November 22, 2019

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Straight shooter

Exiled NCAA point guard Rashawn Browne got to the U of M with enthusiasm, athleticism... and trouble putting the ball in the basket, and he knew it

When Rashawn Browne arrived in Winnipeg in the fall of 2017, Bisons men's basketball coach Kirby Schepp had good reason to be excited.

Browne, fresh from three years in the NCAA, was the epitome of the plug-and-play recruit — a point guard with enough athletic ability and passing skills to become an elite player at U Sports level — immediately.

But there was a glaring hole in the Toronto product's game. He was a below-average shooter and in the modern game, that reality limits a pure point guard's ability to influence the action.

U of M assistant coach Srdjan Komlenovic spent hours, usually four days a week in that first year, breaking down and rebuilding Rashawn Browne's form. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

U of M assistant coach Srdjan Komlenovic spent hours, usually four days a week in that first year, breaking down and rebuilding Rashawn Browne's form. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Browne knew it — "I couldn't shoot to save my life back then," he says — and decided to make a change, enlisting the aid of U of M assistant coach Srdjan Komlenovic, who serves as the squad's shooting guru, armed with all of wisdom he accumulated during his many years in his native Serbia.

Komlenovic spent hours, usually four days a week in that first year, breaking down and rebuilding Browne's form. At first, they used video to analyze mechanics, but after much repetition and muscle memory, Browne can recognize and recover his shooting stroke more quickly now.

"When things start to go wrong, what is your process of fixing it? I didn’t have that before. If I was in a slump, it was a 'slump.' And it was going to stay a slump until magically, one day, I started making shots again." Browne said. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"When things start to go wrong, what is your process of fixing it? I didn’t have that before. If I was in a slump, it was a 'slump.' And it was going to stay a slump until magically, one day, I started making shots again." Browne said. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"His system is like a checklist," says the 24-year-old Browne, a third-team Canada West all-star in 2018-19. "Coaches before tried to teach me to shoot, but all these things at once. His (method) is more simple. Focus on the elbow. He uses funny European terms but its basically elbow, he says whip (wrist action) and the two fingers (index and middle) the ball comes off.

"It's broken down, so I know what I'm doing wrong — one of those three things. If one of those three things is off then I'm probably not going to make the shot. If I get all three things right, I probably will."

The checklist was essential when Browne and the Bisons tipped off the Canada West regular season against the UBC Okanagan Heat last weekend. In Friday's opener, Browne scored 18 points but went a dismal 0-for-5 from behind the three-point line in Manitoba's 86-58 win.

Between games, the 6-1, 185-pounder returned to the gym to shoot 100 three-pointers to get his rhythm back. Twenty-four hours later, Browne went 6-for-8 from behind the arc and totalled a career-high 40 points in the Bisons' 91-58 triumph. The performance resulted in Canada West male performer of the week honours.

"I'm not a big believer in belittling people or intimidating them. He’s a 24-year-old man, we’re co-workers and colleagues. We’re partners." says Kirby Schepp. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I'm not a big believer in belittling people or intimidating them. He’s a 24-year-old man, we’re co-workers and colleagues. We’re partners." says Kirby Schepp. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"When things start to go wrong, what is your process of fixing it?" says Browne. "I didn’t have that before. If I was in a slump, it was a 'slump.' And it was going to stay a slump until magically, one day, I started making shots again."

His teammates have noticed how Browne wasn't content with his overall game and how much he drove himself to improve.

"I think the main thing I see is the work that he put in," says fourth-year forward James Wagner. "The shot, he’s a lot quicker now and he’s a lot more confident shooting it. Each year he’s progressed."

Long road to U of M

Cullen Neal drives past Rashawn Browne during a NCAA college game in 2015, in Albuquerque, N.M. (Juan Labreche / Associated Press files)

Cullen Neal drives past Rashawn Browne during a NCAA college game in 2015, in Albuquerque, N.M. (Juan Labreche / Associated Press files)

The pain in his right ankle early in the 2016-17 season told Rashawn Browne there was something seriously wrong. His coach at California University of Pennsylvania, Kent McBride, had other ideas.

