- Senior Writer for ESPN The Magazine
- Columnist for ESPN.com
- Author of five books (3 NYT best-sellers)
IT’S ABOUT AN hour before tipoff in Memphis, Tennessee, where the Timberwolves are in town, when I approach the NBA’s most notorious player to let him know I’ll be following him around for about a week.
Dillon Brooks, a man who has earned and embraced the nickname “Dillon the Villain,” is staring into his locker when he says, by way of introduction, “You’re going to get some good stuff out of me.”
This is welcomed news. I was hoping there was more good stuff, however he defines it, still to come. He nods and explains: There’s more to come because there are still teams out there the Grizzlies have yet to play. He shrugs. It’s all very linear and rational. The good stuff, apparently, tends to disproportionately afflict the uninitiated.
“That sounds like you’ve got more chances to make more friends,” I say.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, “a lot more friends.”
I laugh. He does not.
THERE IS NOTHING delicate about the way Dillon Brooks plays basketball. He grabs and shoves, bumps with shoulders and checks with hips. He charges through screens with the refinement of a brick through a window, sure to get two hands (at least) on everyone in his path. He dives for loose balls without regard for himself or anyone else, and there are times when limbs (theirs) are endangered by limbs (his). There are many, many times when the contact lasts just a little too long and is just a little rougher than necessary. Make of it what you will.
He has perfected the unsubtle art of getting in the way. His sole purpose is to deny the beauty of the game, and he does it using an age-old method: with harassing, annoying, incessant contact. Being guarded by him is like wearing a human body — a large, strong, sweating human body — for the better part of two hours. He is a 6-7 small forward/shooting guard who matches up against the NBA’s best scorers, no matter their size or position, from Steph Curry to Giannis Antetokounmpo, from James Harden to Kevin Durant. His intent is the same each time. “To be like a fly,” he says in a low growl.
He is known for his defense, and better known as the league’s foremost instigator. But there is, if you squint your eyes and look closely enough, method amid the madness. On a contending team like the Grizzlies, Brooks’ impact is easy to underestimate. But by generating endless tension and absorbing the league’s collective vitriol, Brooks frees the Grizzlies two All-Stars — Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — to ride the vectors of their talent and avoid the game’s grimier underbelly.
“You absolutely have to have that person,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins says. “He definitely draws a lot of attention, and it can seem very selfish and individual, but it’s not.”
There is also the unavoidable element of unpredictability. Brooks slaloms between both sides of a fine line: calculated antagonism on one side, grievance activism on the other. The side he chooses over the final quarter of the season, and the playoffs, might dictate Memphis’s fate. The list of those he has instigated — Gary Payton II, Harden, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and especially Donovan Mitchell — is long and, if he has his way, growing. His notoriety has risen with each incident, peaking in a 12-day stretch in late January and early February, when: 1. He, several teammates and Morant’s father Tee nearly came to blows courtside with NFL Hall of Famer and Fox Sports commentator Shannon Sharpe, who — to be fair to Brooks — instigated the situation by heckling the Grizzlies in general and Brooks in particular; 2. He sparked an on-court melee in an early February game against the Cavaliers by flinging his arm into Mitchell’s tenderest parts while falling toward the baseline after a missed layup.
Mitchell, and most of the world, felt it was an intentional cheap shot. “For sure,” Mitchell said at the time. “That’s just who he is. We’ve seen it a bunch in this league with him. … This has been brewing for years with me, with other guys in the league. You all see it, it isn’t new. … The NBA has to do something about it.”
Within the tight fraternity of the NBA, especially among veteran players, calling on the league to “do something” about another player is close to shocking. Brooks, who says he has “maybe four or five friends” in the league outside of his teammates, says, “I take all of that as bulls—-. This is the same guy who said all these great things about me after (a 2021 playoff series won in five games by the Jazz), and now he wants to turn around and say that? It’s just pillow talk to me. Next time we play it’s going to be the same thing. And he knows. I’m clearly in his mind, even to this day. And that’s all I want: a little real estate in his head.”
