Caught in the in-between: Is Shannon Brown a starter or just a spark plug?


PHOENIX —  If there’s one thing that’s clear about Shannon Brown entering his seventh season in the NBA, it’s that he’s not a man of many words.

On one hand, he owns the only thing none of his teammates nor his current franchise possesses: a championship ring.

But on the other, as Brown embarks on the 2012-13 season, he does so in the absence of clarity and in the absence of an opportunity the likes of Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat and Goran Dragic are now in the process of capitalizing on.

As a former first-round draft pick — taken 25th overall back in 2006 by the Cavaliers — it’s somewhat surprising that the potential he came into the league with coming out of Michigan State is still very much untapped.

The Suns are his fifth team in seven years. He’s spent part of three seasons in the NBA Development League and has just 35 career starts to his name.

And even after signing the largest free agency contract of his career back in July — two years worth $7 million with next season half guaranteed — the real question, the one worth just one million, still remains. Who is Shannon Brown? What could he be if given the chance to start? Will he get that chance from Alvin Gentry at some point this season, despite the growth of Jared Dudley and the acquired depth at small forward that will likely keep Dudley at shooting guard?

Well, OK that’s more like three or four questions.

As of now, Brown is saying all the right things, but for a player with two NBA rings already in his back pocket, is it lip service or a man just content being what he’s been so far?

“I really just want to play ball,” Brown said. “The truth is, when it comes down to it, I think I can be a useful weapon for this team. Maybe that’s as a starter, maybe that’s not, but my job is to play basketball, not to speculate about where others see me fitting.”

What can Brown do for you?

Brown’s fit in the NBA wasn’t exactly known during his first few years in the NBA with the Cavaliers, Bulls and Bobcats. It wasn’t until he was traded in February 2009 along with Adam Morrison to the Lakers, that Brown even had a legitimate chance to showcase the talents that helped him make a name for himself in East Lansing and even before that at Proviso East in Chicago.

Serving primarily as a combo guard and more importantly as Kobe Bryant’s backup in Los Angeles, Brown was asked to do one thing by Phil Jackson: score, score and score some more.

During the Lakers’ two championship runs, Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic manned the point off the bench. Lamar Odom became the do-it-all utility man, Josh Powell and Luke Walton provided hustle and rebounding and Brown — at least for the 2009-10 team, since he only played in 18 games the year before after coming over from Charlotte — was the offensive firepower. A guy who could finish above the rim, shoot a high rate at the free throw line and hit a clutch three here or there when called upon.

“In Los Angeles, I just tried to be that dependable guy off the bench,” Brown said. “If they needed a big-time highlight play, I tried to make it happen. If they need points in a hurry, I tried to make it happen. With the talent we had on some of those teams, my goal was to try and just fulfill my role.”

As Farmar and Vujacic bolted Hollywood for more money, Brown’s role grew during his final year in purple and gold. For just the second time in his career, the former Mr. Basketball of Illinois played an entire season and provided the Pacific Division champions with a career-high 8.7 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game, 91 percent shooting from the charity stripe and 35 percent marksmanship from 3-point range. They weren’t gaudy statistics by any means, but Brown had found a nice little niche in Tinseltown, albeit it as the stereotypical spark plug guy.

The Suns have had them in Leandro Barbosa, Eddie House and even Goran Dragic at times during his first stint with the team. And last December, they went searching for another one when they settled on Brown for a one-year contract with the partially guaranteed second year.

At 6-foot-4, there are very few players at his size across the league who utilize their athleticism and body frame better than Brown does.  He has a rare blend of natural strength, explosiveness and an abnormally long wingspan. And although he is a career 34 percent 3-point shooter, Brown is not shy about shooting when called upon, averaging nearly 20 shots per 48 minutes.

Just a taste or just a tease?

It’s hard to make a case one way or another for Brown to get an opportunity to start in Phoenix. After all, his 66-game tryout in 2011-12 was really a tale of two seasons.

Until Grant Hill went down in late March with knee inflamation, Brown’s one-dimensional assets didn’t seem to mesh with Alvin Gentry’s system. On the surface, every team would want someone off their bench who can jump out of the gym and who isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on a moment’s notice. But if you look back at the great “Seven Seconds or Less” teams or even Gentry’s Western Conference Finals squad from 2009-10, perimeter offense — whether from the starters or off the bench — came within the flow of the game.

James Jones, Quentin Richardson, Leandro Barbosa, Shawn Marion and Raja Bell didn’t have career years in a Suns uniform because they shot the ball every time they had the chance. They succeeded because they adapted their games to the rhythm of the offense. They took jump shots when they were open, ran to the wings on the fast break and patiently let plays develop in the half court. Look, it’s one thing to have a shoot-first mentality, it’s another thing to take that mentality so literally as Brown seemed to do during his first few months in Phoenix.

