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Behind the Screen: Brook Lopez, the man with two minds

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Lopez has been a superhero for Brooklyn this year.     (Illustration by Jarod Valentin)
Brook Lopez has been a superhero for Brooklyn this season. (Illustration by Jarod Valentin)

What if your superpower was that you could operate on two different levels of thought at once? What if you could cross fluidly from the analytic to the creative and back again?

OK, that would be a pretty lame superpower. Lots of people think in two contexts.

But the cool thing about Nets star center Brook Lopez is that he has managed to merge these two minds on and off the court, seemingly without anyone noticing.

     (Getty Images, illustration by EOB)
(Getty Images, illustration by EOB)

Gotta be honest, I didn't expect this from Brook Lopez this season. When the Nets signed Lopez to a four-year max deal (not a five-year max deal, the actual max), I was apoplectic. Lopez had suffered through a season of constant injury due to a foot issue, the black cloud for big men. He had a horrific rebound rate (7.7 percent in the injury-plagued 2012 season, just 10.0 in 2011). He was a poor defender. He had a good offensive skill set, but was he anywhere close to dominant? No.

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And then this year happened. And within the first month, you could tell this was not the Brook Lopez of old. In comic-book terms (we'll get there), he retconned his identity. The term refers to a "retroactive continuity." Lopez is a huge comic-book fan, particularly of the DC universe, which pulls that trick all the time. The publisher will simply reset things from time to time, allowing writers to create new personalities, identities, backstories to free them from the chains of continuity. The characters are still essentially the same, just rewritten in a new writer's mold.

And in the same way, Lopez retconned his career. He started the year as an overpaid center who had never won consistently with questions about his toughness and ability. The rewrite suggests he's the best offensive center in basketball and in the top three for title of Best Center on Earth.

Not bad for a guy who was on the trade block for more than a year.

Lopez suffered through the indignity of the Dwightmare, of being constantly talked about as a piece sent to Orlando, to Indiana, to the Lakers. And yet, while the team obviously pursued a trade for him in order to upgrade the position with Dwight Howard, Lopez still re-signed with the Nets. He could have taken less money just to stick it to the Nets. But he re-signed and chose not to take it personally. And instead, he has developed into an All-Star in Brooklyn.

Not bad for a creative writing major.

Lopez is a creative individual. On top of comic books, he's an avid reader of book books and speaks in the kind of terms that creative writers do. But despite a reputation with media for being a poor quote with a monotone voice who hates talking about basketball, get him in the right setting, ask him the right questions and you find out something.

This guy's got a basketball IQ through the roof. That's what he showed me on a Thursday afternoon in Denver.

-----

Brook Lopez is sleepy.

The Nets got into Denver at 4 a.m., meaning they likely got to bed sometime around 5 a.m., which wasn't all that long ago when Lopez slumped his gangly frame onto a couch across from me at the team's hotel. Lopez is kind of a contradiction in terms. At 7 feet tall, it's not like you're going to mistake him for the hipster artist down the hall. His deep, monotone voice drones like the subway announcer, and his heavy brow line gives him a pretty stern visage.

He's also wearing a Sonic the Hedgehog T-shirt.

I wanted to know what goes into making a great post player, how you judge decisions when you've got the ball in your hands, a defender slamming his elbow into your back, help defenders looking to swipe from all directions and the clock running down.

For starters, I noticed Lopez will flow from set to set when the Nets bring the ball up. He's not just plopping into the post and waiting. He'll move from position to position, screen to post to flare back to screen. Lopez explained that a lot of that is about helping him get the position that he needs deep enough.

Lopez's versatility is part of what makes him so dangerous offensively. There are some players who can hit the jump shot, many who can drive and a few who have post moves. But when you're like Lopez and the defender has to worry about all of that, you can catch them napping. Lopez even brings an old cliche into the mix to explain.

And yet, if you worry too much about the jump shot and how to defend if he posts, Lopez does have the athletic burst to get around you. And from there, he has learned how to recognize when he has the ability to make a poster. Ask Pau Gasol.

Lopez's mastery of angles is kind of the offensive coin flip of Larry Sanders' blocking ability. His sweet spot is that point on the baseline when he's parallel to the basket, but understanding the conversion of his jumper to his hook allows him to know when he's going to use glass, he explains.

