The transformation of Eli Brooks

Monday, January 11, 2021 - 5:17pm

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Madeline Hinkley/Daily

If there’s a game that best highlights the importance of Eli Brooks, perhaps it’s one in which he didn’t even touch the floor. 

Last February, the then-junior guard missed Michigan’s lone contest with Wisconsin while recovering from a broken nose. Slumped on the bench in street clothes, he could only watch as the Badgers dismantled the Wolverines’ lackluster perimeter defense. D’Mitrik Trice, free from Brooks’s wrath, torched Michigan for 28 points, including five 3-pointers. 

“(Brooks) is our anchor,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard lamented after the game, an 81-74 loss. “Just his presence — we saw how we missed his activity, we missed his energy, being able to guard guys and attention to detail when it comes to the scouting report.” 

Prior to that game, Brooks’s defensive exploits were evident, but the extent of their significance remained unknown. His prowess was overshadowed in part by point guard Zavier Simpson, whose notorious pitbull mentality had steered Michigan to the brink of a national championship two years earlier. 

Yet, against Wisconsin, Brooks’s absence cemented his status as the linchpin. A middling reserve and transfer candidate just a few years ago, Brooks is now the core of undefeated Michigan’s defensive identity. 

“He’s the head of the snake,” graduate transfer Mike Smith, Brooks’s starting backcourt mate, said on Dec. 4. “He wants to play defense. It’s not all about offense. You don’t find that in a lot of people.” 

Brooks set scoring records at Spring Grove Area High School in Pennsylvania, where his offensive capabilities first caught the eye of Billy Donlon, then an assistant coach for the Wolverines. When Michigan’s staff watched Brooks play, though, the defensive potential jumped out. 

“Coach (John) Beilein wanted to see if a player could see the game,” Donlon, who shepherded Brooks’s recruitment, said. “In other words, if he was a good passer, he also felt that he could be a really good defender because in order to see the game as a passer, you’ve got to be a play or two ahead.

“And then the other part is your lateral movement, your ability to move and change direction is more important in a guard. We certainly saw those things with Eli.” 

Donlon figured those skills would translate well to the next level, but it would take time. While the high school circuit operates primarily in motion offense, the college game emphasizes ball screen action. Fundamentally, the two levels are different animals. 

Brooks eagerly devoted himself to the craft, abiding by a mantra his dad imparted on him: Defense wins games and defense keeps you on the floor. 

“Honestly, I feel like anybody can play defense,” Brooks said. “It’s a mindset. The mindset of wanting to play defense and being willing to.”

Fortuitously, Brooks’s freshman season aligned with the arrival of an assistant coach who spoke his language, Luke Yaklich. Yaklich, who lives and breathes defense, quickly asserted himself as Michigan’s de facto defensive coordinator. 

In their spare time, the pair hit the film room to attack Brooks’s weaknesses, namely ball screens and transition defense. 

“There’s a learning curve, but he was a rock and a sponge,” Yaklich said about Brooks. “Defensively, he just has a toughness and a mindset about him and a pride, that he wants to perform his best on defense and win his individual matchup. And to Eli’s credit, he was just very resilient.” 

That resiliency often came into play. Brooks fell out of the rotation during his freshman season and lacked consistent minutes as a sophomore, buried behind a resurgent Simpson and Jordan Poole on the depth chart. While Michigan trudged through the Big Ten, Brooks’s playing time amounted to mere cameos. 

“But he came to practice asking, ‘How could I get better?’ ” DeAndre Haynes, a Michigan assistant coach from 2017-2019, said. “He’d come into our media room and we’d sit down, watch film, talk about reads on the floor. If the starters were doing something else, he’d be practicing with us. He never hung his head. You gotta wait your turn and his turn came.” 

In March of his sophomore season, the coaching staff approached Brooks with a request: lead the scout team. He met the opportunity head-on. 

“Sometimes people will look down and say, ‘Why am I on the scout team? Why am I not with the starters or the second unit?’ ” Haynes said. “OK, it’s not your turn, but when you’re on the scout team let’s learn, let’s continue to grow. And that’s what Eli did. He approached every day like that.” 

Through a three-week stretch, Brooks mimicked the play of the conference’s premier guards — Trice, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston and Maryland’s Anthony Cowan. Both his confidence and defensive acumen flourished. 

“You’re learning new sets, new terminology, how to do different things,” Haynes said. “You can learn from other players. Don’t think of yourself as a scout team player. You’re actually getting better because you’re portraying somebody else.”

A year earlier, during a practice in between NCAA Tournament games, Brooks had looked the part. One sequence still resonates with Haynes: After forcing a turnover, Brooks posterized a teammate at the other end. 

“He just dunked it so hard,” Haynes remembered, his voice still tickled with awe. “I mean, so hard.”

Haynes saw the potential then. Only after a stint on the scout team did Brooks start to realize it himself.  

That postseason, Brooks’s minutes increased. Defense would lead to playing time, his dad had told him. At last, his words rang true. 

“And that was the transformation of Eli Brooks,” Haynes said. 

***

In December’s conference opener against Penn State, Brooks’s defense claimed yet another victim.

Needing a score to tie the game late, the Nittany Lions entrusted guard Sam Sessoms. Michigan countered with Brooks. Sessoms first drove right, then cut back across the paint and mustered a meek attempt at a reverse layup. Brooks smothered him each step of the way, the two moving as if conjoined at the hip. 

The Wolverines hung on to win, 62-58

“You only have a few of those guys around,” Howard gushed of Brooks after the game. “And when you have one of those guys on your team, it is a joy to coach. Because you have a guy who doesn’t really care about scoring, not all about the stats. He just wants to make winning plays to help the team. Eli’s that person. He’s always been that guy.”

Howard likened Brooks’s defensive mindset to that of Shane Battier — a three-time collegiate Defensive Player of the Year while at Duke — and Dikembe Mutombo, a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Those comparisons aren’t baseless; coming from Howard, a 19-year NBA veteran and basketball lifer, they carry weight. 

Tuesday night, Michigan welcomes Wisconsin back to Ann Arbor in a pivotal top-10 matchup. Leading the Badger’s offense is Trice, averaging a team-high 14.8 points per game. This year, the Wolverines won’t have to look hard for options to slow him down. 

Brooks, as he was on the scout team, will be there to propel the charge.

“His defense is elite,” Haynes said. “He’s doing everything. A lot of guards haven’t been able to punk him or get around him. They’re 10-0, but without Eli, they’re not 10-0. He’s the nucleus of that team.” 

Last Wednesday, Yaklich, now the coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago, tuned in for Michigan’s 82-57 beatdown of Minnesota. Early in the first half, Brooks fought through a screen and jumped the passing lane for a steal, coasting the other way for an easy lay-in. 

250 miles away, Yaklich flashed a wry grin. 

“He’s embraced it all,” Yaklich said. “Everything that he’s about has allowed him to be that type of player. I remember watching the game and saying, ‘OK. That’s Eli right there. That’s just who he is.’ ”

And after honing his craft behind the scenes, Brooks is at last able to show who he is on the court, not on the bench. 

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