Can Terrell Brown be Pitt’s Brook Lopez?

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Carolyn Pallof | Staff Photographer

Junior center Terrell Brown at Saturday’s 73-64 victory over Georgia Tech.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

When 7-foot-3 Latvian basketball player Kristaps Porzingis started his NBA career in 2015, he quickly earned the nickname “The Unicorn” because of his rare combination of shot-blocking and shooting skills. In his second season for the New York Knicks, he became the first player in league history to average at least two blocks and 1.7 3-point makes per game.

Fast forward five years and Porzingis’ skillset no longer qualifies him as a mystical one-horned horse but rather a common mule, as big men who can stretch the floor have become one of the hottest commodities in the modern NBA.

After decades of being pigeonholed as post players, bigs are exacting their revenge by hoisting from deep like never before. Of the 20 highest volume 3-point shooting seasons in NBA history by players 6-foot-10 or taller, nine have come in the last three years. Washington Wizards’ forward Davis Bertans leads the pack and is torching the nets this season at a 43.2% clip on 8.4 attempts per game — a level of volume and efficiency only ever reached by Stephen Curry.

This is no longer a gimmick. It’s a tangible and effective basketball strategy. The logic is simple — bringing your big man out of the paint forces his defender to follow, especially if said big man has a respectable 3-point shot. With two less bodies around the rim and the opponent’s tallest player 20 feet away, a team’s playmakers have cleaner driving lanes to attack the basket.

Curiously, this phenomenon has not caught on at the collegiate level. Of the 100 NCAA Division I men’s basketball players with the most 3-pointers attempted this season, none are 6-foot-10 or taller. In terms of efficiency, University of South Dakota senior Tyler Hagedorn is the only player of that height to rank in the top 100, canning a national second-best 56.3% of his threes.

The discrepancy in this aspect between the pro and college game is understandable. Half a coach’s battle in the NCAA is to recruit the biggest and strongest players and then put them in a position to physically dominate undersized opponents. Division I schools clamber to add the rare intangible that is height. For teams lucky enough to snag a giant of their own, it may seem counterintuitive to pull him from the one area on the court — the paint — where he can bully defenders through sheer physicality and instead plant him beyond the 3-point line to do what has long been considered the job of a guard — spread the floor.

NBA big men also aren’t limited to just four seasons of development. Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez may be the best example of how a player’s role can change over time. The 7-foot Lopez was drafted to the New Jersey Nets in 2008. He occupied the typical role of center — block shots, rebound and score inside — for the first eight seasons of his career, never attempting more than 0.2 3-pointers per game.

Then, out of nowhere, Lopez underwent a stylistic renaissance. In his last year with the Nets, his 3-point attempts per game skyrocketed to 5.2. Ever since, he’s served as a prototypical stretch five, the rare center who can both protect the rim and make threes at an elite rate. After joining the Milwaukee Bucks in 2018, he became the first and only player in NBA history to average at least two blocks and two 3-pointers per game. Milwaukee notched the best regular-season record in the NBA behind MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who dominated defenders around the rim in large part thanks to the spacing afforded by Lopez.

College players don’t have the luxury of switching their play styles after eight years. But you don’t have to be an NBA coach to realize the benefits of having a floor-spacing big. And there are countless situations in college basketball where a team’s center could use a role change. One of them just so happens to exist here at Pitt.

Which is all a roundabout way of expressing the thesis of this article — that Pitt’s big men need to shoot more 3-pointers.

I know what you’re thinking. How stupid am I to imply that Pitt’s big men — primarily junior Terrell Brown, graduate transfer Eric Hamilton and first-year Abdoul Karim Coulibaly — should actually shoot more when they haven’t made a single 3-pointer this season? Well, just hear me out. The idea isn’t as preposterous as it sounds.

Pitt’s primary ball-handlers, sophomore guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens, are iffy shooters. Johnson shoots a respectable 34.8% from deep, but on only 2.9 attempts per game. McGowens is more confident but less efficient, shooting 30.1% on 4.3 attempts per game.

Where Johnson and McGowens thrive is as slashers. Both have an above-average first step and strength which they use to beat defenders to the tin and either finish or draw fouls. But slashers operate best with an uncluttered lane. Their game can’t flourish with the opposing center camped out down low, disrupting drives and blocking layups.

