If Malcolm Brogdon wins Rookie of the Year, it will be a monumental achievement. It usually goes to a player selected near the top of the draft and anointed the face of his franchise. Brogdon is a second-round pick who stayed in school for four years. When he arrived at Milwaukee Bucks training camp, he didn't know if he'd get the opportunity he wanted or if he'd spend most of his season in the D-League, but he knew he'd be ready if given a real chance.
The award would be a victory for guys who have had to earn every minute they got. It would be a victory for "old" rookies. It would also be a victory for role players, as his per-game numbers (10.2 points, 4.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds) don't jump off the page.
Brogdon, however, is not jazzed to talk about all of that. While his teammates have been pumping up the No. 36 pick as the should-be favorite, he prefers to downplay the fact it might happen.
"I don't actually worry about it," Brogdon said. "I think it's one of those things that would be a nice award to win, but that's what it is at the end of the day -- it's an award. So I'm not caught up in all that. I'm not caught up in winning it. If I win it, it'd be nice, but other than that I view it as a distraction. I gotta continue to do what I'm doing and helping my team in the ways I can to make the playoffs and make a run."
Brogdon said this last week in a phone interview, then he backed it up by asking the Bucks not to promote his candidacy. He wanted them to donate money to charity instead. Unintentionally, this might have generated more buzz for the man nicknamed "The President" than any contrived campaign. Brogdon understands that, sometimes, less is more.
Brogdon's Rookie of the Year case rests on that same principle. He does not force shots or try to do too much. He keeps the ball moving. Coming into the season, Milwaukee desperately needed another playmaker in the backcourt and more perimeter shooting. Brogdon solved both problems, capably running point guard and shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range.
It is rare that rookies, even the most talented ones, actually help their teams win in a tangible way. It is rarer still for that to happen on a good team. The Bucks were 4.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it, and that's primarily because he limits his mistakes and fits into their system.
"I knew who I was coming into the NBA, so I knew what I could contribute to a team and I just had a high level of confidence in myself and what I could do," Brogdon said. "My best asset to my game is my IQ. I play the game thinking the game first."
Brogdon realized in middle school that he could outsmart his opponents. He looked up to crafty players like Brandon Roy, Dwyane Wade and Isiah Thomas -- "the old Isiah Thomas," he clarified. Once he got to high school, it wasn't just about mimicking those stars; it was about understanding them.
"For me the big thing was what are they working on -- not just what are they doing when the lights are on, but what are they doing when no one's watching, how are they training, how did they get this good?" Brogdon said. "And what you realize is a lot of guys were just working extremely hard. They were willing to push themselves to the limits that other guys weren't and be uncomfortable when they were training and working out. And that's what I started to do."
On Sundays, Brogdon would get up at 6 a.m. so he could get in two hours of skill work and conditioning before going to church. He credits his faith and his family for his mindset, saying he tries to strive for excellence in all he does.
Brogdon sees a connection between disciplined, mature approach to life and his on-court style. "I think who I am on the court is who I am in person," he said. He insisted, though, that his teammates see another side of him -- he can be serious off the court, but he also likes to goof off. Asked his worst habit, though, he laughed and spent several seconds searching for an answer.
"I'm not sure," Brogdon said. "I'm a guy that tries to eat right. I try to keep my body right. I try to do all the right things. But like everybody else, I have flaws, I slip up, I eat the wrong things sometimes, I have cheat days. I think I make mistakes just like everybody else, but I try to minimize them."
It sounded like a valedictorian pointing to his one A-minus as proof he's not perfect.
As you might expect, Brogdon impressed executives in pre-draft interviews. After his meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers declared that he should actually be running for president. As he slipped on draft night, though, Brogdon was left wondering, if everyone said he did so well, what happened?
"A lot of people hyped me up and told me how good I was in their interviews, and then when I worked out for teams, they told me how well I did in the workouts," Brogdon said. "But, you know, most teams passed me up in the draft. For me, that's always fuel to the fire. I've always been a guy that's been underestimated. I've always been an underdog and been overlooked, so this is right up my alley."
In retrospect, it seems obvious that he was typecast. Being 24 years old, though, didn't mean he was a finished product, and the fact that he relied more on his brain than his athleticism never meant that he lacked bounce. When he crams a dunk on someone -- like he did to both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving one night in December -- he knows he is surprising people. His eldest brother, Gino, proudly owns a T-shirt commemorating his moment with the King.
"I've always been labeled as not athletic enough and not explosive," Brogdon said. "You can just go down the line of all the critiques of my game coming up through high school and college. But honestly I think what you realize is there are a ton of people that are judging college players, high school players that are wrong. Their assumptions and how they label people is wrong. Guys aren't actually what the critics say they are -- they are actually, a lot of times, better and they actually can do a lot more things than what the critics think they can do. I think guys are underestimated, I think guys are wrongly labeled all the time, and it's proven over and over."
Brogdon delights in doing what people think he can't do. His triple-double against the Bulls on New Year's Eve was the only one recorded by a rookie this season. When he played in the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend, he didn't see any other second-rounders from his draft class. Running down his favorite moments, he pointed to Milwaukee beating the Spurs with star Giannis Antetokounmpo sick on the bench, not even mentioning that he hit a go-ahead 3 in crunch time.
Regardless of whether or not Brogdon wins Rookie of the Year, the truest illustration of his value was on display a couple of weeks ago in Boston. That's when he scored six points and dished two assists in the final 2 1/2 minutes, serving as the Bucks' primary playmaker down the stretch and leading them to a victory over another team that told him it was interested last summer. More than any external validation, his teammates' trust in him said it all.
"I think the biggest compliment they can give me is having the confidence in me at the end of games for me to have the ball and to make decisions and to create for them and to create my own shot and finish games," Brogdon said. "That's the biggest compliment I can get from anybody."