Brown was supposed to be a seamless fit with the Celtics after he was drafted #3 last summer. Despite just turning 20 years old at the start of the season, he already had an NBA body and skill set, while raw, would translate immediately to the pro game. His versatility as a defender would guarantee him playing time and, and his athleticism on the offensive end would keep him on the floor. For the most part, that’s all been true. We’ve seen the rookie struggle, but at the quarter mark of the season, Brown has shown flashes of his potential.
Early in the season with Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk still sidelined, Brown got his chances and was fantastic early. Even LeBron James gave Brown props when Jaylen scored 19 points on the King in Cleveland, but his minutes evaporated when the team was finally healthy. He hasn't picked up any DNP-CDs yet, but the leash has been short. If he doesn't spark in his first-half minutes, he doesn't see the floor in the second half.
Brown had a rough close to November, scoring seven points in seven games. However, he strung together three good games on the last road trip, punctuated by his 13-point performance in Orlando that included a poster dunk as an exclamation point. What turned things around for Brown? Getting back to his game. Here’s Brown’s shot chart from Philadelphia, Orlando, and Houston:
In training camp, Brad Stevens simplified his role in the offense: attack the basket. You can almost picture the words "DRIVE, DRIVE, DRIVE" scribbled in permanent marker and underlined on Brown’s mental white board.
In the preseason, Jae Crowder said, “He’s aggressive. You can’t tell him not to take a shot. He’s going to take it and he’s going to make or miss. He feels like he’s going to be aggressive and that’s a good step for a young player, to come into the league and be aggressive because a lot of people don’t come into the league with the confidence. He’s aggressive and I think that’s a good key for us.”
He’s certainly been aggressive. Even though Brown has totaled the fewest minutes of any of the players in the ten-man rotation, he’s fifth in total drives with 36, just behind Rozier and Smart at 52. However, there are stark differences between his penetration vs. his bench mates. Brown is 11 for 20 on his drives, wheras Rozier is 10 for 24 and Smart is 13 for 33. Along with his efficiency, he’s also gotten to the line more times (20) than Rozier and Smart combined (17). When he’s put his head down, Brown has been a scorer, and that’s what this team needs from him offensively. Think Jeff Green on his best days as a Celtic.
But to truly become a threat, Brown will have to diversify his game, and for the most part, he has. His outside shooting was supposed to be a liability coming out of Cal, but so far, he’s held his own. He’s been awful in the mid-range (2 for 14), but beyond the arc, he’s a respectable 35.5% from 3, and he’s been trending up. He rarely forces shots, and when the ball rotates to him, he makes the right decision on whether to take the shot, drive, or make the next pass.
What’s exciting about Brown’s development is that we’ve barely scratched the surface of his upside. If you look at his Synergy play type numbers for his first 100 shots, his role in the offense is that of your basic swingman: as ball handlers break down the defense, he’s either catching and shooting or moving without the ball and looking to finish off the pass. Roughly a third of his shot attempts come off of spot ups and another third on cuts, putbacks, and in transition. His next evolution, one that will likely come over the summer and into next season, will be his effectiveness as a playmaker.
Think Avery Bradley or, better yet, think Avery Bradley pre-Brad Stevens. Under Doc, AB was just a defensive stopper on the perimeter. In three years with Stevens, Bradley perfected a mid-range game, expanded it to the three-point line, and has now become a ball handler and play maker. Hopefully, we see that kind of progression from Brown.
The Celtics have an abundance of ball handlers, and at least to this point of the season, Brown will not be looked at as a play maker. With his speed and size, it’s surprising that he only has 10 shot attempts in pick-and-rolls, dribble hand offs, or coming off picks combined. His role right now is as a play finisher, but down the road, I’d expect for him to get some touches as a decision maker. That role could be a long ways away, however.
Brown has mentioned Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady as idols. There are little hints in his game where you can see the influence of those Hall of Famers: the step-back fall-away jumper in the post, the extended hang time around the rim. Brown’s upside is apparent, but how to capitalize on it and, more importantly, how quickly Brown can develop is the question. McGrady was drafted by a Toronto team in the infancy of its expansion, and he didn’t get a full complement of minutes until his third season in the league. Kobe joined a Lakers team that had already signed Shaquille O’Neal, and he didn’t pop until his sophomore season. Jaylen Brown and fans alike will have to be patient as the rookie goes through some first-year growing pains, but hey, we’ll always have Orlando: