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Golden: Texas freshman Greg Brown is expanding learning curve

Longhorn coaches and teammates mixing in doses of tough love for NBA prospect

Texas forward Greg Brown celebrates a play with head coach Shaka Smart and teammates during the second half of Saturday's 70-55 win over TCU. The freshman scored 13 points in one of the most complete games of his young career.
  • After struggling against Oklahoma State, Brown has scored 30 points in the last three games.
  • The Vandergrift HS legend has had to adjust to the college game, including tough love in the locker room from coach Shaka Smart and team leaders Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey.

Before his first day of practice, Greg Brown already knew the dynamic in the Texas locker room.

Senior point guard Matt Coleman and junior backcourt mate Courtney Ramey are the alpha dogs, program guys who have the complete trust of head coach Shaka Smart.

Brown, a mercurial 6-foot-9 freshman sky walker from Vandergrift High, found out quickly that he would have to adjust to their way of doing things.

And not necessarily vice versa.

One day he will be the alpha dog on a bigger stage, but it isn’t likely to happen in college, unless he decides to stick around for another year.

Brown is going places. The projected first-round pick has a Tracy McGrady build and a skill set with above-the-rim aerial displays on both ends. He drips with quick-twitch athleticism that will serve him well one day when he’s cashing NBA paychecks.

We get a glimpse each game of the player he will become, which isn’t even close to what we see at present.

Several times this season Brown has shown his impact, from a huge blocked shot down the stretch in an earlier win over Oklahoma State to Saturday’s trio of 3-pointers and a huge offensive foul drawn on TCU big man Kevin Samuel during Texas’ 70-55 win.

Offensively, he’s very raw. He’s mostly a catch-and-shoot player who's more likely to pull up to shoot it after one dribble to his left than taking it to the rack with either hand. He still turns it over too much — he had four Saturday, putting his season total at a team-leading 42, which is way too many for a non-guard — and is still figuring out how to slow the game down in his head.

This is typical of a freshman who walked onto campus as the most dynamic talent to come through here since Kevin Durant.

Texas forward Greg Brown dunks over TCU center Kevin Samuel during the second half of Saturday's win at the Erwin Center.

Brown, at just 19, is figuring out that college basketball is different from high school dunk-a-thons and 130-127 AAU score fests. First of all, they play defense up here. Next is the business aspect and the understanding that livelihoods are on the line based on how a team fares.

He will be leaving this comfy college nest soon, but there are a few dozen highlight reel plays remaining to be delivered. Even with limitless potential, Brown is greener than a mess of collards, so don’t be shocked when he gets gets called for traveling, commits a careless pass or shows his youth by picking up a senseless technical foul.

About that last one he received. Brown couldn’t contain his enthusiasm after he put Baylor's Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua on a dunk poster, but it woke up the nation’s No. 2 team and Texas got blown out.

During the second half of Saturday’s win over TCU, he threw down another massive slam — this one on the 6-foot-11 Samuel — but this time, he ran back down the court without incident.

“I was like, ‘OK, Greg, don’t look at the dude,’” said Brown, who heard teammates yelling at him to get back on defense. “I was telling myself, ‘Don’t look at him.’”

That’s called progress.

The kid played one of the most complete games of his young career on Saturday and gave us another glimpse as to how dangerous the Longhorns can be when they’re clicking and connecting.

Brown’s 13 points and six rebounds weren’t earth-shattering — he has scored and rebounded bigger in other games — but his impact stretched far beyond the stat sheet. He played with contagious aggressiveness on both ends, showed unyielding energy and displayed a fearless willingness to take important shots.

It’s understandably a mixed bag from game to game. He averages 11.5 points and leads the team in blocks (19) and rebounds (7.5 per game), but his team-high 42 turnovers, with only five assists, is a ghastly 1-to-8.5 assists-to-turnover ratio. Productive player that he is, his college debut hasn’t been a big bowl of lollipops given the hype and expectations.

That said, steady progress is happening, on the floor and, just as important, in the locker room.

Texas forward Greg Brown and TCU forward Terren Frank battle for control of a rebound during the first half on Saturday. Brown, a freshman who is projected as a first-round NBA draft pick, is learning on the fly in what is likely his only college season before turning pro.

From an outside view, I’m not convinced that Brown, Ramey and Coleman will be exchanging Christmas cards over the next 30 years, but effective leadership doesn’t always involve winning a popularity contest. So if you’re asking whether Coleman, Ramey and Smart have delivered a heavy dose of tough love to a potential NBA lottery pick at times, the answer is a resounding yes.

After the recent double-overtime loss in Stillwater, Brown — who scored only five points in 20 minutes  — was unhappy that he sat during crucial parts of that game, and he told Smart as much after the game.

“I told him, ‘Man, you gotta play better,’” Smart said.

Brown arrived in practice the next day eager to earn more time. Over the last two games, he has averaged 15 points, 6.5 rebounds and has been hot from the perimeter, hitting seven of eight 3-point shots after making 18 in his first 14 games.

His effort has never been a problem, but sometimes the fundamentals of the game can get lost in his incredible talent.

This is where Ramey and Coleman come in. They have taken turns counseling and tutoring the youngster, often employing the old good cop/bad cop routine. Ramey, an enforcer, is comfortable getting in the faces of any teammate — or opponent, for that matter — while Coleman has been the soothing voice in Brown’s ear if things get too heated.

“He does well, but at times he wants to bark back,” Coleman said, “He wants to state his opinion, but that’s what young players do. That’s what any player does when they feel like they’re not in the wrong or they’re right. But as times goes on, he trusts us.”

Receiving criticism from fellow players can’t be easy for someone who has been a star since elementary school, but it’s all part of the learning curve.

“It was a struggle at first, but once I understood where they were coming from, then it made it a lot easier to understand,” Brown said. “Because what I’ve been told as a kid is to don’t look at how it’s said, but look up the message of what they’re saying. And that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Smart said Brown is more connected and engaged with his teammates than he was at the beginning. He understands the lofty goals that lie ahead but also has realized that there is a team ideal at play in what will most certainly be his only college season.

As the Horns (13-5, 7-4 Big 12) enter a crucial stretch of five games over the next 11 days, their youngest student will continue to expand his learning curve. His greatest days will happen elsewhere, but for now, let’s enjoy this entertaining early chapter of his basketball story.