|Corey Brewer is one of the best at getting easy transition dunks. (Getty Images)|
Now you see him; now you don't.
When you're playing the Denver Nuggets, there are a multitude of things you have to worry about when you have the ball. Is Kenneth Faried going to appear out of nowhere and throw your shot in an unintended direction? Is JaVale McGee going to use his go-go gadget arms to either make a highlight or a hilarious highlight? Is Andre Iguodala going to dig down in help and take the ball from you?
When Corey Brewer is on the court for the Nuggets, you need to add a question to the things that an offense has to worry about: Where did Brewer go?
There are few players in the NBA as opportunistic on a change of possession as Corey Brewer. In a league full of specialists (from defensive wings to 3-point specialists to rebounding junkies), the Nuggets' six-year veteran might be the NBA's first transition specialist.
With the NBA becoming a faster league (when measuring out pace) on average over the last seven seasons, teams have been finding a way to capture the magic of those Mike D'Antoni Seven Seconds Or Less teams in Phoenix. They've sped up the pace, talked about having up-tempo DNA and tried to find quick ways to get open transition shots. And no team has consistently played at a higher pace since George Karl took over the Nuggets than Denver.
Since the 2005-06 season (Karl's first full season coaching the Nuggets), Denver has been in the top five in possessions per game in every season. No other team in the league can say that. Karl's teams have an advantage with the altitude in Denver, and they attempt to use it to their advantage.
On a recent podcast with Bill Simmons, Golden State Warriors players David Lee and Stephen Curry mentioned how hard it is to play in Denver. They cited that early in the game and in the third quarter, it's hard to keep your breath. Since the Nuggets players are playing in that environment 41 games per year, it makes sense that they'd play at a higher pace in order to take advantage of their home court and theoretically be in better shape when playing at lower altitudes.
The key to playing a fast pace isn't just pushing the ball up the floor on made baskets or long rebounds; it's maximizing when to throw the ball ahead for opportunistic scores. That's where Brewer comes in for the Nuggets. He's the best player in the league at leaking out on the break without flat-out cherry picking and leaving his team at a defensive disadvantage.
There are two reasons why Brewer is so good at scoring on leakouts in transition: technique and speed.
The technique aspect of it is fascinating. He's so good at making a direct step in the opposite direction without cheating on defense. He challenges opposing players, waits by his man and then uses the second that it usually takes the offensive team to realize it's now on defense to take off in the other direction with exceptional footwork.
As you can see on this play, Brewer has just challenged a shot on the perimeter by J.J. Redick. Once he sees that McGee is securing the rebound, he takes a direct step in the opposite direction of Redick. Because his footwork is so good (he digs deep with that lead leg to force his momentum toward his hoop), he's able to get to full speed pretty quickly.
From there, we see the defense focus on Iguodala once he gets the ball in the middle of the floor and Brewer slips behind Josh McRoberts for the easy score. It's his ability to get behind the defense so often that just feels like he's smothering you in transition.
This transition score is a perfect example of how Brewer almost stalks the transition defense like it's his prey. He's even with his man, Victor Claver, and in position to defend him if the Blazers get an offensive rebound or swing the ball around the perimeter. As soon as the turnover occurs and he sees McGee secure the ball, he's completely squared up to the hoop on the opposite side of the court and off to the races.
McGee gets the ball to Andre Miller, and Miller knows exactly where Brewer is on the court as he's turning. The Nuggets seem to know every time that Brewer has leaked out onto the break the instance they recover the ball. He's behind the last two defenders and getting an easy basket within three seconds of the shot clock.
Of the three technique videos that I'm showing you here, this is my favorite example of his footwork in changing directions. It seems like a basic concept: just turn your body, and head the other way. But to do it at this level of athletics and have it be so flawless is still impressive. As Iguodala is stealing the crosscourt pass, Brewer is facing the basket that Denver is protecting. He has to get his body turned around and at full speed to beat a fast Warriors team.
What's required here is the same footwork that you see on a spin move in the lane. Except in this instance, you're changing the direction of the path that you want to go. That's a little harder to do and still be balanced enough to get up to full speed at the blink of an eye. Brewer plants with his outside/back foot (his left), swings his hips back away from that foot and slides his right foot to plant the split second that he has squared up to the opposite basket.
