PHILADELPHIA — Creighton guard Devin Brooks' approach to playing basketball can be summed up in two words: No fear.
“I came from a place where you have to struggle for everything,” said Brooks, who grew up in Harlem, N.Y. “I've been through the worst, and I'm trying to make the best of this.
“I'm going on the court and playing my hardest each and every day.”
He's exhibited a pedal-to-the-metal attitude since stepping on to campus last June, but it was never more evident than in Saturday night's 83-79 win at St. Joseph's.
The 6-foot-2 junior blew through the Hawks' defense for six baskets and capped his 16-point performance with two free throws after he made a clinching defensive play with three seconds to play.
The thought of Brooks sealing the win with a defensive play brought a smile to Creighton coach Greg McDermott's face. Brooks' defense — or lack of it — has been McDermott's barking point for weeks, and the coach has done plenty of woofing.
“If you would have told me that we would have to play the last five minutes in a tight game without Austin Chatman, who is one of our best defenders, I would have thought we would be in big trouble,” McDermott said. “It's ironic that Devin would make a defensive play to seal the game as hard as I've been on him.”
Creighton took a 81-79 lead with 4.9 seconds to play on Doug McDermott's three-point play. The Hawks set up a final play in a timeout, and then tried to catch the Bluejays off guard with 70-foot pass from Chris Wilson to Ronald Roberts, their most athletic forward.
Creighton had elected not to guard Wilson, and Brooks slipped over from his position near halfcourt to jump and steal the pass before it got to Roberts.
“With five seconds, I wasn't necessarily thinking a long pass,” Greg McDermott said. “But I also don't have Ronald Roberts on my team who can jump two feet higher than anyone in the gym.
“Devin just made an excellent play. He's probably the only guy on our team that can make that play. He got up there where Ronald was and snatched that ball. It was a heck of a basketball play.”
Brooks also might be the only Bluejay capable of getting to the rim as he did against the Hawks. Chatman, the starter at point guard, is just as quick but he doesn't have the finishing ability that Brooks has demonstrated in his first three games as a Bluejay.
Brooks, a third-team junior college All-American last season at Iowa Western, put a jolt into a Creighton offense that appeared to be sloshing uphill through mud in the early going. The Hawks' physical defense helped them open a 13-point lead before the game was 11 minutes old.
Brooks went to work, slicing through the heart of the St. Joseph's defense for some easy baskets. That started to open things up on the perimeter for his teammates.
“They kind of had us figured out for a while,” Creighton forward Ethan Wragge said, “and Dev came in and changed things about.”
Wragge led the Bluejays with 21 points, making 7 of 11 from 3-point range. Brooks' drives also forced the Hawks to start loosening up on Doug McDermott, and the two-time All-American finished with 20 points.
St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli has played Creighton six times in the past seven seasons. He said Brooks gives the Bluejays a dimension that they had lacked.
“The other point guards they've had in the past have been pace-setters,” Martelli said. “He gives them a finisher. He's a guard that can get to the front of the rim.”
That ability, Martelli said, can only add more bite to Creighton's already potent offense. Doug McDermott agreed, saying what Brooks can do on the court reminds him of what three-year starting point guard Antoine Young once provided the Bluejays.
“Antoine could bail us out at the end of the shot clock,” McDermott said. “I think Devin's really capable of doing that, and he's even more capable of getting to the rim than Antoine was.
“It's so valuable to have a guy like that especially with the shooters we have. He's able to get to the lane and spray it out to any of us that are capable of knocking down shots.”
After three games, Brooks leads the Bluejays in rebounding with a 6.3 average and is third in scoring (11.7) and steals (4.3). He also leads the team — hands down — in the number of times McDermott and his staff have critiqued his efforts in practice.
Brooks admits hearing the discouraging words sometime grates on him.
“It's hard, it's really hard,” Brooks said. “I feel like the coaches are only on me but when I sit back, I know they're here to help me.
“I want to thank (Coach McDermott) for that. Sometimes I get mad, but I know that it benefits me. I want him to be on me as much as he can.”
Brooks' ability to accept criticism and keep moving forward has earned his coach's respect.
“He drives me absolutely crazy some days but I love the kid because his heart is in the right place,” McDermott said. “He's learning to play a way he's never had to play before. That's a lot to ask and it's like trying to fit a square box into a round hole with the way we play and his game.
“There is a place for it, as we saw(Saturday night).”
The resiliency Brooks has shown in practice has earned his teammates' respect, too.
“He's come a long way, and he's worked hard in trying to mesh his game with what we're trying to do,” Gibbs said. “We have to continue to help him build on this because he gives us a different dynamic off the bench.”
What made Saturday's performance special for Brooks is that it came in front of about 10 family members who had made the trip to Philadelphia from New York City.
“I appreciated them coming and showing me some love,” Brooks said. “I haven't seen my family in a while, and when I saw them today, it was like a dream come true.”
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