Aaron Brooks blossomed in the playoffs last year, carrying the Houston Rockets to a second-round Game 7 with quick moves, sharp shooting and smart decisions.
The trick now is to play like that for a full season.
The speedy 6-foot point guard, drafted by the Rockets in 2007, is a major key to Houston's season with Tracy McGrady's status uncertain and Yao Ming out until next year.
Houston opens the 2009-10 campaign at Portland on Tuesday, not far from where Brooks starred in college at Oregon. Only two years and 35 starts into his NBA career, the Rockets think Brooks is already mature enough to handle the responsibilities of an everyday point guard.
"Everything has happened so fast," Brooks said. "I'm only going into my third year and I could have never imagined that I would already be in this situation. You don't really have time to think about it. The way you deal with it is to just keep working hard and preparing yourself. ... A lot of players would like to be in this position."
The Rockets traded veteran point guard Rafer Alston in February, thrusting the inexperienced Brooks into the starting role. Brooks averaged 13 points and 3.4 assists in the final 27 games of the regular season, and the Rockets earned the No. 5 seed in the West playoffs, facing Portland in the first round.
Brooks scored 27 points in the Rockets' series-opening 108-81 victory. He averaged 15.3 points and 4.3 assists in the series, and Houston beat the Blazers in six games to advance to the second round for the first time since 1997.
Yao broke his foot late in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the undermanned Rockets were expected to quietly bow out to the eventual NBA champions.
Brooks then exploded for 34 points in Game 4, cutting through the Lakers' flat-footed defense for easy layups and going 4 for 9 from 3-point range. He led the Rockets to another unlikely blowout victory in Game 6, scoring 26 points on 8-for-13 shooting.
The Lakers routed Houston in Game 7, but Brooks had already made believers out of his teammates.
"He played without fear, that was probably the biggest thing," Houston forward Shane Battier said. "He didn't ever seem overwhelmed by the moment. A lot of young guards don't quite have that feeling. He really just played the game last year during the playoffs like it was a pickup game. There really wasn't anything different."
Won over by Brooks' postseason performance, the Rockets picked up his option for the 2010-11 season.
"We believed in his potential, but it's always a gamble when you're putting people in new roles," general manager Daryl Morey said. "We were pretty pleased with what he was able to do. We don't do anything but give people the opportunity, and the guy took advantage of his opportunity."
Coach Rick Adelman is still concerned that Brooks is prone to off nights, and that could hurt the Rockets over the long grind of an entire season.
Brooks scored 21 points in Houston's preseason opener against Boston, then went 3 for 10 from the field against Milwaukee a week later. He went 1 for 7 and scored two points in 16 minutes of the Rockets' preseason finale against Dallas, and Adelman let backup Kyle Lowry finish the game.
"The biggest thing about Aaron is consistency," Adelman said. "He's going to be one of our key guys that we have to have night in and night out. It won't always be the same (opponent), but the way he plays has to be the same."
Brooks studied video of Steve Nash over the summer and also broke down his own games. He's worked on the timing and precision of his bounce passes, particularly on pick-and-roll plays.
"It's all part of growing, growing as a player, growing up in this league," Brooks said. "I'm going to continue to get better, I know that. There's a lot of stuff I don't know, a lot of stuff I still have to learn."
He'll try to improve his consistency by keeping things simple.
"You take one possession at a time," he said. "I don't ever look too far ahead. I don't really think about, 'OK, I'm going to start 80 games this year and we've got to win 50.' You take one possession at a time _ did I help my team on that possession, did I do something good on that possession? That's how I've got to be."
Battier thinks the confidence that the Rockets have put in him will accelerate his improvement this season.
"Development's a lot quicker when you're given the keys to the team to run. It's his show," Battier said. "We think he's our guy. We believe in him. He has the ability to carry us."