He pauses and seems to run Mitchell’s words through his head one more time. Reoffended two weeks after the fact, he shakes his head and spits, “Pillow talk.”
Brooks speaks in a low, deep voice, as if he’s trying not to be overheard. He describes the encounter with Mitchell as nothing special, just one event in a series of them. “I was falling uncontrollably,” he says. “I unintentionally lifted my arm up, hit him and then he escalated it farther and I got the one-game suspension. It’s just what comes with it.”
This, of course, strains the bounds of credulity. He was falling backward, yes, but the idea that his arm just happened to find the most vulnerable part of Mitchell’s body by some fluke of reflexes and anatomy is difficult to believe. After all, there’s video.
Brooks shrugs. This is his reality, and these are the things that happen within it.
AS THE NBA game has spread out and sped up, the function and form of the enforcer has changed along with it. Maurice Lucas and Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn have been replaced by Patrick Beverley and Marcus Smart and Dillon Brooks. Blindside tackles on drives in the lane have been replaced by chin-to-chin, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip persistence, with the occasional groin shot thrown in to keep ’em honest.
It might seem counterintuitive, but with the leaguewide average above 114 points per game — and just two teams averaging fewer than 110 per game — a team with championship aspirations desperately needs a defensive player who can get, and stay, in the way. Someone, frankly, who is more interested in making enemies than friends. The Grizzlies, despite the influx of stars into the West at the trade deadline, remain second in the conference behind the Nuggets, and with a core of young stars headlined by Morant and Jackson, they believe they can compete for an NBA title. Now.
“For the program we’re building here, DB’s the guy who epitomizes it and doesn’t back down from it,” Jenkins says of Brooks. “We need him. He’s a competitor in everything he does. It’s on the basketball floor, it’s in the training room, it’s in our shooting games, it’s pregame workouts, it’s the card table, it’s how he dresses for the game. It’s all that, it’s all a competitive undertone. That’s the biggest thing be brings, and the biggest thing we need.”
Brooks, 27 and a free agent after this season, announces himself every night, after introductions and before tipoff, by crouching down near midcourt going through a quick series of defensive slides, three to the left and three to the right, in case anyone is unsure why he is there. He is a broad man, with wide shoulders and sturdy legs, and when he’s on the court everything about him — his look, his posture, his walk — takes the form of a dare.
“It’s not a job everybody wants,” he says dryly, “and that’s what makes me different. Guys don’t like dealing with the physicality. They don’t like to get bumped. They don’t like having someone in their space all night.”
Just last Thursday, three minutes into a game against Philadelphia, Brooks fouled James Harden above the 3-point arc and continued fouling him long after the whistle had blown. Harden, certainly not known for emotional outbursts, spun on Brooks, leaving the two standing nose-to-beard for a few tense moments. Brooks walked away, laughing.
“Teams don’t like playing against him,” Grizzlies teammate Santi Aldama says. “Sometimes they will just roll their eyes like, ‘Damn, what is it with this guy?’ But having him on our team is huge. That’s one thing I always say: I prefer to have him on my team than to play against him.”
Brooks spends roughly four hours before every game studying the opponent: their tendencies, their tells, their moods. He starts by focusing on his individual assignment, whether they like going right or left, what shots they like to take going right or left. If he’s facing a 3-point shooter who’d prefer not to drive, he’ll take a higher route to contest the 3, knowing the drive is less of a threat. He always challenges a 3-point shooter with the same hand as the shooter’s dominant hand to minimize the chance for body contact. He flies at a right-handed shooter with his right hand raised; a left-handed shooter with his left. This way, less of his body is in line with the shooter. Still, he makes sure to create the appearance of a pending collision without making contact. “They feel I’m going to hit them,” he says, “but I won’t because I have super concentration.”
He’ll spend up to 15 minutes on opponents’ plays, stopping the film to listen to the coach’s call, then watching the play to see if it’s similar to one in the Grizzlies’ book. “We all run a lot of the same plays; they’re just named different,” he says. “Utah has a play called ‘fist up’ that’s like our ‘dribble fist,’ so when they call it, I’ll yell out, ‘dribble fist’ and it lets my teammates know what play they’re running.”
