Eli Brooks didn't earn tenure overnight.
Eli Brooks played five seasons for Michigan, going on fifty.
He’s been a steadying presence in the program for so long that it’s easy to picture a fully-formed Brooks in any season of his career and many years prior, like Jack Torrance appearing at the Overlook Hotel’s July 4th Ball. I’m confident I could convince the average Michigan fan that Brooks was on the plane crash team, perhaps even John Beilein’s first Final Four squad.
Did Brooks play in the adidas era? No, but you probably were able to visualize him in the tire tread shorts anyway, taking an extra pass from Zak Irvin and knocking down a three-pointer. It’s almost equally easy, somehow, to place him in black-and-white next to Cazzie Russell. Maybe it’s Brooks’ hair, which looks both very 2020s and like he’s auditioning for The Temptations.
And yet, Brooks battled for years to hold a steady place in the rotation, and longer thereafter to dispel the notion he was holding back more talented players.1 He appeared in 68 games over his first two seasons and reached double-digit points zero times.
The winningest player in program history wasn’t the best individual player on any of his teams. The Big Ten awarded Brooks with two postseason honors in his career, both after his final season: honorable mention all-conference from the media and a sportsmanship award from the coaches.
While the team success was more important, Brooks had to get comfortable calling his own number to become the player we’ll remember.
After committing to Beilein over home-state favorite Villanova, Brooks came to Ann Arbor as the least-heralded of the three-player 2017 recruiting class, which also included current NBA players Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers.
While his classmates saw their roles grow as their freshman years progressed, Brooks experienced the opposite. Battling sophomore Zavier Simpson for the point guard job, Brooks started 12 games from November to early January, then fell out of the rotation for the rest of the season.
Brooks wasn’t quite a point guard and didn’t assert himself enough as a scorer to play off the ball. He played a total of 13 minutes during Michigan’s NCAA Tournament run to the title game, sitting out the second round and Sweet Sixteen wins entirely.
With Simpson and Poole locking down the starting point and shooting guard spots, respectively, Brooks settled in as the #3 guard on a team that often chose to play a third wing (Livers) instead of a backup guard.
After playing at least 15 minutes in 15 of U-M’s first 19 games, Brooks went 11 consecutive contests without cracking that barrier before reemerging in the postseason, fending off a push from four-star freshman David DeJulius. Excellent defense became his calling card:
Despite being point guard-sized, Brooks has shown he can guard either backcourt position. This has some sample size issues, and Synergy grades shouldn't be taken as gospel, but some of these numbers are eye-popping: Brooks graded out at M's best defender last season, ranking in the 97th percentile by forcing his opponents to shoot 23-for-79 with 17 turnovers. You may remember that the team had several very, very good defenders. Brooks was right there with them.
But he remained a wallflower on offense. The more assertive and athletic DeJulius projected to be a serious challenger for his minutes in 2019-20.
It’s hard to imagine Brooks felt safer in his role when Beilein unexpectedly departed for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason. Brooks was a typical under-the-radar Beilein recruit: a long-term developmental prospect whose size and game didn’t fit neatly into a positional designation. Juwan Howard came from the NBA, where shooting guards aren’t 6-foot-1.
They also make shots, which Brooks struggled to do in his first two seasons, hitting a combined 24 of 89 three-point attempts (27.0%) while rarely venturing inside the arc. Regardless of his defensive prowess, that had to change in 2019-20.
In the season opener against scrappy Appalachian State, Brooks — who, I’ll remind you, had never scored in double figures at Michigan — made 5/11 three-pointers on his way to 24 points. A few weeks later, he dropped 24 again, this time on North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis semifinals. When UNC made a late push, Brooks iced the game:
Other than two games lost to injury, Brooks started every game in his final three seasons. DeJulius, meanwhile, transferred to Cincinnati for his junior year.
With three developments, Brooks became a reliably good starting shooting guard:
He drove to the hoop with much greater frequency and good effectiveness, bolstered by floaters and midrange pull-up jumpers.
He hit his three-pointers.
He became an extension of his coach on the court.
You can see the first two in Brooks’ per-40-minute stats. He effectively doubled his scoring output, two-point attempts, and trips to the line while improving by 11 percentage points as a three-point shooter.
The third is harder to quantify.
Brooks’ contributions were often most noticeable in his absence. When a broken nose knocked him out for one game late in his junior year, Michigan lost at home to a Wisconsin team that KenPom projected a healthy U-M would beat about 75% of the time.
The next season, Brooks functionally missed two games: a hideous 75-57 blowout loss at Minnesota (6-14 in the Big Ten that season) and a six-point defeat in the Breslin Center when he had to exit after only four minutes. A full-strength Michigan had beaten MSU by 19 in the Crisler Center just three days prior.
Heading into the 2021 Big Ten Tournament, assistant coach Phil Martelli said Brooks — not Hunter Dickinson or Franz Wagner or Isaiah Livers — was the team’s most valuable player:
“Yes, Mike [Smith] orchestrates the offense and congratulations, he has over 500 career assists, and then Isaiah, Franz, and Hunter are all future pros,” Martelli said. “Chaundee [Brown] is in the discussion for Sixth Man of the Year. But the most invaluable piece, both to his teammates and also to the coaching staff, is Eli Brooks.”
Brooks was Michigan’s constant in the nascent Juwan Howard era. He was one of two starters to carry over from 2019-20 to 2020-21, then one of only three players remaining from the ‘19-20 team last season. The other two, Brandon Johns and Adrien Nunez, spent their U-M careers as reserves.
Howard’s Wolverines rarely looked right with Brooks on the bench, particularly over two last two seasons. Those were minutes to be avoided if possible; you just hoped Michigan would hang with their opponent. The Wolverines were 13 points per 100 possessions worse with Brooks on the floor against KenPom top-100 opponents in his first two years. They held level with a junior Brooks playing a lot more. In his final two years, the offense died without him:
His overall numbers would stand out more if he didn’t experience bad three-point luck on defense in his last two years. U-M’s two-point percentage allowed, a more reliable indicator of good defense, was significantly better with Brooks on the court.
The cliché is unavoidable: Brooks made plays that don’t show up in the box score. As soon as he missed this shot, for instance, he not only got back but organized U-M’s entire transition defense:
This is what earned Brooks the moniker “The Professor.” Yes, he’d make the occasional eye-popping play, like the skyhook he borrowed from Simpson to seal his 124th and final victory at Michigan:
Much of what made Brooks indispensable, however, couldn’t be defined by numbers. His knowledge of the system on both ends of the floor allowed his teammates to flourish. The example he set in reaching that point established a hard-nosed (if crooked-nosed) culture from the outset of Howard’s tenure.
Howard is unlikely to bring in a player with Brooks’ profile again. The next man up at shooting guard, sophomore Kobe Bufkin, is a lanky 6’4 former top-50 overall prospect. Top-40 incoming freshman Jett Howard, Juwan’s son, could see time at SG at 6’7, 220 pounds.
Eli Brooks isn’t the player you dream of your program signing. He was, however, exactly the player Michigan needed to successfully bridge the John Beilein era into the Juwan Howard era.