The typical NBA star does not spend his days off going to comic book conventions. He probably didn't major in creative writing in college or visit children in Africa during the offseason with Bill Clinton.
No one has ever accused Brook Lopez of being a typical NBA star. Lopez is the NBA's prodding, Batman-obsessed goofball, a skillful giant who might seem detached from the reality of his peers away from the gym. But if there was ever any question of whether the Brooklyn Nets' center belongs on the court, Lopez definitively answered the doubters last season.
Lopez has always had a knack for getting buckets in the low post as one of the few traditional centers left in the league. His kryptonite was at the other end of the floor, but that's where the 25-year-old made significant strides last season. Now Lopez has emerged as a critical piece in the Nets' all-in push for a championship. He's Brooklyn's present as well as its future, and the only young player with room to grow in the Nets' revamped and ironclad starting five.
By sheer virtue of size and touch, Lopez always profiled as a useful pro big man. He was a McDonald's All-American and top-10 recruit nationally coming into Stanford as a skinny 210-pound center. He entered the draft following his sophomore year after hitting a game-winning shot in overtime against Marquette to take to the Cardinal to their first Sweet 16 in seven years.
The 2008 draft was loaded with talent, from Derrick Rose to Russell Westbrook to Kevin Love. Each went before Lopez, who fell to the Nets at No. 10. Lopez proved he could score right away, averaging 13 points per game as a rookie. What followed was a test of Lopez's ability to overcome injuries, trade rumors, poor teammates and obvious holes in his game.
Long before the rebranding in Brooklyn, the Nets started Lopez's second season 0-18, the worst mark in league history. They ended the year 12-70. While Lopez continued to prove he could score inside, the Nets lacked the talent and infrastructure around him to accommodate the defensive improvements that had to be made.
The injury bug bit by Lopez's fourth year, after he played all 82 games his first three years. He only played five games because of a broken foot and sprained ankle. The Nets didn't care. They had seen enough in the center to sign him to a four-year contract extension worth $61 million.
It was a leap of faith worth taking for Brooklyn, as Lopez had always doubled as the team's best asset in its ill-fated run at trading for Dwight Howard. With Howard out of the picture, the onus was on Lopez to make a leap and reward the Nets for their lucrative commitment. Last season, he did just that.
There's enough at the surface level to showcase Lopez's improvements: he made the All-Star Game for the first time in his career and finished 12th in the league in scoring at 19.4 points per game. Beyond that, Lopez made strides to turn into at least a league-average defender, improving his weak side rotations and finishing in blocks at 2.1 per game.
The Nets were simply a different team with him on the floor. Brooklyn's points per 100 possessions skyrocketed by nearly six points when it had its starting center, per NBA.com, and the team's defense was better with Lopez on the court as well, per NBA.com.
For all of the advancements Lopez made last season, next year will be a totally new experience. He's the lynchpin of a veteran lineup that now includes Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko and a bolstered bench. Last season, the Bulls defeated the Nets in the playoffs by ignoring two-fifths of the players on the floor. That won't be an issue for Brooklyn now that every member of its starting five is a threat offensively.
What can Brook Lopez do for an encore? It's scary to think about. He's now a 6'11, 265-pound post man few teams can defend. The improvement might come in his passing ability, where he averaged fewer than one assist per game. Now that Lopez has the best supporting cast of his career, it's time to make double-teams pay by hitting the open man.
Lopez might be an unrepentant comic fanboy off the court, but his presence could help the new-look Nets form their own tale of triumph and conquer as early as next season.
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