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Breaking The Ceiling: Summer League With Elton Brown, Part II

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The following is part two in a three part series on Elton Brown at the 2008 Las Vegas Summer League. Click here for Part 1.

 

It's 7:30PM at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets are set to tip off n the third to last day of Summer League play.  Elton Brown steps on to the floor, full of energy, but not nervous.  The swagger he has, which some refer to as arrogance, others, confidence is apparent.  He's got a slight smile on his face, but there's nothing lighthearted about it.  His reputation as a brutal player is evident, and it's a little scary. 

Brown wins the tip off, easily scaling up to knock the ball to his man.  The pace is back and forth in the beginning, paced by Houston's outstanding (in Summer League) Donte Green and the surprising young rookie for Denver, Sonny Weems.  Brown is playing physical, but can't get into a groove.  He's blocked on a putback, but on the sam possession, fights for two more rebounds before knocking down a surprisingly smooth fadeaway jumper.  He begins to tire from the back and forth game and commits a touch foul to stop a breakaway at his coach's request.

Brown's frame is bizarre.  He's often considered too small to play the 4.  But he's definitely not a three.  He's not overweight, he's just big.  He's got a legit center of gravity that's low and powerful.  Hhis lack of heigt is an issue early on versus Joey Dorsey's impressive length, and Dorsey's able to use his moves and touch to get to the basket, especially with the Rockets running and gunning as they are.  What Dorsey lacks in size, he makes up for in work ethic and skill, though.  He swings in for another offensive rebound, his third of the first quarter, and nails a drop hook.  Denver's coaching staff shouts out approval.

Defensively, Brown's not slugging with Dorsey, mostly because Dorsey is drifting from baseline to baseline until he can get the ball.  It's a common perception that you don't want any part of Brown in the block.  Not because he's a block machine, but because he knows how to put a body on you and make you notice. You'll remember a night spent with Brown defending you. He needs to improve his lateral foot work, but it's impressive that he doesn't drift looking to make the big play.  He keeps an eye on his man and knows where he's at on the floor.

With time running out in the first, as Varem misses a three with 2 seconds left, Brown gets away with a shove off and collects an easy bucket.  He finishes the quarter with 6 points and 6 rebounds.

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Part of me wonders if he's not tired from being in Vegas.  On top of the games, the practices, the stress, the heat, these are young guys in the world's sin capital.  Brown insists he's a homebody.  So does every player I've ever talked to.  Not one player has ever said, "Man, I love to go out and drink and gamble."  It's just common sense, but you ask anyway, just in case.  I do hear from some folks that Brown was out with his agent earlier in the week, hanging out in a night club.  There's no harm in it, but the fact that you can tell Brown won't talk about it says a lot for the fear of looking like a trouble case.  It's a bizarre duality.  You're expected to be out and about, it's Vegas.  But you're not expected for anyone to notice. It seems unfair for the league to have such high expectations for players in terms of their behavior, and yet place them in such a tempting situation.  That may be part of the test, though. I ask Brown about the things I'd heard about.

"Okay, yeah, it's Vegas. I went out for a drink.  What else am I going to do?"

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Brown sits for the second quarter, as the coaches explore other options.  The Rockets lead by five at the half. He retuns in the third.  He nails a running jumper which is surprisingly smooth.  His body motion is strange on rebounds.  He gathers himself low, springs up, collects the board, and then wraps up down low again.  It's like watching Super Mario duck and then jump and then duck again, if the plumber was actually a 6-8 power forward.

Brown clearly needs some conditioning to get into game shape, needing to improve his endurance.  He's proven in the D-League he can handle extended minutes, but after so many games in the Summer League with the additional weight he's put on, it's apparent he's struggling with keeping his energy up, especially since Dahntay Jones and Donte Green are in an up and down pissing match. He sits the remainder of the third with 8 points and 7 rebounds.

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I'd asked Elton before the game what the D-League taught him.

"The coaching was actually great. Colorado had a great coaching staff.  I learned that if I just keep improving, working on things, the game will come to me. And that's important."

His former coach Joe Wolf, now an assistant coach with the Bucks, and one of the most terse people I've ever met in my life, said the same about Elton.

"He's definitely got the skillset to play in the NBA. He's just got to keep improving, that's the key.  He works hard, but he's got to keep his head on straight and keep working at it.  He's played tremendously well here."

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On the scoreboard, the Kiss Cam is displayed.  No one is paying attention, and no one kisses. Sad panda. Summer league.

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The fourth quarter startes with the Nuggets down by 3.  This thing has suddenly turned into a game.  Brown cements himself deep in the block, gets the entry pass, works a nice inside dribble, and nails a fall away hook while being fouled. Count it. Everyone's starting to hustle, as Dahntay Jones is taking over, giving the Rockets a two point lead. Brown snags another board, his elbows jabbing the air.

He's got the same kind of butter fingers you'd expect from a hustle big man, usuall losing the ball only on rebound attempts.  When he gets it in the block, he moves to quick for a support defender to swipe it. He dribbles like he defends, low.

The game goes back and forth, the teams trading the lead, and this thing is actually a high scoring affair. The Rockets end up shooting 53% in the game, the Nuggets, 44%.  Dorsey is a man-child, dunking with authority at every opportunity, clearly angered by his lack of respect in the draft.

81-80 Nuggets, Greene rejects Weems and it falls to Brown deep underneath the basket.  Brown spins, uses his body to shed the defender, and scores again. The Nuggets go back to him on the very next possession, and he spins his way free of Dorsey for another lay-in.  The feetwork is polished, it's not raw in any way. What he lacks in raw strength he compensates with full body power. 

After Brown collects his seventh offensive rebound, he pump fakes and slips in between three defenders for the reverse lay in.  The Denver bench erupts.

The Rockets answer each time by using their speed and athleticism to get out in front of the break, attacking constantly.  Down 7, the Rockets get two free throws, then capitalize on a turnover by Keith Langford and knock down a jumper to pull within 3.  Token white kid Marty Luenen hits a three to tie the game. Neither team can score, including Brown missing a fadeaway, and this summer league game is going to overtime.

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In the overtime, Brown collects another 3 rebounds and 3 points, Dahntay Jones hits a layup at the buzzer, and the Nuggets win, moving to 4-1 in Summer League play.  Brown finishes with 21 points on 9-14 shooting, 12 rebounds, 5 fouls, and 3 turnovers, in 21 minutes.  While Jones was the star of the game, the coaching staff keeps talking to Brown and patting him on the shoulders.  Brown was the rock for this team, the hustle, and the energy.

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After the game, I ask him if he wanted to put an exclamation point on his Summer League performance.  He smiles.

"Well, you know I just wanted to go out there and contribute.  I just felt like I could be productive and help my team..."

I cock and eyebrow at him. "Come on."He laughs.

"Yeah, a little bit. I just wanted to feel like I did everthing I could do to show what I bring to a team, and I was in a groove tonight.  It was a hard contest and guys were really going at it out there.  People say Summer League's not real basketball, but I'll tell you, that was some hard stuff going on out there."

Brown's clearly thrilled with his performance.  I ask if the coaching staff or front office has said anything further to him.

"Just that they're happy with the work I've put in, which is all I can ask for right now."

Brown walks out, the happiest limping guy in the building.  For a guy who's considered small for his position, Brown certainly seems to be walking tall now.

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Next... Brown is supposed to rest on the last game, but fortunes change quickly, and Elton looks back on his Summer League experience...