He knows whose skin he can burrow beneath (most) and whose he can’t (Curry, Damian Lillard). Of Curry he says, “He’s seen everything, had all types of defenders guard him. Every play is for him, illegal screens every single night, but he’s one guy who is mentally strong when he plays against me.” Brooks studies referees the way he studies opponents. Some crews are “soft,” Brooks says, eager to call everything early to keep the game in order. Others, usually the more veteran crews, will let a certain amount of contact go, providing it doesn’t get chippy. Against Minnesota, Brooks fouled out in 14 minutes and, knowing he is three technical fouls away from being forced to sit out a game, and knowing that the crew chief in question had given him two of his 13 earlier in the season, he walked off the court without complaint. “The referees have a reputation just like I have a reputation,” he says. “I play physical, and I play hard, and the refs know that. When there’s fouls to be called, there’s some discrepancy there. It’s how I play and how they’re going to ref — it’s what my identity is.”
Defense is a state of mind, and it begins when Brooks decides it begins. Often, as was the case when he matched up against Boston’s Jayson Tatum on Super Bowl Sunday, it begins before the offense ends. A Memphis shot would go up and Tatum would find Brooks already on him, face to face. Most Boston possessions began with Brooks picking up full-court, at times three-quarters court, occasionally — very occasionally — half court.
“He wants to wear guys down,” Jenkins says. “He’s always using his hands, his shoulders, gets his chest on you. Hopefully more often than not he’s doing all of this legally. He’s picking you up full-court; he’s always on your mind. What NBA player wants to get picked up 94 feet the entire game? It’s four-on-four on the rest of the court and he’s literally right there with you. If you’re going to make a move, he’s got something for you, and you’re going to have to work for everything.”
Brooks treated Tatum like a blocking dummy, gaining leverage by shoving him as he moved from spot to spot, tilting his balance just enough to make even the thought of a catch-and-shoot daunting. He fought through screens like a martial artist. When forced to switch, he did it with a quick, barely noticeable two-handed shove that bought him a split-second each time. Tatum, who entered the game scoring nearly 31 points per game, shot 3 for 16 against Brooks and went scoreless in the second half. The Celtics won, but Tatum finished with 16 points, and at some point, he simply stopped trying to score. In the language of the game, he got off the ball. To Brooks, there are no sweeter words. Afterward, Brooks told me, Tatum turned into “a willing passer.” On paper, those three words strung together sound like praise; in person, the barb was unmistakable.
YOU MAY HAVE noticed, to this point, that Brooks’ offense has not been a significant point of discussion. He averages 14.5 points per game, fourth on the team, but his field goal percentage of 39 is a career-low and his 3-point percentage of 31 is the second-worst of his six-year career. What he lacks in efficiency he makes up in confidence, however, which is why there’s a cruel joke they tell around Memphis that the second-worst thing that can happen when Brooks takes his first shot is that he misses. The worst is that it goes in.
He’s always booed on the road. That, to him, is a sign of respect. But on Feb. 7 against the Bulls, he hit 2 of 12 shots — 1 of 6 from 3-point range — and heard it from the home fans at FedExForum. He attributes some of his offensive woes to coming to grips with a lower usage rate, and it is true that much of his game now consists of standing in the corner waiting for a pass he knows will never arrive.
Still, it raises questions Jenkins may be forced to answer: In a tight playoff series, is Brooks’ defense valuable enough to ignore his offense? Is it possible for one player to keep you in the game while shooting you out of it?
Brooks is working on it. During the Grizzlies’ last shootaround before the All-Star break, he shot 50 free throws — and made 42 — with an exaggerated arc that he hopes will translate into a 3-pointer that is less of a fastball and more of a rim-friendly changeup.
And against the Timberwolves, in the first home game after the internecine booing, Brooks walked to the free throw line early in the first quarter. A grassroots cheering campaign started somewhere in the upper sections and rolled down toward the court until it became a full-throated apology.