This is where Brown comes in. On the season, he has attempted just four 3-pointers and missed every one. But that doesn’t mean he’s a bad shooter. In such a limited sample size, Brown’s 3-point percentage would shoot up to 33.3% with two consecutive makes. Rather, those numbers indicate a player confined to a strict role.

“But he adjusted from not doing that to how we want our fives to be,” Brown said. “Screen and roll, rim run, rebound and be okay with going from touching the ball once or twice a possession, to maybe not touching the ball at all.”

That’s a recent quote from Brown talking about Coulibaly, but it serves to illustrate how Capel currently views his big men — as traditional screen-setters and rebounders.

In this case, Capel is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Because Pitt’s big men simply aren’t great at rebounding. Hamilton ranks third on the team with 4.2 boards per game while Brown is fifth with 3.6. The Panthers rank 341st out of 353 teams in defensive rebounding percentage, typically the task of a team’s centers. Justin Champagnie, the 6-foot-6 first-year forward, does most of Pitt’s work on the boards, pacing the team with 7.3 rebounds per game.

Pitt’s big men aren’t producing in the paint, so there’s no point in having them down there at all. Brown isn’t going to wake up one morning as the reincarnation of Tim Duncan. But with a little work and a tweak in Capel’s game plan, he could be Brook Lopez lite.

Listen, folks — I believe in my heart of hearts that Brown has a respectable outside shot. He’s shown sound form and touch on mid-range jumpers this season. I’ve seen him knock down 3-pointers with ease in warmups and practice sessions. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen him light it up from deep during offseason pickup sessions at Trees Hall. Granted, that was against a bunch of 6-foot-nothing amateurs like myself. But the potential is there.

Brown already fits half the profile of a 3-and-D center. He blocks shots at an excellent rate, ranking fourth in the ACC at 1.83 per game. Nothing needs to change defensively. Champagnie and sophomore forward Au’Diese Toney can continue to do what they do best and crash the boards with tenacity. On offense, Brown only needs to get comfortable with shooting open threes, like he showed last year in a 2-3 shooting performance from beyond the arc against NC State.

And it doesn’t have to be Brown. Efficiency from the foul line often goes hand-in-hand with efficiency from the 3-point line, and Hamilton is Pitt’s third-best free-throw shooter at 75.6%. The scouting report on Coulibaly in high school said he is a capable outside shooter. Any one of these three could theoretically fill the role of a stretch five.

I’m not advocating for Pitt’s bigs to go hog wild and start chucking from deep like Curry. Capel doesn’t have to overhaul his offense or reinvent the wheel. But I do think Brown should be encouraged to take one or two 3-pointers a game. Anything to clear the lane for McGowens and Johnson is worth a shot. And instead of having his bigs roll to the rim after nearly every screen, Capel should throw in some pick-and-pops. If Brown, Hamilton or Coulibaly show even a semblance of an outside shot that causes defenses to gravitate toward them in any way, the Panthers will be better off for it.

In the following clip from November’s West Virginia loss, Brown actually does stay at the 3-point line after attempting to screen for Johnson. His defender follows Johnson into the paint to help, leaving Brown wide open. The possession ends with Champagnie running into a brick wall of Mountaineers at the restricted area.

It’s clear that opposing teams don’t view Brown as a shooting threat, instead prioritizing the defense of Pitt’s playmaking guards. In this situation, though, if Johnson sees Brown and delivers him the ball to knock down the open 3-pointer, it alters how West Virginia plays defense for the rest of the game. Knowing Brown can make that shot, his defender might be hesitant to help off of him the next time Johnson drives to the hoop. After blowing by his defender, Johnson can then convert an easy layup instead of facing a big body at the rim.

With only two games separating the fourth through 12th-place teams in the ACC, Pitt needs any to take advantage of any trick it can to rise above the fray. Stretch big men are making their presence known in the NBA — it’s time for Capel to embrace the concept at the college level. Pitt might not have a Giannis Antetokounmpo or a Brook Lopez, but that doesn’t mean it can’t mimic the same scheme fueling the Bucks’ NBA-best record. The 3-point revolution is upon us — why should centers miss out on the fun?

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