Garrison Brooks admits he models his game after a former Tar Heel big man.
It just might not be the player you expected.
“I think the guy I really started just looking a lot to play in my system is James Michael, James Michael McAdoo, basically,” Brooks said after the team’s season opener on Nov. 6.
“It’s nice, man,” he said. “I feel like it’s the first game, you can’t just dwell on this the rest of the season. I feel like I have to be a lot better.”
Brooks wasn’t always destined to come to North Carolina. He originally committed to Mississippi State in November 2016, his senior year of high school. It was a move that had precedence considering his father, George, played for the Bulldogs from 1992-1994 and was an assistant coach on Ben Howland's staff.
Yet his father’s presence did not stop Brooks from de-committing in April of 2017, opting out of his national letter of intent to reevaluate his path. While the Tar Heels watched and waited for Tony Bradley to make his decision to opt for the 2017 NBA Draft, they received a bandage in Brooks, who committed on April 21.
Enter Brooks, the late signee, a defensive stalwart. The man who broke the Auburn High School record for block shots completed a front court that included senior Theo Pinson and junior Luke Maye.
He started the first 16 games of the season and his defensive ability was on display — he finished third on the team in defensive player of the game awards.
But it wasn’t always easy. Strong performances were supplanted by the common mistakes of a first-year — foul trouble, not boxing out his man — things that frustrated his coach and relegated the fiery Alabama native to the bench for the final 21 games. He saw his playing time severely dwindle during that period, not once reaching 20 minutes of game time during the stretch.
Against Texas A&M, the Tar Heels were beat up by a massive front line that included Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. Brooks shot 1-6 in the game and watched as his first season ended with a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
Before his second season even started, he must have heard the challenges from his head coach Roy Williams, who admitted someone needed to step up at the five spot, the position Brooks primarily played last year.
“The five spot, somebody’s gotta step up and do it or I’ve gotta go back and play a little smaller," Williams said.
Playing smaller is exactly what doomed UNC against the Aggies as the Tar Heels had no big man properly equipped to go against Davis and Robert Williams. In the end, North Carolina was destroyed on the glass by a 50-36 margin, a number that is uncharacteristic for a team coached by Williams.
Brooks did not only hear challenges from his coach in the preseason, he also heard it from teammates, specifically senior leader Kenny Williams.
"He's probably the one that I've been on the most this preseason just because I kind of took him under my wing a little bit and just demanded more from him and he showed that tonight," Williams said after the team's Nov. 6 season opener. "I'm so proud of him the way he played."
In the team's season opener, Brooks stepped up to the challenge, if only for one game, playing with a newfound sense of confidence. He followed up the performance with 7 points and 6 rebounds in 16 efficient minutes of play against Elon.
“It’s just a lot more confident and just being in the right spots so my teammates help me get open," Brooks said.
He admitted he looks at other former Tar Heels, including Deon Thompson in addition to McAdoo and Brice Johnson as he works to keep getting better around the rim, hoping to find his role and become a mainstay in the team's front court alongside Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.
Brooks takes everything personally — he stated as much after his inspired performance against Wofford. The comments from his coach and the motivation from his teammates, the fact that Wofford beat his squad on its home court last year and the questions among the media about whether his team will return to a two-big rotation this season.
Perhaps UNC can make a deep postseason run using a small-ball lineup, but for the team to reach its full potential, it will likely need a sophomore big man to step up.
Right now, that man looks like Brooks. He will continue to look to former Tar Heel big men to find his role with the team.
If all goes well, maybe one day future Tar Heels will not only look at players such as Johnson, Thompson, McAdoo and Brooks to find success.
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