” said Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, who was an assistant in Milwaukee in 2018. “It was a lot of conversations, a lot of work on the floor to get him good on the defensive end, but offensively, he had played a lot in the post, but became a lethal threat in the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop game. We did some different things in the gap. He started spacing the wing, the corners, and embraces the 3-point shot.”

No player in NBA history has had such a sudden embrace of the 3-point revolution. Lopez is the only player in league history to record five seasons with more than 100 made 3s and five seasons with zero made 3s, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Lopez shot a career-high 6.3 3-pointers per game in his first season in Milwaukee, making 187 of them (36.5%). During his five seasons with the Bucks, he has made 539 3-pointers, the second most of any 7-footer, behind only Utah Jazz All-Star Lauri Markkanen.

“I think it’s kind of humbling that the league is changing,” said Joe Ingles, who spent last season with the Bucks before agreeing to a new deal with the Orlando Magic last week. “[He said] ‘I don’t want to just go to the post and dominate from the post anymore, I have to figure out how to do that.’

This isn’t the first time Lopez has been forced to figure out how to develop. Foot and ankle injuries cost him most of the 2011–12 and 2013–14 seasons, limiting him to a total of 96 games over a three-year span. Then, coming off the Bucks’ July 2021 championship, a back injury cost him all but 13 games in 2021-22.

“I was lucky that I had a great surgeon take care of me with the back surgery last year,” Lopez said. “And then I had a great support group… They were in the plan together to just get me from the part of the surgery where I can get back on the field and then from there in the offseason to become an even better player. What I did in the offseason, being a better shooter, trying to be effective from the perimeter, so we tried to tie things into the weight room to help that transition a little bit.”

When Lopez showed up at the start of last season, several team sources raved about how fit he looked. He had spent the offseason honing his shot, working with a shooting coach to work on new routines. The work paid off as Lopez shot a career-best 37.4% from beyond the arc. And he still hasn’t lost it in the low post; he averaged 1.31 points per game. direct post-up, the second-highest efficiency in the league (trailing only DeMar DeRozan).

During the playoffs, where the Bucks were shockingly upset by the Heat in the first round, Lopez continued to perform well, averaging 19 points per game. game (his most in a playoff series since 2015) and shot 41.2% on 3-pointers.

“I always saw myself playing at a high level for a long time,” Lopez said. “But I’ve always had trainers who worked me and [twin brother] Robin out and they wanted us to do everything. It was almost like they were watching how basketball was supposed to go. It’s not like I’m an incredible wing or guard or anything, but having that foundation of skills helped me transition now.”

This summer, Lopez became a free agent for just the third time in his career. The first time came in 2018, when Lopez was coming off somewhat of a lost season with the Lakers (he had averaged a career-low 13.0 points on 46.5% shooting, which was the lowest mark of his career at the time). He was forced to settle for a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Bucks to rebuild his value. He re-signed with Milwaukee a year later for four years and $52 million.

Now Lopez, who told ESPN earlier this year, “I always knew I wanted to play a long time, I never envisioned a stopping point in my career,” is back with the Bucks on a two-year deal that will take him through his age-36 season and pay him $48 million, a number that reflects not only his skills but his value to the Bucks franchise and their championship aspirations.

“Defensive player of the year [candidate] and offensively, people always forget that this man leads a franchise in scoring,” Matthews said. “Brook can score. He’s talented as hell. He puts the ball on the ground, takes advantage of mismatches, he finishes above the basket. What he does for us defensively, it just protects the paint. He’s so unselfish on both ends of the court.”

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