Talk to enough people in the NBA and there comes a point when you realize that a simple declarative phrase about a person's occupation is actually a compliment. When a coach or an executive or a player says about somebody in the league, "He's a basketball player," they're not just vamping for time; they're admiring the completeness of the player's game.
And when Jason Kidd, head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the best point guards in the history of professional basketball, says that about his rookie point guard, Malcolm Brogdon, three times within the span of four questions, it's a big, blinking neon sign that Brogdon has his coach in his corner.
"He knows how to play—he's a basketball player. He picked up things really quickly," Kidd says. "You could see it in summer league, but you could also see it in training camp. His calmness, his team's winning different drills, and guys feeling really comfortable playing with him."
All of that has carried over to the regular season. Brogdon has worked mostly as the backup point guard behind Matthew Dellavedova, but the rookie's combination of shooting (41.7 percent from three), court vision (5.9 assists per 36 minutes), and defense (there are 11 rookie guards averaging 15-plus minutes a night; Brogdon and Kris Dunn are the only ones with positive ratings in ESPN's Defensive RPM) have led Kidd to find him more playing time with each passing month. And while Brogdon's per-game numbers (9.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals) seem modest, they are extremely rare when you extrapolate them out per 36 minutes. In the history of the NBA, only two qualified rookies have managed at least 13 points, three rebounds, five assists, and 1.5 steals per 36 while also shooting 40 percent or better from three: Brogdon and Stephen Curry.
And that's before we get to the fact that the Bucks just keep finding success with him on the floor. Milwaukee has used 14 different two-man lineup combinations for at least 600 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Only four of those combinations have outscored their opponents, and Brogdon is involved in three of them. The Bucks are also plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions overall in Brogdon's time on the court, while they're minus-3.6 points per 100 with him on the bench.
Second-round picks don't often have an immediate impact like this, but then again, Kidd was somewhat surprised that Brogdon actually lasted until the second round. Just don't confuse that surprise with him being startled by Brogdon's impact. "I think a lot of people probably felt he could've went in the first round," Kidd says. "Fortunately, it didn't happen that way and we were very lucky that we had the opportunity to get him. I think you add the ingredients of the chip on his shoulder, feeling he should've been up in the first round, his work ethic, his basketball IQ—you look at the Ginobilis of the world, Gilbert Arenases of the world, who were second-round picks who've had a lot of success. He fits that bill."
"I'm a guy that has a lot of confidence in myself," Brogdon says. Photo by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Getting compared to Manu Ginobili and Gilbert Arenas 54 games into your career is high praise, but maybe the only person less surprised by Brogdon's early success than Kidd is Brogdon himself. "I'm a guy that has a lot of confidence in myself, high expectations for myself," he says. "I know how hard I work. I expect certain things for myself on the floor. I knew it would be hard and it has been hard. Every day is tough. Every day is a tough battle. But I've been prepared well, I had great people around me, and I've worked hard to get here."
A starter on one of the best teams in the country during each of his final three seasons at the University of Virginia, Brogdon learned to play both guard spots. "Playing on and off the ball in college and just sharing time at both positions, I thought that was huge," he says. "The success I'm having is because I can play the 1 and 2, whether or not I'm on the ball. I know how to score, but I can also play-make and play the point guard position."
For a player who spends a lot of his floor time playing next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the latest and greatest of the NBA's point forwards, it's important to have both of those clubs in your bag. And Brogdon does: he has a 61.2 effective field-goal percentage on catch-and-shoots, per NBA.com; he's third on the team in drives per game, and teammates are shooting 54.5 percent off his passes—the 12th-best mark among the 72 players averaging at least 40 passes per game this season, and on par with players like John Wall, Kyle Lowry, and Chris Paul.
"His shooting, he can catch-and-shoot the ball," Kidd says. "And his driving isn't above average—it's very good. He knows how to play. He might not be the fastest, but he understands that if he can shoot the ball the way he's shooting it now, it's just gonna help him be able to do a lot of different things."
Brogdon's contributions aren't limited to one end of the floor, either. He got just about as good a defensive education as you can get in the college ranks; Tony Bennett's pack-line defense has kept UVA near the top of the defensive efficiency rankings for years. The system he plays in now is quite a bit different—the Bucks employ one of the most aggressive help-and-recover schemes in the league, with everyone flying all over the floor—but Kidd notes that Brogdon adjusted to the differences very quickly, and he feels confident the rookie will be in the right place at the right time.
Jason Kidd likes what he sees in his rookie point guard. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Being able to move like that takes a ton of speed, strength, and stamina. Brogdon credits five years with UVA strength coach Mike Curtis (also the Memphis Grizzlies' trainer from 2002-08) with helping develop his body and his ability to operate at different speeds, both of which have helped him adjust to the quicker pace of the NBA. "I think the pace of play has been the thing that I've picked up quickly on," Brogdon says. "I thought I might struggle with it a little bit more. Things I've struggled with, I think is just consistency. Being able to be consistent every single night. I think that's the hardest thing to do in this league, especially for a rookie. There'll be ups and downs. I just want to be better at that."
Kidd has noticed the occasional bout of inconsistency, too, but he mostly chalks it up to the rookie learning curve. "I think for him, going through it and learning from mistakes and also stuff that he's had success with, it's just like a starting pitcher going around and seeing different teams for the first time and then making adjustments," Kidd says.
Adjusting to adjustments is one of the final steps in becoming a consistent player in the NBA, but it's also something that takes a while to learn, no matter how old you are when you enter the league. You can't actually make the counter-adjustment until you get adjusted to, after all. That's part of why younger players tend to be favored by NBA teams during the draft process. The learning curve takes as long as it takes, and the more prime years a player has left by the time it's done, the better. Brogdon was 23 years old on draft day and is already 24—he's practically an elder statesman as a rookie. Teammates call him the President, owing as much to his professional, well-spoken demeanor as to his deep, baritone voice and passing resemblance to Barack Obama. That maturity has served him well on the floor, but it's also what both he and Kidd theorize was the driving force behind his drop to the second round.
Still, Kidd doesn't think he's nearly maxed-out just yet. "I think that's just a myth," he said of the idea that older players have less room to grow once they enter the league. "At the age of 43 [Kidd's age], you're still learning about the game of basketball. So, I think that's just—someone, if they want to believe in that philosophy, that's what you believe in. But, at 24, 25, you still have a lot to learn and you can always get better."
Brogdon is already a positive contributor at the NBA's best position. He fits well next to the best player on the team and he has the confidence of the coach. He's locked down on an affordable deal for the next four years. All of that already makes him a home run of a second-round pick, yet he still has room to grow. If and when he does, the Bucks will reap even greater benefits.
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