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Shannon Brown making an early case for NBA's most improved player

November 17, 2010 |  8:00 am

57694544Watch Shannon Brown calmly set himself in triple-threat position before swishing a three-pointer, and recognize that success points to his off-season work on his shooting stroke. Watch Brown drive the lane on a pick-and-roll, cut baseline and finish with a reverse layup, and realize that his want to become more than a dunker appears genuine. Read Brown's stat line that says he scored 16 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 118-107 victory Tuesday over the Milwaukee Bucks, and conclude that he became instrumental in the team snapping a two-game losing streak. 

But here's the thing most gratifying for Lakers fans: Brown's been filling the role described above fairly consistently through all 11 games. Coach Phil Jackson contended that it was Brown and reserve guard Steve Blake who "bailed us out" in the team's season-opening 112-110 victory over Houston because of their late-game shots. Brown nearly brought the Lakers back into contention in their 121-116 loss Sunday to the Phoenix Suns with late-game three-pointers. And he's scored in double figures in six of the 11 games at a 49.4%. "Let Shannon Dunk"? Forget that -- the new campaign should be "Let Shannon Shoot."

That's not all, however. With all the shots, energy and cohesiveness he's brought off the bench, Brown's making a serious case as the NBA's most improved player. Obviously, the Lakers' (9-2) have 71 more games to go before figuring out if Brown's early-season performance holds up, but so far he's making the right strides to put himself in that position.

"Being on this team around Kobe [Bryant] and seeing the work ethic he needs to have in the offseason has propelled him into the category of being a candidate for most improved player in the league this year," former Laker and KCAL-9 analyst James Worthy said on the postgame telecast. "Sometimes players are good in college, but they are still late bloomers. Michael Jordan, for example, was a pretty good player in college, a raw player, but he got better and better as his career went on. That's the same thing we're seeing in a player like Shannon Brown."

His development shouldn't be that surprising. After all, when the Lakers acquired him in the 2008-09 season along with Adam Morrison for Vladimir Radmanovic, he instantly transformed from just joining his fourth NBA team in four years to becoming a fan favorite for his acrobatic dunks. His invitation to last season's NBA dunk contest solidified that reputation, but his improved numbers from 3.2 points per game in 7.6 minutes per game in the 2008-09 season to 8.1 points in 20.7 minutes per game in the 2009-10 season indicated vast improvement and upside.

But what is surprising is how quickly Brown's elevated his game to an average of 10.3 ppg and moving beyond his reputation as solely a dunker. After all, Jackson predicted that no one outside of Lamar Odom would play more than 20 minutes per game this season, a promise that has remained true for Brown, who averages 18.6 minutes per contest.

"I never stopped trying to get better," Brown told to KCAL-9's John Ireland after the game. "I love this game. This is what I love to do. If you want to be the best, you have to work at it. That's what I did all summer. That's what I do every summer. I try to be a student of the game, watching film and all that. I try to get better every year.

That attitude opens up more possibilities in what's in store the rest of the season. If Brown can showcase his worth so much to make Sasha Vujacic's minutes completely irrelevant, how much more could he eat into Bryant's minutes when Jackson feels the need to pace Kobe so he remains healthy for the playoffs? If Brown can transform himself from a well-meaning player who made offensive and defensive mistakes last season to a mature and experienced reserve this season, how many more games will he and Blake "bail out" the team like they did in the season opener? And if Brown's numbers already exceed last season's, how much more will it go up as he continues to gain confidence?

Surely there will be setbacks. For example, Brown followed the hype surrounding the NBA dunk contest with an underwhelming performance. His right-hand injury also severely affected his play in the second half of the season. But it's no coincidence that Brown's value has grown. It points back to his attitude and determination to improve. Don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"I'm a smarter basketball player," Brown told Ireland. "If you can really see what's going on out there, that's when you can be your most effective. That's what I'm trying to do."

-- Mark Medina

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Photo: Lakers guard Shannon Brown celebrates after hitting a shot during the Lakers' 118-107 victory over the host Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. Credit: Darren Hauck / EPA.