Surprising star shines for Rockets
Aaron Brooks has helped fill the voids left by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady
Brooks has quickly transitioned into the Rockets' No. 1 scoring option
His progress shows he has the potential to become an elite point guard
When Yao Ming was lost, someone half his size was found. No joke: If 310-pound Yao rode a see-saw opposite 161-pound Aaron Brooks, it would be very much a one-sided contest.
The Rockets' overachieving season came sharply into focus Tuesday in a dreadful 99-66 loss at Miami that showed how slim the margins are for a team without stars, as Houston trailed 56-31 at halftime while Brooks finished 3-of-16 for 10 points with one assist and four turnovers. On the other hand, it remains surprising that the Rockets haven't suffered more blowouts. They approach the All-Star break within 1 1/2 games of the playoffs, in no small part because of Brooks' uniformly quick transition from long-term project to the team's leading scorer with 19.4 points per game through Tuesday.
Tracy McGrady has played a total of 45 minutes this year and yet he received more All-Star fan votes than any of the Rockets who have contributed to this remarkable season. More relevant was the vote cast by Rockets coach Rick Adelman, who declined to bring back an impaired McGrady earlier this season because that would have taken the ball out of Brooks' hands. When the Rockets used the No. 26 pick on Brooks in the 2007 draft following his four years at Oregon -- where he was downgraded by many scouts as too small and lacking in point-guard skills -- who would have guessed by year three that he would be their No. 1 option?
"I don't know if there's another player in the league that matches the quickness and speed that he has," Adelman said. "If he has room, I don't see who in the league is going to keep him in front of him for 48 minutes. He's a guy who will get two points in a half, and then in six minutes he'll get 16 -- that's who he is."
One benefit of remaining in college for four years was the perspective that helps Brooks dismiss complaints that he is little more than a lightning scorer in a point guard's undersized body.
"My junior year I had one of my worst years because I was listening to the NBA scouts telling me that 'He's good, he can score, but he needs to be a traditional point guard,' " Brooks said. "After that I went back to just playing. I figured I was going to go out the way I was going to go out, and that's what happened: I just went out there and played basketball and showed what I was capable of, which was winning games."
He has been fortunate to play for Adelman, who has thrived with scoring point guards like Terry Porter and Mike Bibby.
"Rick is fantastic about bringing along players, which is a skill that is unique among coaches in the league," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. "It might be his greatest strength. He's calm and gives confidence to these younger players. He's looking for the good in them, he's looking for a reason to put people on the court rather than a reason to take them off the court. His offense allows you to have multiple ball-handlers at multiple offensive positions, and that helps because early on it's hard to be the playmaker as the primary guy."
Brooks rarely played as a rookie while the Rockets' ball-handling was dominated by McGrady and starting point guard Rafer Alston. But ongoing knee issues limited McGrady to 35 games last season, while Brooks' rapid improvement -- his scoring more than doubled to 11.2 points last season -- encouraged Morey to move Alston in a midseason deal.
"Anyone who is drafted past No. 20, the odds are stacked against them and they have to almost surprise you in order to make it," Morey said. "Aaron's size and his playmaking ability and his defense scared away a lot of teams. But intelligence is critical to a point guard and, though we thought he was a very smart player, his level of intelligence is something that surprised us.
"There was some worry about him getting off his shot against longer players and he's answered that. He's been able to get his shot off pretty much when he wants, and that's been critical for us. His ability to finish against NBA shot-blockers has been better than we thought, to put English on the ball and take angles when he drives in. He's not Tony Parker, but he may grow into becoming that. Right now, Tony is the best in the game, so it's no crime to say Aaron is short of being like Tony right now."
The Rockets used to be one of the league's longer teams, but over the last 12 months they've succeeded in pairing Brooks with his 6-foot backup, Kyle Lowry, who came to Houston last midseason in the three-team deal that sent Alston to Orlando.
"What I like about having them together on the court is they are opposites," Rockets player programs director Shawn Respert said. "Aaron sees a living example of the things he needs to improve on with Kyle Lowry around: defense, energy level, hustle, the ability to be more of a playmaker versus a scorer. And then it goes the other way around too: Aaron takes a leadership role in teaching Kyle that if you're going to be a complete point guard in this league, this is how you focus on being aggressive and looking for your shot and making things happen as a guy who has the ball in his hands a lot."
As much as the Rockets need scoring from Brooks (as well as from the equally surprising Carl Landry off the bench), they want to see Brooks learn to adjust his gears in order to give himself a better view of the floor. "He just can't slow the speed down once he goes," Adelman said. "I try not to limit the fact that he is a scorer first, and we've got to try to milk that for as much as we can and then learn the other stuff as he goes."
Though they're happy with his progress, neither the Rockets nor Brooks believe he's close to being a finished player.
"This offseason is going to be key for him," Respert said. "I'd like to see him bulk up a little bit, because even if he loses half a step he's still good enough to beat 90 percent of the guards in this league. But he needs to be strong enough when he does turn the corner on guys like Deron [Williams], like Chris [Paul] and some of the more physical point guards who get a body on him. I've seen film where he loses his footing, or maybe his handle is not as clean, and I think with added strength he'll be able to fend those guys off and still turn corners and have the ability to find passes and angles for other guys.
"He does it pretty good right now, but it's that game-winning moment I'm talking about. It's that one play -- that's what is going to prevent him from becoming a potential All-Star like Mo Williams was last season, and put him in a category where he truly is one of the elite point guards in this league."
Having come so far already, no one in Houston is going to predict that Brooks can't take his game further still.
NBA Truth & Rumors