This year’s rookie class is shaping up to be the worst in terms of on-court performance in modern league history. As Jared Dubin noted, this season is trending toward becoming only the fourth since 1979 in which no rookies reached 5.0 win shares.
It’s worth noting that the draft has skewed more international, with 14 of the 60 players drafted either stashed overseas (Ante Žižić) or in the D-League yet to play an NBA game (Abdel Nader). Meanwhile, number-one pick Ben Simmons hasn’t made his debut either.
Even rookie-by-default Joel Embiid’s debut year is now over, opening the door for Jaylen Brown to jump into the Rookie of the Year race, in part due to the absence of much competition.
That’s not why we should feel relieved that the Celtics ignored fan’s pleas to draft a player like Kris Dunn in order to facilitate a larger trade, and stuck to their intuition that Brown was their guy. Rather, Brown’s enormous growth within Boston’s system is enough to make us giddy. He’s made himself a ROY contender not by being a world-beater, but by making the most of situations. He did so on Friday night, making sensational plays around his playmaking teammates and system.
There are spurts where the physical superiority, the mindfulness to make the right plays, and the intense drive to get involved on both ends of the floor combine to produce flashes of brilliance. A tough offensive rebound and put-back pressed against a defender. A hard cut leading to an ally-oop slam. A push in transition through defenders at the rim with the touch to finish through contact.
We’ve seen all these things happen in spot moments. It has reminded us momentarily of the greatness that Brown may be poised to achieve in a Celtics uniform. But there have always been road bumps with extended minutes in the form or bad turnovers, airballs from the perimeter, or other miscues often attributed as “rookie mistakes.”
Those were missing in Los Angeles Friday night as the Celtics surged to 70-first half points and routed the Lakers by 20 points. It was Brown’s most complete and dominant effort of his promising rookie season, and he had a boatload of highlights to tow with his impressive line of 16 points (7-13 shooting), eight rebounds and only two turnovers in 22 minutes.
Brandon Ingram, considered a possible top prospect before the draft, was held scoreless.
Jordan Clarkson was the initial victim of a must-tweet move by Brown. With Boston’s lead above 10 early in the second, he backed into Clarkson on a quick feed from Marcus Smart and in a few milliseconds spun toward the baseline leaving him in the dust. He capped the sensational scorer’s move with an exclamatory two-handed slam.
Jaylen Brown spins baseline for the two-hander. pic.twitter.com/yyIzHbb34U— SLAM Magazine (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2017
Those plays are the mark of an effective wing player. It’s something Kevin Durant does often—putting the ball on the floor against athletically inferior opponents to expose that defender in isolation with a lane to the rim available. Brown read the situation perfectly.
Then there was this insanity. Up by more than 20 in the fourth quarter, Brown was still powering on a hard cut against an already poor Lakers defense whose effort was dwindling. Avery Bradley pushed a pass to an elevating Brown too far past the basket. The slam was spoiled, but Brown reached forward with his left arm, handed it to his right, and finished with his head underneath the basket. All while getting fouled.
A quarter earlier, he was pushing hard behind Isaiah Thomas on one of many transition pushes that drove the blowout win and earned two points for his persistence with a feed off the backboard.
The persistence, patience through mistakes and hard-charging effort of Brown continue to make him an effective rotation player as does his awareness to not try to do more than he’s capable of. There are rarely plays where he looks disconnected or uninvolved. Many commentators praised his basketball IQ and general intelligence as a major factor in unison with his clearly NBA-ready physique. He isn’t the best defender yet, and his perimeter shooting lags, yet he’s always trying to impact a possession.
What wasn’t shown in the highlight of his Jordan-esqe layup was the set before it. He was brutally stuffed on an attempted low-post turnaround layup by Tarik Black. Instead of falling out of the play, he was back on defense in seconds and then pressed hard on a cut after the stop to receive the feed from Bradley.
Brown isn’t being given anything as the team’s top draft pick. On a team with more than five players in front of him in the rotation, he’s carving out every opportunity he can through his own power. Once Bradley returned he was back on the bench, received only 22 minutes tonight, and still laid the hardest mark on the game of any individual Celtic.
This was in the same week as his heroic go-ahead three-pointer to down the Pistons and his good defensive effort on LeBron James. In the month of February he averaged over 10 points per game and shot 45% from beyond the arc in the absence of Bradley. When opportunities have arisen he has grasped them with two hands, like his big dunk in L.A., and that’s the most you can ask for a rookie.
#Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown claps his hands when briefly iso'd defensively on LeBron James. 'Dem stones growing by the day.— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) March 2, 2017
Brown is not there yet. Mistakes still remain on a nightly basis, and he continues to affect the game in close companionship with top-line players on the team setting him up. That’s part of the reason Brown’s been so successful though: the knowledge to know he has teammates that he can work around to find success with. He doesn’t need to dominate opponents on his own yet, but Friday’s showcase in Los Angeles revealed clearer than ever his potential for stardom.