After saying he didn’t care if the home fans booed him — it is, after all, his default expectation — he was asked what he thought of the cheers.
“Keep it going,” he growls. “That’s all.”
BROOKS WAS IN ninth grade at Father Henry Carr High School outside Toronto the first time he spoke his dream into the world. He was on the junior varsity basketball team, and the coach called him aside during a practice to impart some form of wisdom. (“I don’t know if it was negative or not,” the varsity coach, Paul Melnik says.) During the course of the conversation, Brooks blurted out, “I just want to make it to the NBA,” which caused the JV coach to pause and take stock of the situation.
The idea had never occurred to him, but he looked at Brooks — a strong, determined kid with a precocious feel for the game’s geometry — and said, “You know what? With your work ethic, I think you can.”
Brooks, whose mother raised him in Mississauga, about 17 miles southwest of Toronto, took a public bus to and from school every day so he could attend Father Henry Carr, a school with structure, strong academics and a renowned basketball program. His junior year, amid the rise of prep schools cherry-picking the area’s best players, Melnik issued a broad challenge: His team would play anyone, anywhere, anytime. One team took him up on it, a team that had proclaimed it had the best coaches and the best players in Ontario. Henry Carr got the opening tip and threw a lob to Brooks for a dunk. They stole the inbound pass and threw a lob to Brooks for another dunk. “Eight seconds into the game, he’s got two alley-oop dunks,” Melnik says. “Never seen anything like it.” Henry Carr won easily.
In three years at the school, Brooks established a reputation as one of Canada’s top high school players, good enough to spend his final year at Findlay Prep near Las Vegas before becoming the Pac-12 Player of the Year while leading Oregon to a Final Four appearance.
“Dillon was a great kid, and he’s a great man,” Melnik says. “I wouldn’t call him a villain in high school, but he was that guy. You couldn’t watch us play and not take note of him. If you were a parent on the other team, you probably didn’t like it. He was giving it to you and your kid, and letting you know about it. Because there was one thing about Dillon: He always had a little more fire in his belly than anybody else.”
THERE HAS ALWAYS been a subset of NBA players who feel aggrieved and unappreciated, shunted to the margins, unpromoted and perhaps unpromotable. Brooks says his personal goal over the past three years has been to earn a spot on the NBA All-Defensive team, but he grudgingly admits his reputation sticks to him, fly-like, the way he sticks to opponents.
“Those things come with a campaign,” he says. “People need to be pushing it more. I’ve got to find some way to push the campaign, but it’s hard for guys like me who don’t get a lot of steals or blocked shots or don’t have a lot of the highlight defensive plays. I’ve got to do my work on one-on-one coverage or make their field goal percentage go down or keep them under their averages. I like it when guys come in hot — scoring 40, scoring in the 30s — so I can lower it all the way down.”
Jackson Jr., whose candidacy for Defensive Player of the Year has been building all season, leads the NBA in blocks with his remarkable timing and uncanny ability to suddenly appear at the rim. His talent is always obvious, often breathtaking. Brooks is a plodder, a holder, an anticipator. His game is compressed, tight, clogged. He knows where you want to go and will do everything in his power to make sure you don’t get there. It is not the stuff of poetry. Seriously, who sees the beauty in fighting through a screen?
“Here’s what I like,” Brooks says. “I like guarding all stars. I like guarding guys the NBA likes so I can shut ’em down.”
There is satisfaction to be derived from rising above your perceived station, and the statistics bear out Brooks’ interest in seeking out All-Stars. Per Second Spectrum tracking and ESPN Stats & Information, Brooks has matched up in the half court defensively 922 times against this year’s All-Stars, the most of any player. He has held those All-Stars, from Tatum to Curry to Durant, to a 45.7% effective field goal percentage, which ranks first among the 72 players to record 400 such matchups. (League average, for comparison, is 54.6.) Among the players who have the most half-court matchups against All-Stars, Brooks is allowing the lowest percentage. In short, he has matched up against All-Stars more than any other NBA player, and he has defended them better than anybody else. Just one player — Lillard — has scored 40 against him this year.
