ANAHEIM, Calif.– Dillon Brooks is driven by the feeling of being underappreciated. He has a fire burning inside after years of going below the radar.
He was underrated as a junior player in Canada. He didn’t even start on his own high school team due to the presence of Kelly Oubre and Rashad Vaughn. Heck, coming into Thursday night’s West Regional semifinal vs. Duke, he was still largely anonymous despite being the best player on a No. 1 seeded Oregon team that is now one win away from the Final Four after defeating Duke 82-68.
Now, because of that intensity, you can expect things to change in the coming days. For both reasons that are good and for some that will rub people the wrong way.
Brooks scored 22 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out six assists in the Ducks’ win to send them to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007 and only for the third time since 1960. He was the dominant force in a game that was mostly dominated by the Ducks throughout the second half.
Simply put, the kid just plays extremely hard and wears his emotion on his sleeve.
It was during that second half that he really began to get under the skin of the Blue Devils. The cauldron of fire that he brings to the floor every night came dangerously close to spilling over throughout, as he celebrated his made shots by pounding his chest and flexing repeatedly. Basically, Brooks took no prisoners and had a disregard for how he acted toward his opponent.
One example came in the second half, when following a turnover he grabbed the ball and cradled it like a football. His former high school teammate and roommate, Derryck Thornton, made a quick motion for the ball, but Brooks instinctively turned his body in an aggressive manner and almost caught Thornton with a shot to the face. By the way, this came a day after he called Thornton “a great person off the court and on the court” that used to always invite him to work out when they were back in Las Vegas at Findlay Prep.
No prisoners, indeed. That led to the referee coming to Oregon’s huddle during the ensuing television timeout and telling Brooks that he needed to cool it a bit.
But the moment that will be discussed most was at the end, when with very little time remaining in the game he chucked up a 3-pointer that fell through the hoop after being told to shoot by his coach. Following the shot, he turned around and did a rather emphatic salute that drew the ire both of Grayson Allen and of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Not to be outdone, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks also puts the final touch on his team’s win #MarchMadness https://t.co/6cWGpStwcf
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 25, 2016
Following that, Allen wasn’t exactly friendly toward an embrace from Brooks when it seemed like they accidentally walked into each other as the game ended.
It was not nearly as big a deal as it was made out to be. Allen didn’t shove him, seemingly didn’t say anything. He seemingly just moved Brooks out of the way because he didn’t want to acknowledge him for showing up Duke after his distant 3-pointer — something Brooks admitted his action was in the locker room afterward. It wasn’t poor sportsmanship from Allen, nor was it a big deal from Brooks. It speaks ill of neither player. It was just a little, non-confrontational moment that would not have become a thing if it wasn’t Allen-related.
Regardless though, Brooks’ actions throughout the game led to an alleged conversation with the legendary Duke coach in the handshake line.
“He just told me that I’m too good of a player to be showing off at the end,” Brooks said in the locker room after the win. “And you know, he’s right. I gotta respect Duke. I’ve gotta respect them. And you’ve gotta learn from these things. He’s one of the greatest coaches. Coaches some of the greatest players. And you’ve just gotta keep that in mind.”
Except, Coach K denies that this ever took place, even with the knowledge that Brooks has acknowledged his mistake.
“I didn’t say that,” Krzyzewski said in the post-game presser. “You can say whatever you want. Dillon Brooks is a hell of a player. I said, ‘You’re a terrific player.’ And you can take whatever he said and then go with it, all right?”
Let’s hope for K’s sake that Brooks was mistaken, as it would be a bit hypocritical of Krzyzewski to lecture another player for disrespect after not disciplining his own star player, Allen, for tripping opponents on multiple occasions this season.
Most importantly though, that moment shouldn’t overshadow what was simply a monster game from a great player on the biggest stage. Brooks admitted after the game that playing Duke played a role in creating an even larger sense of urgency to his game.
“I feel like when it’s your first time playing Duke, that brings something to you,” Brooks said. “That brings something to everybody. Everybody watches Duke. Everybody watches the JJ Redicks, Coach K coaching on national championships, Christian Laettner, all of those guys. You just bring your A game. We brought it to them, and it was hard for them to stop us. That took me to an all-time level, and now I’m just trying to replicate it for the next game.”
“It’s not ignorance, it’s not cocky. It’s just me being happy to get past Duke and onto the Elite Eight.”
If Brooks got that up for a game against Duke, imagine how he could get when he plays for a chance to take Oregon to its first Final Four since 1939 on Saturday. He’ll take tonight as a lesson in respecting his opponent, but don’t expect things to change when he takes on Oklahoma.
“That’s my fire, that’s my passion,” Brooks said. “That’s what got me here today. So I’m going to take what (Coach K) said, but I’m gonna keep doing me.”
If ‘doing him’ involves the play we saw tonight, that’s ultimately a good thing for Oregon even with all of the narrative surrounding him afterward. The fire he plays with clearly inspires his team, and embodies a group that feels underrated nationally despite their seeding and ranking.
The fire he plays with also embodies Brooks himself, still standing proudly in this tournament after years of struggling to be deservedly known for his play.
Well, it’s safe to say the nation knows him now.