"They said, 'Let us know when it feels right,' but every day it was constant questioning, 'Can you go today? Can you go today?'" recalls Browne.

"Obviously, it wasn't a day-to-day thing. I said, 'Coach, can I get an X-ray? And he said basically you have to pay for it with your own (money). At the time, I didn't know it wasn't true. He just didn't want to give me the X-ray."

The pain in his right ankle early in the 2016-17 season told Rashawn Browne there was something seriously wrong. His coach at California University of Pennsylvania, Kent McBride, had other ideas.

"They said, 'Let us know when it feels right,' but every day it was constant questioning, 'Can you go today? Can you go today?'" recalls Browne.

"Obviously, it wasn't a day-to-day thing. I said, 'Coach, can I get an X-ray? And he said basically you have to pay for it with your own (money). At the time, I didn't know it wasn't true. He just didn't want to give me the X-ray."

When a few weeks of rest didn't improve his condition, Browne received an ultimatum from McBride, who was under intense pressure to win games.

"'OK, well you can sit out but keep in mind, there's a scholarship on the line," Browne remembered being told.

He played through the injury, taking ibuprofen for the pain but when he went home to Toronto at the Christmas break, Browne had an X-ray that revealed he had a broken bone in the ankle, which had healed improperly in the intervening months.

By the end of the school year, his scholarship was terminated.

It's a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of playing NCAA basketball, something Browne had little knowledge of when he and three high school teammates earned Division I scholarships upon graduation from Bill Crothers Secondary School.

Browne's first U.S. college stop came in 2014-15 and 2015-16 at New Mexico State in Las Cruces, N.M. He red-shirted his first season for the Aggies and played a mostly reserve role in his second, where he played with future NBA star Pascal Siakam.

"My freshman year I really enjoyed it," says Browne, who transfered to California of Pennsylvania after two years at New Mexico State. "I got in every game, I did the best I could but at that point in my career, I wasn't ready for what the new coach wanted. He wanted something faster and a little more athletic.... At the time, I wasn't much of a scorer."

Siakam, who had gone to the United States from his native Cameroon, already appeared destined for bigger things. Last month, he agreed to a four-year, US$130-million contract with the Toronto Raptors.

"He was extremely raw," says Browne. "But I figured he would end up with a contract in the NBA at some point. He led the NCAA in double-doubles."

— Mike Sawatzky

The Manitoba men have a bye in conference play this weekend but return to action next weekend on the road against No. 10-ranked Lethbridge.

Schepp expects the video evidence of Browne lighting it up against UBCO to draw even tighter defensive coverage. But that is exactly the point.

"If you can’t score, you can’t attract any attention," says Schepp. "Now the game's easier for everyone else."

At the U of M, Browne has found contentment in his life on and off the court in his fifth and final year of eligibility.

In Schepp, he also found a leader better suited to his temperament than the more bellicose coaching styles he experienced at Division I New Mexico State and later at Division II California University of Pennsylvania.

"I really wanted to play for a coach who wasn't going to yell in my face," says Browne, adding with a smile, "(Kirby's) probably yelled at me once in three years."

Schepp seems naturally disposed to be more patient, but the approach is deliberate.

"I'm not a big believer in belittling people or intimidating them," says Schepp. "He’s a 24-year-old man, we’re co-workers and colleagues. We’re partners."

At the U of M, Browne has found contentment in his life on and off the court in his fifth and final year of eligibility. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

At the U of M, Browne has found contentment in his life on and off the court in his fifth and final year of eligibility. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Browne has also become a mentor to younger members of the Bisons, especially to first-year guard Vojtech Rudicky. Rudicky, a 21-year-old from Brno, Czech Republic, moved to Canada six months ago and found a kindred spirit in Browne.

The two share an apartment and Browne has been busy getting his roomie acclimated to a new country.

"He’s like an older brother," says Rudicky. "He’s super-friendly, he’s helping me with everything. When I got here I had to make bank account, whatever, so he’s driving with me everywhere trying to help me. Also, he talks mainly about basketball, so he’s like a mentor."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Sports Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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