“It’s time for him to be first-team all-defense,” Jenkins says.
And there’s further evidence Brooks relishes a challenge: He has defended stars just as well as non-stars. He has held all opponents to a 45.3 effective field goal percentage on half-court matchups, the best average among the 91 NBA players who have recorded at least 3,000 such matchups.
It’s not just what he does, it’s how he does it. There are very few NBA defenders who can guard anyone from a point guard to a center with any level of proficiency. In the first round of last year’s playoffs, Jenkins put Brooks on Karl-Anthony Towns and says, “That won us the series.” In the next round, Brooks was on Curry. “We’re going to throw DB at those guys,” Jenkins says, and the verb choice is both jarring and apt.
There’s another one of those rare defenders roaming the Western Conference, another persistent instigator who helped his team win titles by guarding 1 through 5: Golden State’s Draymond Green. The history between the Grizzlies and Warriors, though brief, is nasty and perhaps burgeoning. The Warriors defeated the Grizzlies in a testy six-game series in the second round of the playoffs last season, and the defining moment of the series was a flagrant foul 2 by Brooks that resulted in Payton II falling to the floor and breaking his elbow. This season, on Christmas Day, the Warriors defeated the Grizzlies in a game that saw Klay Thompson get T’d up — one of six for the Warriors — after hitting a jump shot and taunting Brooks while he lay prone on the floor.
Despite knowing this, and despite Green sticking out his tongue and calling Brooks a derogatory term during that Christmas game, I suggest to Brooks that, despite their on-court contentiousness, the two play a similar game.
The look in his eyes and the strain in his jaw muscles makes it instantly clear: The comparison is not a compliment.
“I don’t like Draymond at all,” he says. “I just don’t like Golden State. I don’t like anything to do with them. Draymond talks a lot. Gets away with a lot, too. His game is cool — with Golden State — but if you put him anywhere else, you’re not going to know who Draymond is. He plays with heart, plays hard, knows the ins and outs of their defense. I guess that’s why they like him over there.”
This, as promised, was the good stuff. Green, asked by a Warriors spokesman for comment, laughed and chose to pass on the opportunity to respond.
WHAT DRIVES DILLON Brooks? It’s the response he gets, and how it ultimately shows up in the box score. There’s an ascending scale at work. Irritation is a good start. Rage sometimes follows. Surrender based on a combination of the first two is the chef’s kiss, reserved only for the best days.
“I want them to be angry, off-kilter emotionally,” Brooks says. “With some guys there’s fear, 100 percent. They don’t want to talk to me or even look at me.”
Against Utah, in the final game before the All-Star break, Brooks found himself guarding Jordan Clarkson after his original assignment, Lauri Markkanen, was a late scratch with an injury. Think about that: Less than two hours before game time, Brooks shifted from preparing for a 7-foot power forward/center to a whippet-quick 6-foot-5 point guard.
On the game’s final possession, with the Grizzlies up six and eight players on the court ready to hug and shake hands, Clarkson caught a pass in the right corner. As he rose to shoot a meaningless 3-pointer, Brooks suddenly sprinted toward him, his right hand flying toward Clarkson’s right, his body giving every appearance of an impending collision that — super concentration activated — never happened. This shot meant nothing to anybody on the court but Brooks and Clarkson, but within the small corner where these two men came together, it meant everything.
Clarkson missed, and Brooks reacted as if it decided the game. He smiled and yelled, skipping out of the corner and past the Jazz bench, looking down and clapping to himself. It was a celebration divorced from the game itself, creating a strangely intimate scene. Brooks would eventually join his teammates and celebrate collectively, but this was his moment, and his alone. He walked along the scorer’s table — still clapping, still looking down — before heading onto the court to find his teammates.
The joy he derived from watching that shot bounce off the rim and onto the floor seemed to extend far beyond what was visible. Mystified, I checked the stats for a clue, and there it was, as obvious as the sun. The missed 3 meant Clarkson finished with 20 points. His average coming into the game: 21.
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