Bulls’ Troy Brown Jr. settling into defensive-minded role

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Rob Schaefer
·5 min read
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Brown settling into defensive-minded role with Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Troy Brown Jr. was all smiles after the Bulls’ 115-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Easter Sunday.

Part of that had to be a sense of relief after the Bulls simultaneously notched their first post-trade-deadline victory and snapped a six-game losing streak. Part of it had to be the 28 minutes he logged, his most since joining the team.

But mostly, Brown seemed content to be making meaningful progress toward carving out his NBA niche after falling out of the Washington Wizards’ rotation early in his third season.

“I’m happy,” Brown told reporters over Zoom. “Just being able to know that there's something that I can go on the court and do and I know that's going to impact the game and Coach (Billy Donovan) is going to be happy with that.”

Before the deadline, Brown was averaging a career-low 13.7 minutes per game with the Wizards, who made him the 15th overall pick in the 2018 draft. A development that still appears to mystify him.

But Brown said his initial conversations with Donovan regarding his role with the Bulls were straightforward.

“The hardest thing in Washington (with the Wizards) was I didn't know what would get me on the court. Like if I scored, if I assisted, if I played defense, it was hard for me to figure it out,” Brown said. “First day I got here I talked to Coach Donovan and he told me, ‘Hey I need defense right now.’”

And that’s exactly what the 21-year-old wing provided from his opening stint -- which coincided with the Bulls flipping a 24-15 deficit into a 45-43 lead between the first and second quarters -- to crucial closing minutes late in the fourth.

His possessions checking Kyrie Irving were especially needed. Irving, the only member of the Nets’ superstar triumvirate to play in the game, finished with 24 points on 12-for-27 shooting, and shot just 1-for-5 in just over four minutes matched with Brown, according to NBA.com’s tracking data.

“Defense is more of a pride thing and more of an effort, and so right now that's all I've been focused on,” Brown said. “Just trying to come in and just bring that energy and bring that grit.”

Fittingly, embedded in Brown's final line -- 6 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and a made 3-pointer -- were a number of key hustle plays. The biggest: Snaring an offensive rebound amid a sea of powder blue jerseys to garner the Bulls an extra offensive possession ahead 109-102 with 94 seconds remaining.

Zach LaVine used that extra possession to drive a knife through the Nets’ comeback hopes.

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But the subtleties of Brown’s game stood out, too. Standing 6-foot-6 with a 6-11 wingspan, he moves his feet and navigates screens well on the perimeter, allowing him to stick with dartier guards while offering the versatility to crash the glass.

“My teammates did a great job of talking to me and just letting me know where the screens were coming from,” Brown said. “At that point it's my job to try to get over the screen and you know just play hard.”

Given the Bulls’ documented struggles with physicality at the point-of-attack, that’s a much-needed skill set. Whether it translates to a consistent role remains to be seen. While Donovan pledged playing time for Brown before the Nets game with Coby White in COVID-19 health and safety protocol, the Bulls’ coach also stressed that he doesn’t yet have a fully-formed idea of what his ultimate wing rotation will look like. Garrett Temple, remember, has missed the team’s last three games with a hamstring strain.

“Our perimeter has just not been together,” Donovan said. “It’s been Zach (out) for a game, Coby (out) for two games, Coby again for a game, Garrett’s now out, so we really haven’t had that. It’s kind of been mixing and matching so to speak, and I don’t know if I have necessarily a great feel because of the limited amount of time those guys have all played together. But we’re probably going to have to get, once we hopefully get whole, what those combinations on the perimeter look like.’’

Brown also still has something to prove as an offensive player. Woes as a 3-point shooter contributed to his inconsistent role with the Wizards, though he’s 3-for-7 from deep as a Bull and has engineered some crafty finishes to boot.

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The good news, to hear Brown tell it, is that the Bulls have plenty of offensive talent and shotmaking around him. He can afford to pick his spots and commit fully to what he does best as he continues to acclimate to an organization and locker room he said has done a great job taking him in thus far.

“No. And I feel like right now we don't need anything other than that,” Brown said when asked if Donovan had spoken to him about expanding his role beyond that of a defensive specialist. “I don't have to take a lot of shots or do a lot of things on the court, I’m going to just naturally do that because of my versatility.

“We have guys that can score the basketball at a very high rate. So like I said my job right now is to just bring energy and play defense.”

If Brown, bolstered by a renewed sense of clarity, ends up making his mark with the Bulls, remember Sunday as the day he flashed the blueprint.

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