On Sunday night, when the University of Oregon was in trouble, Dillon Brooks delivered.
The Ducks, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, were down by seven points with five minutes to go against No. 8 Saint Joseph’s. Brooks, a sophomore from the Toronto area, sparked the comeback – and then sealed the win. With 80 seconds to go, Brooks knocked down a three-point shot, a clean swish, for the lead Oregon carried to the end.
“Dillon Brooks, hand in his face, doesn’t matter. Splash,” said one announcer. The other several times called Brooks “one of the best shot makers in the country.”
Brooks is the second Canadian in four years to lead a No. 1 seed as its top scorer into March Madness. In 2013, it was Kelly Olynyk and Gonzaga University, but Gonzaga was upended in the Round of 32.
As the Sweet 16 begins on Thursday, Brooks and Oregon face defending champion Duke University, a No. 4 seed, in Anaheim.
This is his shot to make his reputation for a larger audience – including NBA executives and scouts. Brooks, 6-foot-7 and 20 years old, is one of the less heralded players to come out of Toronto this decade. His name is at best an afterthought in NBA draft projections.
“They definitely know who he is,” Rowan Barrett, a Canada Basketball executive, said of the scouts. “But there’s no better way to get on the radar than to win. Now he’s going to have a great stage.”
Brooks was born in Mississauga. His mother works for a bank and his father works in construction. As a teenager, he played club basketball with CIA Bounce, as did Andrew Wiggins and numerous others.
“He’s a gym rat,” said Tony McIntyre, a co-founder of CIA Bounce. “He always wanted [to be] in the gym. He’s one of the better players that have come out of Toronto. He’s just really starting to catch the attention of a lot of people now.”
To finish high school, Brooks moved south to Findlay Prep, near Las Vegas, where several Canadians who’ve reached the NBA, led by Tristan Thompson, played. Brooks, as a freshman at Oregon, quickly became a collegiate force. But a key for Brooks has been summers playing for Canada.
He was the leading scorer at the under-18 FIBA Americas tournament in 2014, leading Canada to a silver. Last year, at the under-19 FIBA world championships, he was the second-leading scorer, and Canada finished fifth. His play earned him a spot at the Pan Am Games on the senior national team, where he played a smaller role.
As a junior, said Barrett, no other Canadian has scored as much. “A phenomenal performance level,” Barrett said.
Brooks has played in the shadow of Jamal Murray, who burst to prominence in 2015. Murray had considered going to Oregon before he signed with Kentucky. Murray was a surprise star at the Pan Am Games and at Kentucky he broke the freshman scoring record. Kentucky lost last weekend in the Round of 32 – but Murray is a consensus top-10 pick in the NBA draft in June.
Players such as Brooks, whose NBA future is less obvious, will benefit from a rule change. This spring, players with remaining collegiate eligibility will be allowed to attend the NBA draft combine, receive feedback, and go back to school if they feel the timing isn’t right.
Brooks has garnered praise from those who have seen him up close.
“We’d get mesmerized watching him do his thing,” Larry Krystkowiak, coach of Oregon rival Utah, said in February. Brooks brings energy – “a heck of a motor,” Krystkowiak said – and confidence as Oregon’s “swagger guy.”
At the Pan Am Games, Brooks had a lot to learn on defence, said Dave Smart, an assistant coach on the national team. But on the offensive end of the floor, while Brooks isn’t dominant in any specific way, he’s always able to put up points.
“He attacks situations,” Smart said. “He’s an extremely talented scorer. He just finds ways.”
The immediate test is Duke, which last year won its second NCAA title in six years.
This is Oregon’s fourth time in the Sweet 16 since 2002. The Ducks won the NCAA tournament the first time it was held, 1939, as the best of eight teams.
This time, a relatively unknown Canadian, Brooks, is the key – but there is another Canadian in the Oregon mix.
Chris Boucher, 23, is in his first season of Division I basketball, after winning junior college player of the year last winter. The 6-foot-10 forward from Montreal has fit in well: he’s blocked the most shots of anyone in Division I. He can score, too, pouring in 20 points to lead Oregon in its Round-of-64 game.
A third Canadian with the Ducks, Dylan Ennis, is watching from the sidelines – having lost most of his season to a foot injury.
Brooks relishes moments such as these, when the season is on the line.
“He’s built for this,” said McIntyre of CIA Bounce. “He loves the bright lights.”Report Typo/Error