2023 FIBA World Cup: Dillon Brooks embraces 'villain' persona while letting his play on the court speak for itself

“It’s just a persona. People love it. I’ve grown to love it myself,” Dillon Brooks said after dropping 39 points in Canada's bronze-medal win over Team USA

Canada's Dillon Brooks reacts during the FIBA Basketball World Cup third-place game against Team USA in Manila, Philippines, on Sept. 10, 2023. (Photo by JAM STA ROSA / AFP)

MANILA, Philippines — Dillon Brooks said he had no regrets, even after knowing he’d likely worn a Memphis uniform for the final time. He’d poked the biggest bear in the NBA and then the Grizzlies showed him the door.

His shot selection came under the postseason microscope where misses can coalesce into mountains. His extracurricular activity, spewing in-game trash talk and postgame bulletin-board material, was dismissed by plenty of NBA talent evaluators as detrimental antics. By the time Brooks arrived in Toronto this August for Team Canada’s World Cup training camp, he’d still secured a four-year, $86 million payday from the Houston Rockets, but a payday much of the league considered a vast overcompensation — which some rivals had even mocked.

He will still have his naysayers. He probably will always have his naysayers. If there’s anyone who understands haters are going to hate, it is Dillon The Villain. He has seen the takedowns on X, formerly known as Twitter, and Instagram. “I just appreciate you,” Brooks declared to his detractors on Sunday.

That soundbite came after a 39-point outburst in Canada’s bronze-medal victory, after he punished Team USA’s defense with seven triples. Brooks’ tournament strides may be some of the first steps in rewriting a character arc so many in the NBA are dismissing as nothing but nonsense. Throughout Canada’s historic run to its first-ever medal in World Cup history, and the country’s first medal in international basketball since the 1936 Olympics, Brooks averaged 15.1 points on 59.8% shooting from the floor, a staggering 58.8% over 34 attempts from beyond the arc, all while pestering perimeter playmakers like only he knows how.

“Obviously, the hate doesn’t stop. It keeps going,” Brooks said. “But just having my country behind me, my head coach behind me, the general manager, all these guys behind me trying to have me succeed … Nothing with the politics, nothing with anything to do with how I feel about contracts or any of those things.”

Brooks’ tournament display will only go so far in terms of any rehab for his reputation, and yet he’s instantly addressed one of his largest criticisms when it comes to shooting efficiency. During Canada’s pre-tournament workouts, Brooks lofted jumper after jumper with former Raptors assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren, a top aide for this Canada staff, where Toronto’s OVO Athletic Centre has a Noah Basketball sensor installed in the facility.

Noah’s technology tracks the exact point a player’s jumper passes through the rim. The company’s data, having logged millions of real-time shots, has affirmed years of physics studies conducted by several noted professors, concluding the optimal entry angle of an attempt is 45 degrees when leather splashes between iron. And so Noah’s system announces the angle of a practicing player’s repetitions immediately as it goes in.

“45! … 43! … 44! … 45!”

“And I just had that number in my head, every single time,” Brooks said. “And every single time, just keep thinking, just keep working at it. Just feel it out. Feel it out. Just be relentless shooting the basketball.”

After practices, Brooks has joined Oklahoma City Thunder swingman Luguentz Dort sniping from seven spots on the court, competing with his fellow Canadian stopper along the way. While the Americans often left Brooks open to double-team Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on Sunday, FIBA’s orange-and-white ball fluttered from his fingers without much doubt of finding its rightful home.

“Just to try to take it to another level,” Brooks said of his mechanics. “It’s just being patient with it, and whatever just comes out of it. I never wanted to force shots or hunt it. That was one of my roles on this team, was shot selection. And I feel like I did a pretty good job in this World Cup.”

“— You did a great job,” Jordi Fernandez, Canada’s head coach, interjected.

Canada forward Dillon Brooks dribbles past U.S. forward Mikal Bridges during the FIBA Basketball World Cup bronze-medal game in Manila, Philippines, on Sept. 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Fernandez found something with Brooks this tournament, encouraging his original identity, while still attempting to keep the antagonizer from overflowing into angst. At one point during the bronze-medal matchup, while Brooks was sneering and snarling at Austin Reaves and then the crowd, Fernandez took Brooks by the wrists and offered some private counsel before a swooning stadium.

“This is what it looks like when they let Dillon Brooks play,” Fernandez told reporters. And later on during their celebratory news conference, Fernandez, who is bound to man an NBA sideline in the near future, offered this proclamation about Brooks as well: “I’ll take this guy on my team everyday of the week from now until the end of my career. I’ve been through it with him from the morning, days and weeks and travel, wins and losses.”

Perhaps Brooks is finding an equilibrium between his production and his performance. When asked about cosplaying as a villain, after rising to heroics against Team USA, Brooks likened his mentality to that of Kobe Bryant, how the Hall of Famer once crafted the “Black Mamba” for whenever he stepped onto any 94-foot slab of hardwood.

“It’s just a persona. People love it. I’ve grown to love it myself,” Brooks said. It certainly helped provoke Luka Dončić into the first of two technicals that ultimately disqualified Slovenia’s superstar from their quaterfinals loss to Canada. “I guess that’s my persona, ‘The Villain,’” Brooks said. “It’s just on the court. But you know I’m a loving, caring guy, who loves my kids, loves my family, loves my teammates. I just love the world as well.”

Canada fell to Serbia one game later, falling shy of the gold-medal battle with Team USA that Brooks, his teammates, and countless NBA personnel were hoping to see. So when eventual-champion Germany later upended the Americans in their own semifinals clash, Brooks took to Canada’s team group chat, urging his group to be ready. “We really wanted to play the U.S.,” Brooks said, “and we got our wish.”

This summer offered Brooks the chance to truly wear the sneakers of a veteran leader. That is why the Rockets offered him a gigantic, guaranteed contract, after all. While rumors of a reunion with James Harden persisted since Christmas, Houston wanted to target defensive-minded monsters under new head coach Ime Udoka once the offseason finally arrived. Then they awarded Brooks and former Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet a combined $216 million.

Udoka and the rest of the Rockets’ leadership must have watched his World Cup with a hopeful grin.

“Having that edge every single game and how I prepare for the game, how I was trying to be a leader out there for my teammates,” Brooks said. “I gotta bring this back to Houston.”

If you doubt he can, you know that will further fuel Brooks to prove you wrong.