I came to Penn State in 2007-2008 being told that the basketball team was going to be better than expected. The big reasons why were Jamelle Cornley and Geary Claxton leading the charge, along with Mike Walker and Danny Morrissey. Also, the much-heralded freshman Talor Battle was going to be a big reason why they could succeed. Someone else that was supposed to be a big star was former Mr. Kentucky Basketball finalist himself, Jeffrey Brooks, straight out of Louisville, Kentucky.
According to Scout.com, Brooks was the #14 ranked power forward in the 2007 recruiting class. His top 3 choices were between Penn State, Arkansas, and Clemson. Brooks visited Arkansas and Penn State, eventually choosing the Nittany Lions as his destination. Brooks averaged 21.3 points per game in high school and really made his mark on his AAU team, the Derek Smith All-Stars.
So, when he came into PSU, the 4-star recruit was supposed to be a big deal, someone who could finally give PSU a versatile 6-8 big man that can bang inside, but also step outside and score some points. Instead, the Lions had to watch one of the more disappointing scenes in Penn State basketball.
In his first year, Brooks averaged almost 15 minutes a game, only averaging 3.1 points per game and 2.6 rebounds. As a freshmen, that's not that bad of a year, at least you're getting time. But, as a big recruit, that's NOT the effort you want to see. Brooks was a liability defensively, had no energy, and was the butt of many a joke among Penn State fans that year, that wanted to see him succeed, but saw him flop time and time again early. He was a woeful 11-for-31 from the free throw line (35 percent!) and shot only 25% from beyond the arc (Although, in his defense, he only took 16 shots).
Year two didn't get much better for Brooks. He played 138 more minutes than in his freshmen year, but managed only 8 more made field goals. He shot 36 percent from the field, 25 percent from three, and 50 percent from the free throw line. He had a penchant for making a big play (dunk, blocked shot, big bucket, nice pass) and following it up with simply unforgivable mistakes (passes out of bounds, ticky-tack fouls, blown defensive assignments) that would, ultimately, cost PSU. While everyone else was breaking out (Battle, Cornley and Jones towards the end of the year), Brooks was stagnant averaging only 3.3 points per game and 3.1 rebounds per game. His Big Ten peers continued to get bigger, but he just didn't have the size and strength to compete.
Third time must be the charm.
Brooks has come out on FIRE this year, averaging 9.7 points per game. He's shooting 55 percent from the floor, 35 percent from three and 71 percent from the foul line, on pace for by far his best year. Brooks has scored in double figures 5 times this year (PSU is 4-1 in those games) and has really made an impact, gaining over 25 pounds of muscle since his freshmen year. His play has improved tremendously, and we're finally seeing the player that was a 4-star recruit. His basketball IQ is blossoming and he's making smarter and smarter plays this year.
The biggest improvement I see with Brooks is his demeanor. His first two years were marred with sloppy play and deer-in- the-headlights looks. This year, he's laughing it up with teammates, fooling around at press conferences and then going out on the court and playing with a swagger that I've only seen from Talor Battle on this team. His confidence is through the roof and it's showing this year for the Nittany Lions. He already has 87 points this year, 35 away from tying his season record already, and we're only 9 games in. He has 20 personal fouls this year, but they're good hard fouls, not the ones that give the opponent a fresh shot clock or send someone to the line for 3 free throws, like they would have been last year.
The roles have been reversed this year. With Brooks playing so well, we've seen Jones, Jackson and even Babb start to slip and have tough times getting back into any sort of groove. Battle has struggled to get going in a few games, but the Lions haven't needed him a lot...yet. I can't even imagine how great this team can be if everyone's on the same page. But, success for the Nittany Lions will only go so far as Jeff Brooks.
Whether or not that's a good thing, well, that's up to you. Me? Well, I'm just happy to see Brooks translate his skill in high school to the college level, for the first time ever. Here's hoping he's not bucked out of the saddle again. Who knows though, he might just climb back on.
by Tom Ferguson