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Brook Lopez is the Bucks’ 3-point shooting avenger

The big man is making Milwaukee — and, he hopes, Jeremy Renner — proud

MILWAUKEE — When asked back in 2012 by ESPN who his favorite Avengers character was, then-Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez chose Hawkeye because, in his words, Marvel’s leather-clad masked archer is “such a marksman from far away.” Lopez went on to say that he would do “anything” to be that accurate from a distance.

It was unclear at the time how literal the 7-foot center was being.

Through the first half of the season, Lopez has been one of many surprises and bright spots for the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. As the team’s leading 3-point shooter, Lopez has evolved from a sluggish, back-to-the-basket big man to, in the span of five months, a sharpshooting guard trapped in a giant’s body.

The basketball equivalent of Tom Hanks’ Big.

Heading into the All-Star break, Lopez is averaging 12.2 points a game on 2.5 made 3-pointers a game, easily a career-high mark. He’s shooting over 39 percent from beyond the arc (another career high), placing him among the top 35 3-point shooters in the entire league. He’s even picked up the nickname “Splash Mountain” along the way.

Brook Lopez of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots a 3-pointer against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 21 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Lopez is shooting over 39 percent from behind the 3-point line this season, placing him among the top 35 3-point shooters in the NBA.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the 2016-17 season, Lopez’s last in Brooklyn, you were as likely to see him at a dance party (more on that later) as you would 10 feet away from the basket. But during that offseason, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson approached Lopez and said he wanted him to expand his game by about 10 to 15 feet.

“Kenny just told me in the offseason that was something he wanted me to do,” Lopez said. “He had been used to 5-out systems, obviously, being an assistant coach in Atlanta with Coach Bud [Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer], and so he said that was something he wanted me to continue to develop and add to my game.”

Thon Maker, a third-year center in Milwaukee, was first introduced to Lopez’s new shot selection right before the 2017 All-Star Game. During a mid-February game against the Nets, Maker was matched up against his future teammate, who to his surprise was pulling up from nearly every spot along the 3-point arc.

After splashing three 3s in the first five minutes of the game, including two right in Maker’s face, Lopez ended the night 6-of-10 on 3-pointers for a season-high 36 points.

“I remember J-Kidd [then-Bucks coach Jason Kidd] getting on me about it, and I was like, ‘I’m in the defensive coverage, but he’s popping. He’s not rolling.’ So that was strange,” Maker said.

After attempting just 31 3-pointers during his first eight seasons in the league (converting just three), Lopez exploded with 387 attempts during his final year in Brooklyn. After one season with the Los Angeles Lakers (325 attempts), Lopez has been letting it fly in Milwaukee, surpassing 300 attempts through the first 45 games, which comes as no surprise to his new head coach.

“His teammates have really been great for him as far as encouraging him, finding him and telling him to keep shooting if and when those rare times that he misses,” said Budenholzer. “Maybe we pushed the envelope a little more than we had envisioned, but we certainly knew there’s a lot to work with.”

Lopez’s shooting has been such a linchpin for a squad shooting the second-most 3s in the league that the team started making public pleas to get him an invite to the annual 3-point contest. “Send Brook to the 3-point contest, please,” pleaded Bucks forward and All-Star captain Giannis Antetokounmpo. The team’s Twitter account sent out a promotional video in late January, tagging the official NBA account.

But in the end, Lopez was passed over for the likes of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield and the Curry brothers, Stephen and Seth. But Lopez is used to being overlooked.

“Going back to school, I wasn’t invited to a lot of stuff,” he told reporters last month. “I didn’t really go to parties or anything like that, so I’m used to not getting invitations.”

But had he been invited to join the contest, Lopez is certain he could keep up with every 3-point shooter in the league, even reigning league MVP James Harden or 2015 3-point contest champion Stephen Curry. “Absolutely, I’m confident,” he told The Undefeated.

In spite of his disinclination to venture out to the 3-point line earlier in his career, Lopez was forced to develop that sort of range at a young age. One has to expand his game while growing up playing against a twin brother, the Chicago Bulls’ Robin Lopez, who was the same size as him and two older brothers, Chris and Alex, who were taller — the latter of whom was 6 feet, 10 inches tall at the age of 14.

“Since I was a little kid I took 3s, took long 2s, all that stuff, just because I had older brothers so I wasn’t going to get anywhere going in the paint,” Lopez told The Undefeated. “They weren’t playing with any mercy; they were blocking my shots regardless. So I had to take it outside a little bit and try to score however I could.”

That’s helped him thus far this season.

Lopez is on pace to make more than 210 3-pointers this season, which would make him the first 7-footer or center to make 200-plus 3-pointers in one season. And while he’s taken the second-most catch-and-shoot 3s in the league (shooting over 37 percent), behind only Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Lopez is far from a one-trick pony, or Clydesdale in his case, when it comes to getting his shot off. His pull-up range is up there with the top long-range marksmen in the league: Lopez trails only Curry, Trae Young and Damian Lillard on baskets from 28 feet out or further. He’s also incorporated a mean sidestep (ask Steven Adams). The last step of the evolution is pulling out a step-back jump shot like Harden.

“We’ll see,” he responded when asked if he’d break out the controversial move — or travel, depending on whether or not you live outside of Houston — in the future. “I’ve been trying to get a few step-backs in-game, but his [Harden’s] is really impressive,” Lopez told The Undefeated. “We’ll see if that eventually comes out.”

Bucks general manager Jon Horst, who’s responsible for signing Lopez in July, puts his center in the upper echelon of shooters in the league today.

“I don’t like to say that he’s one of the best shooting bigs in the NBA, because it’s not true,” Horst told The Undefeated by phone. “I mean, he is, I think, the best shooting big in the NBA, or one of the best shooting bigs in the NBA, but what he is he’s really one of the best shooters in the NBA.”

After hiring Budenholzer in May, Horst set out to compile pieces for the former Atlanta Hawks coach’s “5-out” offensive scheme that emphasizes shooters to surround centerpiece Antetokounmpo. They wanted a center who was a combination of shooting and size, something Lopez fit to a tee.

Despite Lopez’s scoring output last year in Los Angeles — 13 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season — the Bucks were never concerned with who they were bringing in. (Lopez is still stunned that the Lakers didn’t retain him after the arrival of LeBron James: “I don’t know what they were thinking. I don’t know what they were looking at and everything.”) Milwaukee needed a center who could score from the low post, positively impact a team’s defense and stretch the floor from beyond the arc. He has overachieved in at least two of those areas: He sits just outside the top five in blocks (2.1 per game), and nearly 70 percent of his shot attempts are 3-pointers, the most of any starter.

“I think he’s exceeded our expectations that way,” Horst said of Lopez’s contributions so far. “But really, there was no concern about him being able to fit into our team as a shooter.”

But has Lopez lived up to the expectations of his favorite Avenger?

“I hope so,” he said after a recent Bucks practice. “I hope somewhere Hawkeye, or at least Jeremy Renner, is out there and he’s proud right now.”

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"