Early on in his fifth season in the league, Jaylen Brown has been displaying previously unknown strengths and appears to be well on his way to becoming a star. The Boston talent is the prototypical two-way player but also one of the most interesting individuals off the court.
Jaylen Brown’s development in the NBA has not been lost on anyone, but a late third quarter sequence in a January 20, 2021 game between Boston and Philadelphia showed just how far the Celtics talent has come at the offensive end. A Daniel Theis screen did not help Brown shed Ben Simmons and neither did three dribbles between the legs, a crossover to the side and an aggressive step forward. Still no space for a jumper. The next attempt did the job though: a power dribble with the left hand along the edge of the paint. The help came in the person of shotblocker Dwight Howard, but Brown stopped on a dime, spun around and drained a fadeaway jumper. Brown demonstratively signalled on his way back that Simmons was “too small” to defend him – even though the Australian made the All-Defensive First Team in 2020 and is 13 centimeters taller than Brown. While Brown’s gesture was entertaining, the scene was important for other reasons. It was an example of Brown’s start to the season as well as a demonstration of just how far he has come in his game. It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that Brown would have had no chance to pull off such a Kyrie Irving-like move just two years ago.The rookie version of Brown may have even broken his own legs trying that move or dribbled the ball off his foot on the first crossover. But the 24-year-old has taken another step in his development.
A good reach
That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Jayson Tatum got most of the headlines in Boston for the 2019-20 season for his improvement. But Brown made a similar jump forward and there was even talk before the All-Star break which of the two was the better “Jay” on the team. The answer was and is Tatum, but the distance is not as wide as so many assume. Tatum already demonstarted his superstar potential in the playoffs during his rookie season while Brown’s development was slower and less impressive. The player who is a serious candidate for the 2021 All-Star Game doesn’t have that much in common with the one who was surprisingly drafted third in 2016. The pick back then was considered a reach by Danny Ainge. Brown clearly had athleticism but his game was still raw with not much of a shot, ball-handling or playmaking skills. At the University of California, he didn’t even shoot 30 percent from long range and had more turnovers than assists. But since his arrival in the league, Brown has gotten a bit better each year in at least one of those facets. His defense was the key for Brad Stevens even giving him minutes as a rookie. The rest of his game would follow.
From role player to star
Brown was especially limited on offense when he started in the NBA. He was solely a role player as a rookie, mainly scoring around the basket due to his athleticism as well as catch-and-shoot jumpers. Brown lacked the ball-handling though to create his own shot. In his first season, Brown hit only 33.2 percent of his jump shots, though there was a sign of hope as he hit 43 percent of his corner threes. But things have gotten better and Brown has turned himself into a catch-and-shoot specialist in Boston, hitting nearly 42 percent from long range. Brown also has made a huge jump in his ball-handling.
It must be emphasized that this development did not come quick enough for many observers. In 2018, many in Boston criticized Ainge for not wanting to give up Brown in a trade for any of the available superstars such as Jimmy Butler, Paul George or especially Kawhi Leonard. Ainge though still had hopes that the then 21-year-old Brown could one day develop into a star like those others. And that wasn’t an absurd assumption considering Brown averaged 18 points a game as the Celtics reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in his second season. The criticism returned a year later as Leonard won the NBA title with Toronto, George was playing like an MVP candidate at OKC and Brown’s numbers dipped for the first – and only – time. Brown even was banished to the bench for a time with the return of Kyrie Irving not being as successful as hoped as the Celtics were bounced 4-1 against Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs. Many thought the departures of Irving and Al Horford in the summer of 2019 would end up being a disaster, but it turned out to be a god-send for both Tatum and Brown. The main reason was because Kemba Walker had a different agenda upon his arriv
al as the replacement for Irving. “Those are two special players and this is their team,” Walker said. “I love watching them when they are in the groove together.” With the help of Walker, Tatum and Brown guided Boston back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the third time in four years. The dynamic duo was taking the next step together.
Fabulous start to 2020-21
Early on in 2021, Brown is making Ainge look pretty good for his decision to keep him – instead of dealing for Butler, George or Leonard – and his contract extension from the summer of 2019 (four years, 115 million dollars) looks like a real steal. At 24, Brown is playing like someone who can earn max money – and he’s only getting better. Brown’s combination of skills makes him extremely valuable in the playoffs – as he has shown over the years. It’s no coincidence that he was the most efficient Celtics player in the 2020 Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, averaging 23.2 points and 65.3 percent True Shoot
ing. Of course, he also benefitted from the opposing defense concentrating on Tatum as well as Walker in the creator role.