From that point, it's a foot race to the other hoop. And few guys are as fast as Brewer.
In the draft combine in 2007, a skinny swingman out of Florida ran a three-quarter court sprint in 3.22 seconds. It's not the fastest time that we've ever seen. We've seen Nate Robinson under three seconds, and we've seen plenty of eventual NBA players hit the 3.1-second zone. But still, 3.22 seconds to run roughly 75 feet is incredibly fast. Of course, that was before Brewer tore his ACL in the 2008-09 season.
Four years removed from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Brewer is running the floor as well as he has in his first five NBA seasons.
“I feel like I'm faster,” he said after practice Sunday. “I might be faster and jump higher. They do miracles now. It used to be ACL surgery (meant) it was over for you. Now, you come back stronger.”
The technique is one thing with getting Brewer in position to take advantage of transitioning defense. But without the speed, he wouldn't be very opportunistic.
In this play, Corey is perpendicular to his intended path when he knocks the ball away from Jamal Crawford and as he's getting himself back up the court, he stumbles while trying to get past Lamar Odom. Some players would fall at this time or some would simply be forced to lose out on a fast break advantage.
With Brewer's speed, he's able to regain his balance while increasing the velocity of his movement. This is that 3.22 speed in motion. And, really, that 3.22 is probably one of his slower times now with his stronger legs.
Harrison Barnes is the Warriors player closest to the hoop that they're defending once the change of possession occurs. Barnes is no athletic slouch himself. He recorded a 39.5-inch vertical and a sprint time of 3.16 seconds in his pre-draft combine appearance in May 2012. He is not a slow player. He also has roughly five feet of a lead on Brewer as Corey takes off in the other direction.
Yet Brewer still beats him in a foot race headed the other way while tracking a pass over the top that he has to catch, gather his feet and then explode to the rim to make the shot. This gives you a great idea of just how quickly Brewer's horsepower gets him up to speed. He goes zero to 60 as fast as any player in the league.
Let's break down just how fast Brewer is here with a frame-by-frame display.
Here is the imaginary starting line with Pau Gasol planking in the background of the race. Both players are moving in the same direction and attempting to sprint. Chris Duhon is full steam ahead, while Brewer is looking back for the pass from Danilo Gallinari.
Within a second, Brewer has received the pass while turning in the right direction. He already has a step on Duhon, who seems to realize defense is futile in this race.
As Brewer is gathering for the dunk, Duhon has pulled up and given in to his own lack of speed and athleticism compared to Brewer. Maybe he could have caught up and fouled him, but it would be far too dangerous of an effort. Also, he's still Chris Duhon.
In that previously linked post on Nuggets.com, Brewer believes once he's involved in a foot race that there is no way he can lose.
“Don't let Ty think he's the fastest guy on the court,” Brewer said with a smile. “I always feel like I'm the fastest guy on the court, no matter what. When I get out and run, I feel I can outrun people.”
According to Synergy Sports, 28.1 percent of Brewer's offensive possessions come in transition. Other than spot-up shooting (36.2 percent of his possessions), no other aspect of his game comes close to being used as much as his transition offense. Again, he's not cherry picking to get these points. He's simply firing back in the opposite direction before anybody realizes possession has changed hands.
Only the Charlotte Bobcats (18.3 percent) have a higher percentage of their points come from the fast break than the Nuggets do (17.6 percent). It's a huge part of their offensive attack because they have the weapons to take advantage of it. They have a point guard who is great at passing up court (Miller), a speedy point guard who can put pressure on the defense with the dribble (Ty Lawson) and wing players like Gallinari, Iguodala and Brewer who can get ahead of the field and finish at the rim.
And 30.3 percent of Brewer's points come on the fast break.
Corey Brewer might just be the fastest player in the league without the ball. If not, his technique and understanding of the transition moments help him overwhelm transitioning teams in a split second. He's not the best transition scorer in the NBA, but he is the master of the leakout without hurting his team.
He's the league's top transition specialist, and you always have to keep an eye on him.