Armoni Brooks 2021-22 season in review

On a surprisingly solid season from Toronto's 10-day contract add.

The following is part of Raptors Republic’s pieces reviewing the seasons for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.

It’s hard to join new teams midway through the season, and it’s hard to join new teams as a bit player, and it’s hard to move across a continent for a job to begin with. Such is the lot of the NBA player, but failure is usually baked into the system when role players are asked to prop up teams with exposed weaknesses. Such was Armoni Brooks’s lot when he joined the Toronto Raptors midway through March of last season.

The Raptors were in the midst of a 3-6 stretch of miserable basketball, culminating in losses to the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, largely because OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet were missing from the roster with injury. There was virtually no shooting whatsoever to speak of outside of Gary Trent jr. The Houston Rockets had recently released Brooks, so Toronto snatched him up with a 10-day contract.

Early returns were muted, as Brooks played just four minutes in his first game then three in his next. But the Raptors quickly turned the season around, launching another winning streak as VanVleet briefly returned to the lineup. Yet Brooks’s role shockingly did not dwindle to nothing. He started and played 20 minutes in a win over the Denver Nuggets (Scottie Barnes and Pascal Siakam were magnificent). He played 14 or more minutes in a stretch of four straight games to close the month, and he made two triples in all of them. The Raptors were shooting starved, and even  as the team returned closer to health, Brooks’s kept a small role. He immediately leapfrogged guards like Malachi Flynn and Dalano Banton and even wing Yuta Watanabe in the rotation.

Shooting was the big draw. Toronto desperately needed shooting. (Still does.) But Brooks did not shoot the lights out. He had been shooting 30 percent from deep with Houston on the year before his release, and that dipped to 27.8 percent with the Raptors. If he had made shots, he might have even had a rotation spot in the playoffs. Still, he added value beyond shooting, which was why he played more minutes than would have been expected for a young prospect whom the Houston Rockets didn’t want on the team. Despite missing triples, he didn’t hesitate to launch them on the catch, which in itself was a big improvement on Toronto’s usual cast of bench players. He played smart and didn’t make mental mistakes, even if he did miss his shots. And he drew attention behind the arc. He didn’t try to do more than the team needed, and neither did he defer overmuch. (That’s an insanely tough balance to find, by the way, for role players.) On the defensive end, he used his ridiculous length (6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, lol) to force turnovers and play very solid defense. He had elite block and steal rates for his position. He earned a role with the Raptors — and a second 10-day contract and then two-year deal, to go along with his play.

He was fighting uphill for such rewards. Banton was the hometown kid, and the Raptors had recently used a first-round pick on Flynn. Brooks wasn’t given anything. Now that he’s running downhill — with a small contract already in hand — it seems like Brooks’s future has never been brighter.

In Game 1 of Toronto’s Summer League, Brooks was arguably Toronto’s best player. He was the only one able to create with the ball and turn the corner on his defender with ease, and he even recorded nifty plays in pick and roll (which is not common to Summer League, for those unfamiliar with the organized chaos). He finished with 25 points on 18 shots, Toronto’s points leader, and he hit 5 of 12 triples. He recorded no turnovers. He showed special pick-and-roll chemistry with Christian Koloko, which was supposed to be more the specialty of Flynn or even Brooks — Banton continues, in all likelihood, to have the clearest path to minutes of the three bench guards.

The shooting is the big question mark. Brooks made more triples in Game 1 of Summer League than the rest of his teammates combined. He has a history as a shooter, connecting on 38.2 percent of his triples in his rookie season with Houston and 39.7 percent of his triples in three years in college. He was billed as a shooter and treated as such with the Raptors. Actual makes didn’t come around in 2021-22, which meant his impact had a relatively low ceiling. If his shooting returns to near 40-percent levels as a catch-and-shoot role player off the bench, he could leapfrog a few more guys in the rotation. Toronto’s need for shooting is that desperate. Especially one who can defend like Brooks. That he showed out in the pick and roll and out of isolation in Summer League is just a bonus; he was hitting step-back bombs in Summer League. Toronto doesn’t need that, even if it is nice to see.

It’s critical to say that Summer League success really does not correlate with NBA success. Last year, Precious Achiuwa played brilliantly in Summer League and struggled mightily out of the gate to the real season, not becoming the future star he appears to be until late in the campaign. Malachi Flynn was fantastic in Summer League. Scottie Barnes — who of course went on to win Rookie of the Year — scored only 12.8 points per game and shot 41.2 percent from the field. So, again: Summer League success really does not correlate with NBA success.

But Brooks seems to have another path to rotation minutes in the upcoming season. It’s unlikely, but so too was it last year. He has a very small guarantee for the upcoming year, only $50,000, which would guarantee to $1.7 m if he makes the roster outright. He’s in a real camp battle with players like DJ Wilson, Banton, and others. Perhaps Brooks has the lowest future upside of the three (I wouldn’t actually argue that’s the case, but bear with me), but that’s not really what you’re looking for from end-of-the-bench players. That Brooks cracked the rotation in 2021-22 was a near miracle, considering how impossible a task that is for minimum-contract players acquired in the middle of the season. Most go the way of Drew Eubanks, who was released after the Thad Young-for-Goran Dragic trade without playing a game for the Raptors. Toronto likely won’t be looking for future upside from its end-of-bench players; more important is the ability to contribute something in the present. And Brooks has already proven he’s the most capable of that of Toronto’s roster of bench guards. He was impressive in 2021-22. His future with the team might be even better.

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