After Hill went down, though, Brown closed out the season with 17 straight starts — including four monster games of at least 20 points against the Spurs twice, Lakers and Nuggets — and averaged close to 15 points, four rebounds and two assists per game in 30 minutes of action. His offensive efficiency numbers rose, as did his 3-point and free throw percentages. Although his contributions over the final month didn’t help the team secure the No. 8 seed, Brown made his case for deserving a starting spot in 2012-13.

“Last year, was definitely an adjustment for me,” Brown said. “I’ve never played with a guard like Steve Nash, so it took time adjusting to play with guys like him. I always try to create for myself, but he was a guy who was happy doing that for me. I had never had that before.

“When Grant went down, I just tried to be me out there. I was definitely confident, because I knew I was starting. But I am confident no matter where I’m put. I don’t look at last year and think, ‘Well, I’m going to be a starter now because of how I finished.’ This is the NBA, you have to earn it. Hopefully, I will.

Product of circumstance

According to, of the Suns’ top six lineups (based on minutes played together) from 2011-12, Brown is in two of three units that had the highest winning percentage. Now you can manipulate statistics in a number of ways to tell the story you want to tell, but when paired with some combination of Nash, Dudley, Frye and Gortat, Brown seemed to thrive offensively.

The major problem with that — outside of the small fact Nash is gone and Frye is out indefinitely — is that instead of coexisting with Dudley, Brown has now been tasked with competing against him for the starting job.

When Brown signed his two-year contract back in July, he knew more or less what the team was going to look like. Beasley had already been signed, Scola had already been picked up off the amnesty waiver wire and Dragic had already inked his big free agent deal. The trade that brought Wes Johnson into the mix was just a few days later, but the writing was pretty much already on the wall.

Beasley was going to force Dudley back to the two, so if Brown wanted to start he was going to have to compete against a man who had not only had already become a fan favorite, but who welcomed the role as the team’s new leader sans Nash and Hill.

Heading into training camp, Gentry said the competition at shooting guard would be an open one. And whether that was Gentry being the pro that he is or whether that was genuine, only the coach, his staff and the front office will ever know.

It didn’t help that Dudley was the star of the team’s lone scrimmage in San Diego or that Brown has been bothered by a litany of injuries in recent weeks — from a busted eye to most recently a sprained ankle — but whatever competition was spoken of less than a month ago seems to have transformed into a one-man race going down the home stretch of the preseason schedule.

Brown has his merits, don’t get me wrong. He ranked fourth on the Suns in scoring last season. He is fearless from just about anywhere on the basketball court. He never enters a game cold in the confidence department, always carrying a cockiness bordering on arrogant swagger to his game. And although he’s undersized at the two, Brown plays with energy at the defensive end, yet doesn’t commit a lot of dumb fouls.

With that said, based on the starting lineup Gentry has trotted out during the first four games of the preseason, Dudley looks to be a lock at shooting guard. As Brown stated at Suns Media Day, it’s about earning your time at the NBA level and Dudley certainly has.

He is a more efficient scorer and 3-point shooter than Brown, and although his numbers might not be as good from the charity stripe, Dudley gets there at a much higher rate. The sixth-year pro from Boston College may not be the high-flier Brown is, but he definitely gives the team a better advantage on the boards and at the defensive end. And if all that isn’t enough to create separation, Dudley has proven time and time again he can make contributions in some form or another, even if one aspect of his game is off on a given night. To this point, the same can not be said of Brown.

“I signed my contract in July, because of the potential I felt this team has,” Brown said. “All of the outsiders can say what they want about us or about me, I’ve never really paid attention to it. I’m not going to start now. I’m a leader, and I hope to be one with this team for the next two years.”

If he is a man of his word, then Brown will be more than happy leading from the bench, at least to start the season. No one can predict injuries or unforeseen situations that may shake up Gentry’s plans over the course of a season, but it’s a safe bet to assume that now is not the time for Shannon Brown’s coming out party.

This team’s bench lacks the number of experience-laden players — Kendall Marshall (no years), Markieff Morris (one year), Wes Johnson (two years) and P.J. Tucker (one year) — Brown grew accustomed to during his days in Los Angeles. So for now, he will have to be that guy. It may not come with the 25 to 30 minutes a game he made the most of last April or a guarantee that one day soon he will get a chance to be an NBA starter, but this is his reality at age 26.

He can either seize it and challenge Dudley every day for the right to be the team’s starting shooting guard and at the very least open the eyes of general managers across the league. Or he can grow complacent and content in his role as a journeyman spark plug and remain in that typecast for the rest of his career.

Although Brown isn’t a man of many words, the answer to that close-ended question is one we are all anxious to hear.