Isiah Brown’s career at Northwestern is over—the sophomore point guard has opted to transfer from the program—and his struggles to earn playing time this past season are likely the greatest determining factor in his decision. After an up-and-down freshman season, Brown fell out of the rotation for nearly a month during the thick of conference play, ceding minutes to junior guard Jordan Ash and freshman wing Anthony Gaines. Brown’s performance certainly disappointed Chris Collins, and his score-first mentality may have rubbed teammates and fans the wrong way, but there’s no doubt that he was a talented scorer who probably deserved more opportunities than he was given.
The following numbers taken from KenPom.com.
As Brown’s role within the team diminished, his efficiency grew. By taking fewer shots, 2.8 per game to be exact, Brown saw his assist rate surge (in fairness, his turnover rate also increased). By dialing his game back, however, Brown saw his fouls drawn per 40 minutes and free throw attempts per game decrease. Brown’s ability to get to the charity stripe was arguably his most valuable skill, but, whether due to an early-season injury or limited minutes, he was not able to take advantage of said ability. Brown also committed the second-most fouls per 40 minutes, a sign that he’s still learning how to defend without fouling, which is common among young players at the collegiate level.
Among perimeter players, Brown finished with the second-highest free throw attempt rate, behind Anthony Gaines. Brown was first in this category (among perimeter players) last season, showing that his game didn’t change that much. At his core, Brown is an attacking, aggressive offensive player. He stands out among the roster in that he makes a point to draw fouls and get to the line. Under Chris Collins, Northwestern has never ranked higher than 293rd in the country in free throw attempt rate. Brown’s style of play offered a new and fresh avenue to generate points. As mentioned above, Brown wasn’t able to do this quite as much. His assaults on the rim didn’t result in as many free throw attempts, and as a result, he saw his field-goal percentage at the rim fell. He made up for his lack of free throws with an improved midrange game, shooting 48.5 percent on 2-point jumpers, up from 26.1 percent last season. Brown’s three-point attempt rate rose slightly from last season, but he shot a worse percentage, showing that his outside shot still needs some work.
It’s safe to say that Brown is regarded as a score-first player, but the numbers don’t lie; he ranked second in assists per 40 minutes, behind Bryant McIntosh (He also recorded the most turnovers per 40 minutes). Simply put, he was Northwestern’s best playmaker off the bench, better than Ash and Gaines, who both got minutes over Brown. His ability to score in short bursts helped Northwestern early in conference play against Illinois and Purdue, but after a loss at Indiana in the middle of January, Collins stopped playing him. Collins cited Ash’s play in practice as a reason for giving him minutes over Brown, but said that the sophomore would get an opportunity to play. Brown didn’t see the floor again until both McIntosh and Ash went down with injury in mid-February.
Brown had the sixth-best plus-minus on the team, ranking above Ash and Gaines. Among rotation players, Brown’s on-court presence produced the best field goal percentage and three-point percentage and the second-highest free throw attempt rate. In other words, the Wildcats’ offense was at its most potent and efficient when Brown was on the floor.
Before the season began, Brown had a minor injury, limiting his minutes. In his place, Ash and Gaines got some playing time, impressing Collins to such a degree that once Brown was healthy, he couldn’t regain his place as the first guard off the bench. As lower-usage players, Ash and Gaines didn’t take as many shots as Brown did, giving the team’s starters more opportunities to create. Brown, on the other hand, was aggressive early and often when looking for his shot. Defensively, Collins felt that Ash and Gaines were giving more effort than Brown was, and so he rewarded them with more minutes. The on-off numbers don’t back this up, but in multiple press conferences Collins said that Ash and Gaines had earned their minutes and that Brown would have to wait for his name to be called.
Wherever Brown ends up, he’ll need to work on a number of things, specifically his perimeter shooting. If he wants to earn more minutes, Brown must add some variety to his offensive arsenal. He’s got the ability to get to the line, and last season showed he’s worked on his in-between game, but without a three-point shot, defenses will be able to go under ball screens against him. Brown could also stand to improve as a defender, but he sported the second-highest steal percentage on the team as a freshman and fourth-highest last season in fewer minutes. He’s proven he can be an effective defender when locked in. It’s up to Brown to keep that defensive intensity consistent.
For Northwestern, Brown’s departure places an immense amount of pressure on incoming point guard Jordan Lathon to contribute right away. Ash is the only other point guard on the roster, and when the Wildcats played lineups without a lead guard on the court, Northwestern’s offense suffered greatly. Late in the season, with McIntosh less than 100% health-wise, the team played Scottie Lindsey at point guard; those lineups shot 32-of-96 from the field. Brown isn’t a perfect player, but he’d at least make the transition from McIntosh to Lathon easier.
The Bottom Line:
Regardless of how you feel about Brown, it all comes down to how much Collins trusted him. Here’s the most damning statistic of all: In the three games McIntosh missed due to injury, Brown played 40 minutes total. In two of those games, Ash, the only other point guard on the team, was also out with an injury. Collins clearly didn’t believe Brown, his only point guard available, was capable of contributing to the team, and so he kept him in a reduced role. Based on his decision to transfer, Brown believes he has the ability to make an impact. Only time will tell who was right.