MANILA, Philippines — A Canadian team staffer has yelled the two worst words a reporter can hear during post-practice media availability, cupping his hands to belt, “First bus!” across Ninoy Aquino Stadium. Dillon Brooks, though, is in no hurry to reach the charter idling outside. He has exchanged his sneakers for a pair of black Birkenstocks, and the infamous defender is placing one foot in front of the other, meandering across the half-court line of this dingy arena like he’s balancing along a highwire.
That is Brooks’ task each night. For this Canada club — which is one win away from a potential matchup with Team USA for the World Cup gold medal — and for his ensuing role as perimeter pest for the Houston Rockets. He is perpetually toeing the divide between antics and affect, helping limit Luka Dončić to 8-of-20 shooting in the quarterfinal victory over Slovenia on Wednesday and irritating the All-NBA superstar to the point Dončić was tossed on two technicals — but only after Brooks himself had already been disqualified.
And yet Dončić’s gripes weren’t about Brooks or his approach, but for how lenient the officials were with all of Brooks’ bumps and whacks and taunts.
“A lot of people don’t like him,” Dončić said postgame. “But I respect him for what he does.”
“I think he’s the best defender, with Lu Dort, the best perimeter defender in this competition,” Canada head coach Jordi Fernandez added. “I think [Wednesday] it was a defensive clinic of leading with his chest, showing his hands, pressuring full court. And if you don’t think that way, you don’t like basketball.”
The broadcast of Canada’s 100-89 victory, with FIBA allowing boom mics to dangle over team huddles, picked up Brooks barking specific instructions on how to stay in front of Dončić’s prodding penetration. “Guard him here,” Brooks explained, standing sentinel, with two fists at his hips. “You know what I’m saying? Let him go that way. We have help, we got rotations, we get steals.”
In Houston, Brooks’ guidance will be as important as his own ability to guard. Word of the Rockets’ impending free-agent pursuit came shortly after Houston hired Ime Udoka as the franchise’s next head coach, the man who oversaw the NBA’s best defense in 2021-22. There is an identity shift Udoka aims to instill on the ground floor of this rebuild. The coach has been widely credited for pinpointing Brooks as the Rockets’ tool for raising that ceiling.
“He knows that I bring a different type of edge to the game,” Brooks told Yahoo Sports. “I have my ups and downs with it. But I can teach young guys. Houston was a great offensive team. They just needed more on the defensive end, stressing priority on the defensive end.”
For his perceived failures with Memphis, Brooks was nothing but successful in setting the Grizzlies’ tone. As much as Memphis rose atop the Western Conference with Ja Morant’s dazzling drives and Desmond Bane’s rapid development and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s defensive prowess, Memphis played with Brooks’ personality. Rivals regularly complained about the Grizzlies’ collective growl. It’s not difficult to discern which hound was leading that pack.
Alas, that chapter for Brooks has closed. Receiving $86 million guaranteed from Houston will certainly aid his adjustment, leaving the only organization he’s known in six years as a professional. Brooks feels primed for a leadership role in his new scenery.
“Just having a positive mindset, knowing that it’s gonna be a transition day by day,” Brooks said. “Getting better day by day and finding ways to believe in the details and believe in the little things that get you to where you need to get to, whether it’s playoffs, whether it’s winning the in-season tournament, each game getting better and better.”
Rest assured, Brooks has no plans on altering his approach. The crowd at Mall of Asia was overflowing with Dončić jerseys and Filipino faithfuls who largely lean as Lakers fans. The boos rained down from the moment Brooks rushed onto the floor during lineup introductions. They crescendoed whenever he touched the ball. So with each of the three triples Brooks drained, he turned to the jeering stands, took a trio of fingers to his lips and blew kisses to the haters.
After all, when a reporter asked Brooks if he’s the best defender at this World Cup, his response was dead-panned. “Yeah. This tournament, this world, in the NBA,” Brooks said. “I feel like I bring a different type of defense with my IQ and how physical I play and how disciplined I am on the floor.”