On the morning of Nov. 27, Clippers rookie forward Kobe Brown played 33 minutes in a G League game at Crypto.com Arena so empty that the official attendance was listed as zero.
That wasn’t quite true — the team’s decision-makers, from president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, to coach Tyronn Lue, were among a handful watching — but also was not atypical of Brown’s rookie season to that point, as he gained seasoning in front of small crowds where mistakes could be minimized instead of playing out under the NBA microscope.
That changed one day later. On Nov. 28, the night before the Clippers played in Sacramento, Brown was in the team’s downtown hotel when heard from Lue, in an unexpectedly casual way, that his opportunities were about to change dramatically.
“He was just like, ‘You ready to play tomorrow?’ Or something like that,” Brown said. “We were at dinner and it was on the fly. I was like, ‘Of course, coach, always,’ but I didn’t think nothing of it. I mean, obviously, I got excited a little bit but I didn’t … until it happens, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
What the 6-foot-7, 250-pound first-round pick has been doing since is getting legitimate minutes in Lue’s rotation, where he has replaced veteran forward P.J. Tucker with the reserves. He played nearly 11 minutes against the Kings, six the next night in Golden State because Lue felt the game was too fast for Brown, but then 11 more on Saturday against the same Warriors in what was a full-circle moment — on the very same Crypto.com Arena court where, six days earlier, he’d beaten the Warriors’ G League team in their morning tipoff.
“It’s starting to slow down for me,” Brown said.
Giving Brown a legitimate opportunity for playing time is notable for a team that has rarely made time for rookies since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived in 2019 and the team transitioned into a win-now mode focused on competing for championships with its big club. The development of its younger players took place primarily with its G League affiliate, which is based in Ontario.
On teams trying to contend for the Clippers’ first NBA Finals appearance, there is less patience to let their most inexperienced players play through mistakes. It’s no coincidence that the most minutes a rookie has played in the Leonard-George era came in 2021-22, the season Leonard missed entirely while recovering from knee surgery and George missed the majority of while battling his own injuries. Brandon Boston Jr. earned 760 minutes that season. The rookie to earn the next-highest amount of playing time since 2019 was Terance Mann in 2019-20, with 362.
In the most recent example, when backup center Mason Plumlee injured his knee in November, second-year big man Moussa Diabate auditioned to hold onto the spot with appearances in three of the next four games before the franchise pivoted and signed veteran center Daniel Theis.
The learning curve “has to be quick for him,” said Mann, a former four-year college player like the 23-year-old Brown, who believes college better prepared him, and Brown, to contribute as first-year players.
“And I think he knows that so he’s asking a lot of questions,” Mann said. “He’s out there right now working on defensive stuff and he’s always collecting information and trying to get better so he can learn quick.”
The game is faster, the crowds bigger, the stakes weightier, but Brown’s time playing in front of sparse crowds has helped his adjustment to the spotlight.
“The G League definitely helped, a lot,” he said. “It’s the same stuff we do with the big team but the games are a lot slower, at least in my opinion, so you’re able to grasp onto stuff we’re doing a lot easier so when you come back up it’s like, everything slows down a little bit for me. That’s been the biggest thing for me, really.”
Brown has tried to play with a “clear mind,” not dwelling on his mistakes. He has not been one to look over his shoulder because of what Lue has told him.
The coach, Brown said, “talks to me all the time, you know, constantly. Whenever I make a mistake, he’s telling me to get back, keep playing. Don’t worry about it. So, you know, just having a coach like that in my corner, it’s like it’s kind of, kind of hard to get down on yourself when he’s backing you up, feeding you confidence all the time.”
“He’s going to make some mistakes, we understand that,” Lue said. “The biggest thing is just learning from his mistakes and getting better, but I was just focusing more so on the defensive end with him just understanding the rotations and how we need him to play. We know he going to be able to make shots offensively.”
The Clippers drafted Brown because his background revealed a far more varied skillset than that of a forward. Coached by his father in high school, Brown played lead guard until he arrived at Missouri for college, and took over more playmaking for the Tigers in his senior season. He is comfortable initiating the offense and taking three-pointers, which the team has encouraged him to do when open. Weeks after he was drafted in July, Brown said he tried to emulate his style on Golden State’s Draymond Green, a connector on both ends.
After Brown, who has made four of his 15 three-pointers in the NBA and is shooting 36% overall, missed all three of his shots against the Warriors but finished with three assists, Green pulled him aside after the Clippers’ 22-point comeback.
“Telling me to keep shooting, keep shooting because if you stop, it will be hard to start again,” Brown said. “Just keep shooting, don’t get down about missing shots because he did the same thing and stuff like that. It was pretty cool to meet him.”
Boston Jr., who has not played in two months since injuring a quadriceps in the first preseason game, participated in a five-on-five workout Monday and “felt good after playing and looked pretty good,” Lue said. The workout means Boston’s rehabilitation process will start “ramping it up a little bit more.” Plumlee, meanwhile, is still a ways off from playing five-on-five basketball but has begun jogging on the court. Plumlee sprained the MCL in his left knee Nov. 6.