Elton Brown looks terrifying on the floor. In person? He's like a teddy bear. A big friendly teddy bear that you're kind of concerned will eat you.
A physical bruiser known for his ability to bang down low and battle with bigs for offensive rebounds, Brown is a physical warrior on the court. Surprisingly, his attitude is a lot more laid back in person. Though people around him say he can be acerbic when provoked, he genuinely comes off as an easy going guy. The confidence is stunning for an undrafted player out of Virginia, who's spent time in the D-League, Greece, and Israel, and is now competing again for an NBA roster spot.
Brown was one of the last cuts with the Knicks in 2006, and one of the last cuts for the Lakers in 2007. He's never made it over the hump, though, and last year,despite averaging a double double in the D-League and being leaps and bounds above his colleagues in terms of physical play and rebounding, frustration led him to take the money and run... to Israel.
He's back, though, because the goal of playing in the NBA is still so close to within reach. And while that might drive some people completely nuts, for Elton, it's just another regular day at the office.
Summer League days are hard, but they're not unbearable. He wakes up around 9 or 10, grabs something to eat, and heads to the arena for practice. The practices, he says are harder than the players thought they would be, but he's happy with that. He's a physical player. He likes physical practices. He heads back to the hotel to rest before the game.
The games are fun for him, one of the few players here who can actually enjoy them. The Nuggets feature more D-League players than any of the other teams, and they've been one of the better teams, especially from a talent perspective. The games are tough, with most of the players scrapping for a roster spot to help them into that one good contract.
When I first meet him in the lobby of the Mirage, and after searching for a good fifteen minutes for somewhere just to sit where I don't have to drink, gamble, or be accosted by women that my wife would refer to as "tramps," we find some space to talk.
I ask him about college. He tells me he went to Virginia University from Newport News, and got a lot out of the experience.
"I can honestly say it was the four best years of my life."
He graduated with a degree in anthropology, and went undrafted. When he tells me he was an anthropology major, I do a double take. He grins like "Waht? I can't be an anthropology major?" It was then that he began the typical young journeyman route. Summer leagues, workouts, training camps. His game spoke loudly, but not loudly enough. His reputation was either of a guy with a lot of intensity, or a complete nutcase. And he wound up in the D-League.
It's not rare for a player like Brown to end up in the NBA's Developmental League. He's not huge. He's 6-9 (if he's wearing big shoes), and he maxes out at 255. He wasn't a top prospect. Most people don't know who he is. And there has been talk of him being abrasive to coaches. Interestingly,though, he plays "bigger" than a lot of guys who are 7-0. He brings a toughness, and a relentlessness, particularly on the offensive glass. Players like that are rare in the D-League, which is filled with shooters who can do little else much of the time.
For a lot of people, the terrible pay, the unkept, tiny arenas, and disrespect is enough to get guys to go home. Not Brown.
Brown is one of the select players who do everything they're supposed to do in the D-League. Rebounding. Defense. He's known as being extremely coachable. He was a D-League All-Star two years in a row, averaging a double-double. NBA scouts look to the D-League for defense and rebounding, and Brown filled both of those. But quesitons abounded, and he missed out, often by a matter of fate. For instance, Ronnie Turiaf's return to health, and well, Coby Karl.
During that time, he got mixed feedback.
"They say I'm undersized. Then they say I'm too big. They say I need to lose weight. Then they say I need to gain weight. Then they say I need a consistent jumper, so I develop that. Then they say I need to score more down low. Meanwhile, I'm looking at the guys they're drafting, and I know I've got more potential than some of these guys."
Ask him about the D-League time, though, and he's got nothing but positive things to say.
"I loved the time in the D-League. They let you play. It's rough with some of the things about the league, and its frustrating always worrying about your performance, but when you're on the floor, everyone's playing full speed."
At the same time, he was frustrated with not getting his chance to play in the NBA last season. Towards the middle of the year, after another double double in the D-League All-Star game, Brown decided to accept an offer from Hapoel Holon in Israel.
"I wanted money, and I felt like I was playing for nothing. You have your dreams and inspiration, but if teams can't see your potential, it's frustrating. So I took off, made some money, and headed back here to come strong to make the NBA. "
He made less than $30,000 in the D-League.
He made $200,000 in two months in Israel.
His team won the championship that year, and the effect actually was good for his maturity. He came in with skepticism towards the Israeli league, but eventually got into the situation.
"I came in, and was like 'I just want to get paid and come home.' But after three weeks, we started gelling, and I got excited. We started winning games, and when we won the championship? I was genuinely thrilled to be in that situation. It was excited."
He has decided to come back for the Summer League to try again, based on the positive feedback he received from his agent and teams. The Denver Nuggets signed him to their team, and a few days later, traded Marcus Camby, one of their most legit big men, to Los Angeles for a 2nd round pick. Elton came in with a lot of confidence in his situation.
"I'm young, you know. I've still got a lot of years. And I feel like I've done what it takes."
Brown has certainly done everything the coaches could have asked him to do. When I arrived at the Mirage to interview him, he is averaging a double double, this time against Summer League rookies and sophomores.
I ask him if there's been conversations with Denver since his continued solid play and the departure. He smiles.
"There's been a lot of talk. We'll see. Right now I've just got to gout and perform the best I can. "
He's got a game against the Houston Rockets last night. You can tell that he's ready to put the finishing touches on his time here.
Next: An overtime game, Elton in the spotlight, and more about the D-League...