Room to improve
Brown has mainly been a finisher in his career with not much emphasis on creating for others. But that has changed a bit this season. While Walker was out injured, both Tatum and Brown took over more of the playmaking duties and Brown has nearly doubled his career best average in assists. Brown is slowly but surely realizing that he is receiving more attention and he has taken advantage of that – both for himself and his teammates. He will probably not be more than a secondary playmaker, but he doesn’t need to be as long as he’s playing with guys like Tatum and Walker. Just like his playmaking game, there are still other areas where Brown has to improve. With fewer than five foul shots a game, he still isn’t going to the free throw line enough for an athlete of his caliber. And his 32.8 percent three-point shooting is also too low. Still, the Celtics have faith that Brown can get even better. His development until now has shown he recognizes his own weaknesses and works at them. His learning curve over the past two years gives Boston fans reason to believe in a rosy future with the one-two punch of Tatum and Brown. That is also because the two young stars complement each other so well. Tatum is the one who receives more attention on the court while off the court it’s Brown who is more comfortable in the spotlight. Brown is actually one of the most interesting NBA players away from the game.
There is a term in NBA circles about players who go by the beat of their own drum. Kevin Durant during his time at Golden State was a “different dude”. Kyrie Irving is another such player. But so is Brown – but more because of his enormous curiosity. Even before his NBA career, Brown had taken a different route than most top recruits, deciding on a college not because of the basketball program but for the education opportunities. He studied at an elite university and wasn’t interested in just a one-and-done short stay like so many of his future NBA colleagues. Sure, Brown did leave for the NBA after one season but he has always said since then that he wants to get his degree. And no one doubts he will. Before he was draft, there was a quote on The Undefeated from an anonymous GM that said the 19-year-old Brown might be too smart for the league and intimidate some teams. One of the reasons for that was that Brown refused to hire an agent and represented himself. And he wasn’t unprepared. Brown studied the Collective Bargaining Agreement and also asked for advice from the likes of Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Isiah Thomas. “That was the kid in the classroom that the teacher would come and say, ‘I want to spend some extra time with this one because his mind in different,’ ” Thomas said about Brown.
Influence in the union
Brown still is different as he was elected as the youngest vice president of the National Basketball Players Association at just 22 years of age. He word carries some major weight among the players – as it did during the re-start of the 2019-20 season at Disney World. Many of the symbols and initiatives that the NBA and its players called for came from Brown, including the “Black Lives Matter” logo on the courts and the slogan on the backs of the players’ jerseys. Before the NBA season started, Brown made headlines for driving overnight 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to appear at a protest. He also questioned whether he should play in the bubble at all because he grandfather had just been diagnosed with cancer a month before the re-start. Brown also showed his influence during the bubble. Several teams were angered at the Milwaukee Bucks for their decision in late August to boycott their game against the Orlando Magic over the murder of Jacob Blake. Brown spoke up. “I felt obligated to let Milwaukee know that I understood why they made the decision they made,” says Brown, “and I didn’t need that explanation from them.”
Not just a jock
Brown has always said he wants to use his platform to push for social change. And those are not just empty words. He has already held speeches about education and technology at Harvard and MIT. He also demanded the NBA continue their commitment to the BLM movement, and he fought for NBA arenas to be used as polling spots for the US presidential election. Protesting for Brown is a “productive way to get things done”. And he encourages his fellow players to take advantage of their fame. “I think part of being an athlete comes with the fact that you have influence, you have responsibility, and you have a platform, and a lot of times people make it seem like it’s okay to run away from that. And I would challenge that,” Brown said. Brown has shown that he’s not “too smart” for the NBA but that he’s just right for the league – a perfect example that you can take your profession extremely serious and be much more than just a jock. Brown’s coach Brad Stevens said that his young star’s biggest influence will end up not being in basketball. He may be right. How much influence Brown will end up having cannot be decided now. It is getting bigger though – year after year.
by FIVE Magazine #176 – Jaylen Brown – Text: Ole Frerks