Column: men’s basketball’s potential rests on Justin Brookens’ shoulders


RUNNING THE SHOW—NMU point guard Justin Brookens looks to attack the Davenport defense during the Wildcats’ 91-79 win over the Panthers on Thursday night. Brookens will have a big role to play if the ‘Cats want to continue their recent successes. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson, Sports Editor

The NMU men’s basketball team has been on fire as of late offensively, and it’s no secret why. The ‘Cats are starting to get more practice time together and develop chemistry, but junior point guard Justin Brookens holds the keys for this team to unlock its full potential.

Brookens, the Division 1 transfer from Western Illinois, has only played seven of the team’s 16 games thus far on the season. After missing the first six games with a lower leg injury, he missed a three-game stretch in early January with COVID-19. 

Since returning, Brookens was held scoreless in a loss to Saginaw Valley State but has averaged 20 points per game in the last two Wildcat wins. In a 88-78 win over Wayne State last weekend, Brookens played a season-high 31 minutes and matched a then season-high 16 points. In last night’s 91-79 win over Davenport, Brookens played only 19 minutes but scored a season-high 24 points, with 18 coming in the second half. Back in the line-up and thriving, Brookens is happy to be back with his teammates.

“It feels good to be back with my guys and be with my coaches and have that family atmosphere again,” Brookens said after the Davenport win. “It feels really good just being around them, it was a tough beginning of the season. Everyone wants to play because you just work so hard, but I was enjoying seeing my teammates play, but now it’s fun to be out there with the guys.”

Northern coach Matt Majkrzak was excited about this year’s team heading into the season due to the offensive talent he knew was coming in to fill out the roster. After starting off the season 3-1, the Wildcats lost six straight games to close out 2021. Now, winners of five of the last six games, the NMU offense has taken quite the shift. Averaging 89.2 points per game since the calendar flipped to 2022, the team’s improvement has been quite clear.

“I knew we had the players, so I was always optimistic about our offense,” Majkrzak said. “I really couldn’t figure out why we were struggling so much earlier in the year, because this is the team that I expected to see and expected to coach. I think it was just a chemistry and familiarity thing, now are we going to continue averaging 89? I don’t know that, we’re playing pretty well, but at the same time, I do think we’re a much better offensive team than we were a couple of weeks ago.”

The team’s chemistry continues to trend upward, but everybody’s job has become much easier when Brookens is running the show. His shiftiness and athleticism separate him from defenders despite his 5’6” stature, and it finally appears that he’s playing up to the expectations when he came in.

“Going into the year, we expected him to be probably our best player,” Majkrzak said. “Especially on the offensive side, we thought he was our best scorer overall, and I guess I never doubted he could do it just with our past experience, but I did worry about just how he was going to find a way to do it within our group. You can still tell that he hasn’t played as much as the other guys with everyone coming off of injury and a COVID layoff, but I think he’s getting more and more comfortable out there almost every day. For us to reach our full potential, he needs to be a big part of it.”

Through the early season injury struggles and now becoming the centerpiece of the offense, Brookens continues to rely on the people that have stuck by his side.

“It’s a good thing, it shows you resiliency, perseverance and things like that,” Brookens said. “Just being real strong-minded, I had the support of my teammates, my coaches and my family. It was one of those tougher times and I stayed mentally strong, and they helped me with that.”

If NMU continues to roll on offense moving forward, not only will it be important to point out the improving chemistry, but it will be Brookens most likely behind the wheel.