From the first time he set foot on the Welsh-Ryan Arena floor, dropping 18 points off the bench in an unofficial scrimmage against UI-Springfield, Isiah Brown showed what he wanted to do and could do very well at times: score the basketball. With his quickness, slick handle, and supremely confident scorer’s mentality, the freshman combo guard from Seattle looked primed to bring a scoring punch off the bench in his first collegiate season.
In his rookie season as a Wildcat, it was that exact explosive confidence that made him both a player that electrified and frustrated in equal measure. He experienced a number of high peaks and even more low valleys and seemed to be a player as capable of completely losing Chris Collins’ trust as he was of quickly gaining it back.
Brown frequently showed he could be a source of instant offense off the bench when his team needed it throughout the year, but also lacked the poise and experience to be counted on consistently in big games. Overall, he certainly played his part in the Wildcats making history and earning that elusive first NCAA Tournament birth, but he saw his role fluctuate and remain largely diminished in the season’s stretch run.
The following numbers are taken from KenPom.com.
The number that jumps off the screen immediately from Brown’s season is his usage rate, displayed as "%Poss" and showing the percentage of Northwestern offensive possessions where he was on the floor that he ended with either a shot or a turnover. His mark of 27.6% was good for the highest on the team, above even Bryant McIntosh, and combined with the small percentage of minutes that he played (36%), shows the freedom that he was allowed to attack — or at least decided to attack — offensively in the spurts where he was on the floor.
Unfortunately, this high usage rate was not accompanied by high efficiency. In offensive rating and all metrics of field goal percentage displayed (effective field goal %, true shooting %, 2-point field goal % and 3-point field goal %), Brown’s marks rank the lowest by a significant margin of any Northwestern player who played more than 10 percent of the team’s minutes.
The free throw line was perhaps where Brown made his most positive impact. He shot close to 77 percent on the year and gave himself a lot of opportunities to use his efficiency there as well. His 5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes would have ranked ninth in all of the Big Ten if he had played enough minutes to qualify.
Brown’s activity in his limited minutes was not just limited to the offensive end. He led Northwestern in steal percentage at 2.2, but also lead all the team’s perimeter players in fouls committed per 40 minutes.
Stats via hoop-math.com.
Brown’s numbers on 2-point jumpers provide interesting food for thought. He was the only player on the team other than McIntosh who did the majority of his work in the midrange, yet he shot a team low 26% from that area. The percentage of his 2-point field goals that were assisted, both from mid-range and at the rim, are very low, which shows that he heavily favored operating with the ball in his hands to create his own shot rather than operating off the ball.
Brown brought something to this Northwestern team that was unique and often times much needed. He brought the ability to create his own offense off the bench in the half-court. He had a number of hugely important moments and performances that came in scenarios where the Wildcats’ half-court offense was at a standstill and points were hard to come by.
At Rutgers, he kept the team afloat during perhaps its worst first half of the year by manufacturing 10 points to ensure the margin remained within touching distance at halftime. The Wildcats went on to win and avoid the upset, and Collins later said "we don’t win that game unless we have Isiah."
At Ohio State two games later, his end of the shot clock offense yielded six crucial points in the final minutes as Northwestern claimed its first win in Columbus since 1977. Before Brown’s late insertion, the offense had been treading water with the lead and had been struggling just to get shots off, but the freshman’s crucial spark and ability to create his own helped see the historic result over the line.
There are more examples to go through (Nebraska at home, both meetings against Maryland, even the early season win over Texas), but the bottom line is that Brown’s dynamic skill set and fearless, attack-first mentality added a different wrinkle to this Northwestern team all season long. At his most effective towards the middle of conference play, he was a reliable and necessary option that Collins had in his crunch-time arsenal, and he played an indispensable role in a number of key wins.
To sum up the downside of Brown’s freshman season, you need only look at his line in his team’s most important game against Michigan: DNP.
The young guard’s inconsistencies and unrelenting tendency to force the action offensively no matter what the situation meant that, for as many times as he played a key role in important moments, there were many more times where Collins simply could not afford to have him out on the floor. His turnover percentage, fouls rate, shot volume and shooting efficiency go to great lengths to explain this.
For the latter half of the season, Brown’s struggles with letting the game come to him were what defined him. The high levels inefficiency and risk that he posed offensively combined with his lack of strength and size defensively, as well as Bryant McIntosh’s emergence as an elite isolation player, meant that Brown’s leash understandably became one of the shortest on the team come the stretch run of the season.
Brown’s overarching focus should be on improving the necessary areas to allow him to make a bigger impact not just when he has the ball in his hands and is looking to score. Not only will that give Collins more reason to stick with him through his offensive inefficiencies, but it will also free him up offensively to play more effectively off the ball and thus limit said inefficiencies.
Of the two major specific areas, on-ball defense is the first. Brown needs to work on being laterally quick enough and disciplined enough to guard for long stretches on the perimeter without running into foul trouble. On a few occasions this year when Brown was ticking offensively, particularly in non-conference, Collins was forced to limit his minutes due to foul trouble or defensive struggles. That cannot happen in his sophomore season.
The second area is his three-point shooting. Brown shot a team-worst 28 percent from deep this past year, nowhere near good enough to help bolster his minutes as an off-ball guard. Improving his ability to deliver in catch-and-shoot situations would increase his impact as a floor spacer offensively and also mean that he would not have to rely so much on his own dribble penetration to score. He could rely on his teammates more to help create some of his offense, and could get more points off of spot-ups and back cuts if he proved he could knock-down the outside shot at a consistent rate, thus making him a more useful and efficient offensive package.
The good thing is that a lot of the areas Brown has to work on are things that should improve as he matures and grows into the college game. He can still be aggressive — that's who he is — but he needs to be smarter on both ends.
Brown seemed to be turning a corner in terms of his patience, reliability, and comfort levels on both ends of the floor at the end of January in the middle stages of conference play, but Scottie Lindsey’s injury and Brown's subsequent insertion into the starting lineup seemed to throw him into a funk. Thrust all of a sudden into a more prominent role in the games against Purdue and Illinois, he did not perform well under increased minutes and increased responsibility, and he was unable to fully reassume the effective bench role that he had worked himself into upon Lindsey’s return during the remainder of the season.
Overall, the freshman was unable to stake himself to a key and consistent place in the rotation come the end of his first year of college ball, but did showcase a unique and tantalizing skill set that both helped the Wildcats throughout the course of the season and suggested that there was plenty of room for improvement in the future.