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Breaking The Ceiling: Summer League with Elton Brown, Part III

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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 and here for Part 2.

 

 

Elton Brown is a tired dude.  He's got a prominent limp in his right leg, and each step he takes is ginger.  There doesn't appear to be an injury, but after a week at Summer League with practices and games, sometimes on the same day, culminating in last night's overtime win over the Nuggets, the body is just worn out.  Too much stress, too much effort, too much work in a short time with limited professional training staff on hand.  I ask Elton how he's feeling, expecting the typical, blank, "I'm allright."

"Man, I'm tired. I'm really, really tired. It's been a long week. A good one, but a long one"

Well then.

I ask him about his status for the game today.

"They told me I'm not going to start, that they want to get some of the other guys some time, so that's cool. If they need me to play, though, I'm ready."

Even though he's obviously exhausted?

"Yeah, man. Once I get out there, I'll be fine. It's what I do."

It's the last game for the Denver Nuggets' summer league squad. They have been more succesful than most and have improved as well, which is the most important aspect.  They developed their rookie, Sonny Weems, and have found several players that are likely to at least make camp.  There's a lot of talk about the Nuggets being ready to extend a contract to Brown, but nothing formal, and these things can fall apart pretty quickly. For now, Brown just has to go out and perform, which is something he's been criticized about in the past. 

The D-League is generally considered a place for athletes to try and get noticed.  But it's also a place for guys to mature.  Often times, a team won't draft a player due to their previous immaturity.  If they're a superstar talent, sure, but if they're just good, not great, it's harder to justify.  So players go to the D-League and they learn what it's like not to be the big man on campus.  They learn about working hard every day and having to fight for minutes.  And they learn what it is that coaches are looking for off the court.  And how much they need to improve their game, which was considered just fine in college.  Brown for instance, is still young, and still needs to work.  His old coach for the Colorado 14ers, Joe Wolf, agrees with that.

"Elton's got a great chance of playing in the NBA.  He works hard. He's just go to keep improving.  His skills are there, but he's got to put the work in. As long as he does that, and he definitely did that in Colorado, he should be able to play in the league."

 

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The game starts, and as the coaches had told Elton, he's not starting.  It's not vexing to him, he's had a great Summer League, and he's got to be happy with his performance.  Time to sit back, relax, and cheer on the other guy...

Brown enters the game in the 2nd.  Welcome to Summer League.

Brown neither complains nor shows any problem with playing.  He jumps off the bench and seems thrilled to be on the court again.

I do not see the limp.

Brown rolls out and picks up where he left off yesterday.  It doesn't hur that the Lakers' interior lineup is not exactly amazing.  For some reason the Defenders' parent club elected not to return Jelani McCoy.  They could use him inside. By the end of the quarter, Brown has 9 points and 4 rebounds.  The wear in tear is evident in his ballhandling, though, and he has a turnover and nearly two more.  His passing is also in question, as he can turn into a black hole if he's set up in the post. 

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If you ask folks around the D-League, on the record, you get "hard worker."  "High energy guy." "Polished offensive game." "Solid rebounder."  When you ask off the record, you hear "Hard to motivate." "Unstable." And the always popular, "completely insane."

It's not that he's considered insalvageable, and he's got a much better reputation than some, but in my search for why Brown's not an NBA player right now, while Kwame Brown is taking calls left and right, this is as close as I get to an answer.  What's more, you can tell that Brown's aware of it, and has taken steps to try and improve.  He's been regarded as more coachable as he gets older.  He's engaged, looking to settle down  more.  And he really believes he can bring something to a team.

"Teams aren't looking for a guy to go out there and score 40 points.  A lot of guys in the D-League, they're looking to do what they did in college. I'm looking to contribute what they need, and that's defense.  That's the biggest thing I've worked on, trying to be a better defender. I know I can rebound.  I feel like if I can defend, rebound, and put back some shots, that's what coaches in the NBA are looking for."

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Brown comes out and finishes the game at the same clip he starts. He finishes with 14 points and 9 rebounds, on 5 of 9 shooting. He struggles with his elevation and winds up getting blocked a few times, but each time he gets his rebound and finishes.  He stays with the play as long as it takes.  That's the work ethic on rebounds that caught my eye at the D-League All-Star game, and it's what is catching the eye of Denver coaches now.  He walks off the court patting teammates on the shoulder and grinning, as always.

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In the hallway of the UNLV locker room area, I catch Elton on his way out.  He's still got the messy reputation he's known for, in his gym shorts, a tank top, and blue ballcap.  He's listed as 6-9.  He doesn't look 6-9.  It's one of the weird things I've noticed.  Scrawny 6-11 guys can look 6-8, and beefy 6-9 guys look like a small mountain.  That's what Brown looks like.  He's about to head back to the hotel, shower, change, and head home.  His summer league work is done.  He's gotten nothing left to do, no partying in his future.  Now all he can do is be patient, wait, and hope the phone rings with his agent telling him good news. I ask him to grade his summer league experience.

"You know, I want to be hard on myself, but I have to give myself a B+ to an A-.  I still need to work on my passing and denying the post entry pass, but all in all, I think I did really well. "

It's unlikely Brown will be back in the D-League next season if he doesn't receive an NBA contract.  He has joined most of the top D-League players in expressing the fact that they have done everything they feel they can do there.  Plus, even though none of them will say it, the money sucks.  With the international game obviously becoming more and more of an option for players, Brown could find himself overseas again, in a new location, still waiting for that call. 

The life of an NBA prospect, after all, is comprised of upside, improvement, determination, and above all, waiting to break the ceiling.