MILWAUKEE -- TUCKED INSIDE the locker of Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez during a home game at Fiserv Forum during the final week of the regular season, sits a blue bottle with a yellow label that reads "Brook's Secret Stuff."
It's the first thing Lopez grabs after he finishes his pregame shooting routine on the court and returns to the locker room, a tradition that goes back to his days as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.
Inside the bottle is not the same placebo the Looney Toons used as fuel for their second half comeback against the Monstars, but Lopez appreciates the nod to the movie "Space Jam." Lopez has been drinking his "secret stuff," essentially a pregame energy mix, since shortly after he first entered the league, but it wasn't until he arrived in Milwaukee that the team training staff leaned into his love for animation and created the bottle and label for him.
"I take it 30 minutes before every game, try to do it right on the dot, 30 minutes," Lopez told ESPN in April. "[The Bucks' training staff] took it from there. This is your secret stuff. We got to make it official."
Last season, Lopez played as if he believed the drink injected him with Monstars-level talent. At age 34, he averaged 15.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 53% from the field and 37% from 3-point range. He scored at least 20 points in 26 games last season, matching his total of 20-point games from his first four regular seasons in Milwaukee. And, after undergoing back surgery that cost him most of the previous season, Lopez bounced back to play 78 games and finished second in the NBA in Defensive Player of the Year voting, behind 23-year-old Memphis Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr.
In his 15th season in the NBA, Lopez transformed into the best version of himself -- and a version of himself almost unrecognizable when compared to the player he was when he first came into the league. Lopez is now a 3-and-D seven-footer, capable of spacing the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo while punishing teams inside on mismatches and making opposing players second guess themselves in the paint. And his return to Milwaukee on a two-year, $48 million deal solidifies a core that already won one championship in 2021 and is looking for another.
"We're not here without what Brook does" Bucks guard Wesley Matthews said near the start of the 2023 postseason. "Giannis is the MVP; Jrue [Holiday] is, in my opinion, the best point guard in the league; Khris [Middleton] is one of the best closers in the league, we got one of the deepest teams in the league, but Brook is right there as important as anybody."
WHO IS THE Nets' all-time leading scorer.
It's a trivia question that could stump even the most die-hard NBA fans. It's not Julius Erving, who played just three seasons with the then-New York Nets of the American Basketball Association. It's not Vince Carter, who scored more than 25,000 points in his career, but just 8,834 with the then-New Jersey Nets. It's not Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, who rank second and fourth on the Nets' career points per game list, but didn't spend nearly enough time in Brooklyn to rack up a high points total.
With 10,444 career points scored as a Net (in both New Jersey and Brooklyn), it's Lopez who still holds the distinction as the franchise's career points leader.
Perhaps equally surprising, given the type of player Lopez has evolved into, is that a mere 411 of those 10,444 points came from beyond the arc.
Lopez, the Nets' No. 10 overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Stanford, made his living with the franchise as a back-to-the-basket post threat, averaging at least 20 points per game four times in a seven-season span from 2010-11 through 2016-17.
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was the Eastern Conference All-Star coach for Lopez's lone All-Star appearance in 2013, and recalled the type of player the center was back then.
"He was a low post, go-to guy, so he has that skill set," Spoelstra said during the 2023 playoffs. "He's not just a space five. I think that's what people probably forget, who he was in Brooklyn."
During his final season in Brooklyn, 2016-17, Lopez began the evolution that would turn him into the player he is now. After attempting a combined 31 3-pointers over the first eight seasons of his career, he took a team-high 387 3-pointers (at the time, the eighth-most in a single season in Nets history), making 134 of them. In the span of a single offseason, Lopez increased his 3-point attempts by 5.0 per game, the largest increase from one season to the next in NBA history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. At the time, his 34.6% 3-point shooting was slightly below league average (35.8%) but it was a good first step, one that continued in his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers -- which was enough to pique the interest of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks needed a big man who could space the floor properly with Antetokounmpo blossoming into a superstar, so the Bucks' new staff under then-head coach Mike Budenholzer challenged Lopez to continue evolving.
Splash Mountain was born.
"It was really just trying to get him to adapt into the system," said Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, who was an assistant in Milwaukee in 2018. "It was a lot of conversations, a lot of work on the floor to get him good on the defensive side, but offensively, he had been playing in the post a lot, but becoming a lethal threat in the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop game. We were doing some different things with spacing. He started spacing out to the wing, the corners, embracing that 3-point shot."
No player in NBA history has had such a sudden embrace of the 3-point revolution. Lopez is the only player in league history to record five seasons with more than 100 made 3s and five seasons with zero made 3s, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Lopez fired up a career-high 6.3 3-pointers per game in his first season in Milwaukee, making 187 of them (36.5%). During his five seasons with the Bucks, he's made 539 3-pointers, the second-most of any 7-footer, behind only Utah Jazz All-Star Lauri Markkanen.
"I think it's a kind of humbleness that's like the league is changing," said Joe Ingles, who spent last season with the Bucks before agreeing to a new deal with the Orlando Magic last week. "[He said] 'I'm not going to just walk to the post and dominate from the post anymore, I've got to figure out how to do it.'"
It's not the first time Lopez has been forced to figure out how to evolve. Foot and ankle injuries cost him most of the 2011-12 and 2013-14 seasons, limiting him to a total of 96 games over a three-year span. Then, coming off the Bucks' championship in July 2021, a back injury cost him all but 13 games in 2021-22.
"I was lucky that I had a great surgeon take care of me with the back surgery last year," Lopez said. "And then I had a great support group. ... They were in on the plan together to just get me from that part of the surgery where I can get back on the court and then from there in the offseason to be even a better player. What I was doing in the offseason, being a better shooter, trying to be effective from the perimeter so we tried to tie stuff in in the weight room to help that transition a bit."
When Lopez showed up at the start of last season, numerous team sources raved about how in-shape he looked. He'd spent the offseason honing his shot, teaming with a shooting coach to work on new routines. The work paid off, as Lopez shot a career-best 37.4% from beyond the arc. And he still hasn't lost it in the low post; he averaged 1.31 point per direct post-up, the second highest efficiency in the league (trailing only DeMar DeRozan).
During the playoffs, where the Bucks were shockingly upset by the Heat in the first round, Lopez continued to perform well, averaging 19 points per game (his most in a playoff series since 2015) and shooting 41.2% on 3-pointers.
"I always saw myself playing at a high level for a long time," Lopez said. "But I always had coaches that worked myself and [twin brother] Robin out and they'd have us do everything. It was almost as if they saw the way basketball was going to go. It's not like I'm an incredible wing or guard or anything, but absolutely having that basis for skills helped me transition now."
This summer, Lopez became a free agent for just the third time in his career. The first time came in 2018, when Lopez was coming off something of a lost season with the Lakers (he'd averaged a career-low 13.0 points on 46.5% shooting, which was the lowest mark of his career at the time). He was forced to settle for a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Bucks to rebuild his value. He re-signed with Milwaukee a year later for four years and $52 million.
Now, Lopez, who told ESPN earlier this year, "I always knew I wanted to play a long time, I never envisioned a stopping point in my career," is back with the Bucks on a two-year deal that will take him through his age-36 season and pay him $48 million, a figure that reflects not only his skills, but his value to the Bucks franchise and their championship aspirations.
"Defensive Player of the Year [candidate] and offensively, people always forget this man leads a franchise in scoring," Matthews said. "Brook can score. He's talented as hell. He puts the ball on the ground, takes advantage of mismatches, he finishes above the basket. What he does for us defensively, it just protects the paint. He's so unselfish on both ends of the court."