For many lottery picks—especially if they were in the top 5—the summer league is a chance to show fans what they'll be capable of in the upcoming season and, hopefully, for the rest of their career. It's an opportunity to deliver on the hype and showcase how they've grown since their last NCAA game or YouTube mixtape. For Celtics fans, we're still waiting on Jaylen Brown to pop.
Brown has played three underwhelming games in green, and so far, we haven't seen the potential that Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens raved about after the draft. Most experts had Boston selecting Kris Dunn after Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Dunn scored 27 points in his NBA debut and reaffirmed his talent, hitting 21 in his second game in Vegas on a total of 54% shooting. Brown's point totals in three games (including one game in Salt Lake City): 16, 9, and 5.
What's troubled most has been his inability to finish at the rim. Brown is a freak of nature. At 19, he's already got an NBA-ready body, a point that Danny Ainge repeated several times at the rookie introductory press conference. His calling card coming out of Cal was his aggressiveness at driving into traffic and getting buckets around the rim.
Those are bunnies. Those are shots 7-year-olds have to make at halftime to win a free jersey. Those are layups and dunks he's missing. After one of Jaylen's majestic drives ended with yet another lip out at the cup last night, the Celtics contingent at Thomas & Mack groaned, and one fan could be heard yelling over the pall, "keep shooting, baby. It'll go down soon. You keep trying." That's what you hear a doting mother tell her son in a little league game.
In Brown's defense, he has been bothered by a knee injury that forced him to miss two games in Utah. That hyperextension might be affecting his lift, but the explosion to the rim is there. Brown has a killer first step, and if he can get his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame around you, he's going straight to the rack with that seven-foot wingspan. However, what's disconcerting right now is that Brown is shooting 1 for 11 in the restricted area. His shooting may have been a concern entering the draft, but for comparison's sake, he's hit 3 of 11 from behind the arc so far. In CBSSports' Sam Vecenie's scouting report, he remarked:
In order to judge players' finishing ability in the lane, I've created a metric that I'm calling "true finish rate." This number is a player's percentage at the rim minus his transition opportunities and put-back opportunities. This distills truly what players are good at finishing at the rim in half court settings on drives or cuts, an essential skill for slashers in the NBA. Brown's true finish rate this season was 42.7 percent, a low mark for a player with his length and athleticism. He offsets this by often he draws fouls and gets to the line, but a team selecting him is going to have to believe in the idea that their spacing will counteract this inefficiency.
Those aren't reassuring analytics, but Brown has been getting to the line (8.33 FTA per game so far), including 17 trips to the stripe versus Ben Simmons. The glass-half-full take on this is that he's at least getting to the rim. If you've had a chance to watch summer league, you'll notice that teams don't run a lot of action. It's a ball-dominant game that caters to guards and small forwards that can take guys off the dribble. For the most part, that's how Brown has been freeing himself up. He's had no trouble beating 1-on-1 coverage and looked pretty good driving at full speed. He's fairly deft at knowing what his counter move will be if the defense shifts one way or another. If a shot blocker threatens high, he's got the scoop. If his defender forces him left, he's got the reverse pivot ready to spin. The finish just hasn't been there...yet.
Brown doesn't seem to be deterred at all. When asked who he's looking forward to go up against, he answered everybody: "they say be careful what you ask for, but I'm asking for it." Ainge and Stevens have been very deliberate about scouting and bringing in high-character guys and, in my humble opinion, have possibly passed up on players that don't impress them off the court. Body language can say a lot, and after seeing Brown in person, you get the sense that the self-imposed hype is real. He won't quit.
On rookie Brown's summer league performance, Brad Stevens said:
"Time will tell. He's 19. The bottom line is I'm watching a lot of the 19-year-olds get more comfortable as the games go on, but none of them are knocking people's socks off right out of the gate. Obviously he's got a great deal of talent. He's got a great deal to learn to be effective at this level, and we'll see. Time will tell."
Stevens probably won't put Brown in situations where he's got to create much off the dribble anyway. The kid won't be a playmaker right away, but he should find some offensive success playing off the ball like Jae Crowder has playing next to Isaiah Thomas. With opposing summer league teams keying in on the touted rookie, Brown has suffered the same struggles that plagued him in his only year of college. Right now, Jamie Young has simplified the playbook and has the summer Celtics playing what amounts to a glorified pickup game. But rest assured that when Brown's skill set is applied to the team framework of the Celtics and given his ability to help his teammates and, more so, his veteran teammates' ability to help him, he'll be a lot better. Confidence will grow, and these growing pains will quickly be forgotten. The education of Jaylen Brown has only just begun.