Many offensive players can succeed when you put them in the perfect position to hit the shot. What's impressive about Lopez is that even when there's miscommunication or a mistake made, his combination of size and skill lets him convert, as he talks about a play where he had to surrender positioning out of anxiety over a three-second call.

Not bad for a guy who said he "has to read" the new issues of his favorite comic books the day they come out.

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     (Getty Images, illustration by EOB)
(Getty Images, illustration by EOB)

Lopez hasn't just improved offensively. He's still a vulnerability for the Nets defensively, though far fom the lone or biggest. But if you pay attention, Lopez has gotten much better. He's not out of position nearly as often. I'm a big believer that blocked shots are not a great indicator of individual defense. But they are relevant, and Lopez has incresed his block rate to a career-high 5 percent, averaging 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes.

In short, he's making strides with a lot of career left in him.

Lopez said the initial rotations get lost, but the key has been the Nets' improvement defensively as a team.

"With the rotations, a lot of them they're not fancy plays," he said. "It's stuff you wouldn't know because you force them to swing the ball and continue play. Our weak-point help ... and then getting over and me being the wall, then we have a read-back guy to act as safeties and really getting in our weak-side eyes. All that said, though, it really comes down to helping each other out."

Lopez knows it's an area in which he has to continue to improve and singled out two areas that he wants to work on in the pick-and-roll coverage.

"[I want to get better at] reading certain matchups better in the pick and roll. If a guy's going to come off the pick and roll and stop and pop as opposed to drive to the basket, I need to be higher up in the pocket to contest his jump shot. And then I need to get better at blitzing pick and rolls."

The Nets lost out on Dwight Howard, rolled the dice on Lopez and have hit it big, it would seem.

-----

     (Getty Images, illustration by EOB)
(Getty Images, illustration by EOB)

Lopez agrees that there's definitely a creative element to basketball, especially in what he refers to as the non-traditional positionality that exists outside of long-standing archetypes.

"When you see how different players are, how many different ways there are to be good? And you have those guys who aren't archetypes, who are really off the page. I think how you approach the game creatively definitely comes from how you grew up and how creative you are as a person. I've actually talked to Larry [Sanders] on the floor about his art. I think the background you come from definitely translates onto the floor."

Lopez's passion for creativity is a life-long pursuit for both him and his family. He majored in creative writing at Stanford, does his own comic-book writing and can talk shop with the best of them. Brace yourselves; this is about to get nerdy.

Ironically, Lopez has found himself associated with Marvel Comics, which designed the BrooklyKnight as the new mascot for the team, and he has done a lot of work for the company's tie-ins with the league. It's odd, because Lopez himself is a DC Comics guy. It would be like a comic-book artist who's a Lakers fan having to draw or write a Boston Celtics superhero.

"It's weird thinking about it," he said. "You think one way. I am a Marvel Comics fan, as well. I've always been a big Avengers guy: Nightcrawler, Hawkeye and Iceman. I did feel like I was letting DC down a little bit, but I've enjoyed what I've done with Marvel. I can't lie -- the BrooklyKnight they designed is pretty cool."

(Note: Lopez is either a good company man or totally insane.)

Lopez is able to reflect on legendary Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns' run ending:

"Both Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns' run have been epically long, I think nine years or so. It's been something amazing to watch. It's one of those legendary runs. I've read every single issue the day it's hit stands. It's been incredible."

Lopez lists Jim Lee as arguably his all-time favorite artist, and Batman: Hush as his favorite particular run of Lee's.

"I couldn't wait to see what Batman characters he drew because that was his first chance at those characters," he said.

He does say he tries not to go to the store when the new issues come out on a game day. One way or another, though, he's reading them.

"Very rarely I'll go on game day. When we were in [Oklahoma City] on Wednesday, I went. I didn't go in Dallas or Portland. I'll text my older brother and then download them digitally because I have to read them."

As for the most important question, whether the Nets are more the DC-created Justice League of America or the Marvel-invented Avengers, Lopez's preference shines through, even while he's protecting the sponsors.

"I gotta say JLA," he said with a grin, "but we definitely have those crossover options."

(Note: The Nets are unquestionably the JLA. They're top heavy, not as deep or as versatile, Barclays is a lot like the satellite the JLA hangs out on, and if Superman (Deron Williams) or Batman (Lopez) go down, they're pretty much screwed. Also, in this scenario, Kris Humphries is Aquaman.)

Brook Lopez, always of two minds.

Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com. Special thanks to Daniel Woolley for research assistance.

 
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