If you had told North Carolina senior forward Garrison Brooks his first double-double of the 2020-2021 season wouldn't come until January, this year's Preseason ACC Player of the Year would have thought you were lying.
But, here we are.
It's been a slower start to this year's campaign for the UNC leader, who averaged over 16 points and eight rebounds a game for the Tar Heels last season. But against the Syracuse Orange and their 2-3 zone defense on Tuesday night, Brooks erupted for 14 first-half points en route to 16 points and 10 boards in the 81-75 win for UNC.
"I had to bring it tonight because I knew I had to play better," Brooks said. "(...) I drew a line and said, 'I’m gonna play better and help my team.'"
And that's exactly what the veteran did.
Despite his quiet second half, Brooks was the only force strong enough to keep the Tar Heels in the game early on after Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim went off for 18 points in the first half. With his past experiences against the Orange's zone, all UNC's guards had to do was feed Brooks in the middle of the paint, help grab the occasional offensive rebound and repeat until the halftime break.
The simple process and the rewards North Carolina reaped from it were a fresh change of pace for Brooks in his first appearance in the starting lineup since he began spending the last three games coming off the bench for UNC following the team's 79-76 loss to N.C. State.
But, as UNC head coach Roy Williams explained postgame, that benching wasn't for the same reasons fans threw around: a lack of energy, bad body language, etc.
Quite the opposite, actually.
Brooks asked Williams to bench him — yes, one of last year's second-team All-ACC bigs requested to be taken out of the starting lineup — because he didn't want first-year point guard Caleb Love to be the only one demoted to the sideline after the ugly loss to the Wolfpack.
"That was his suggestion to me," Williams said. "He has the greatest attitude you can possibly have, and it’s hard for those guys doing the TV stuff in their homes 500 miles away to try to make comments. Garrison does not have bad body language. Garrison does not have a bad attitude. He’s damn near perfect."
That's just the kind of player Brooks has been for his teammates, his coaches and this fanbase over the last two seasons. He's been a constant pillar for everyone else around him to lean on throughout one of the worst stretches in program history.
And now that he has returned to the starting lineup, he has the potential to maximize that larger-than-life leadership aspect, on and off the court, going forward.
“It was great. We need Garrison," first-year guard RJ Davis said. "Garrison is a leader of this team, and we need him to come out and just be Garrison Brooks. Tonight, he did that for us. I feel like this is the start of him becoming Garrison Brooks again.”
With this UNC team now beginning to find its footing on the foundation of three gritty ACC wins in a row, the Tar Heels couldn't have asked for a much better time for Brooks to get back to his old self.
“It was cool, I mean, it was good to see him do that, but I still feel like there’s another level we can take it to," sophomore big Armando Bacot said. "For both of us, I thought we just kind of played OK, and I definitely think we could’ve played better, and that’s the type of player he is. I think we’re gonna start to see an upward trend from Garrison of getting back to the old guy he is.”
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