Stepping off the plane at OR Tampo International Airport, thousands of travelers passing through Johannesburg witnessed an odd sight. In the middle of Africa's largest airport was a looming man with a smile shining across the terminal, his flat top poking out over the crowd.
"I couldn't stop smiling for some reason," Jaylen Brown told reporters Thursday on a teleconference from Johannesburg, South Africa. "I was just waving at people excessively, just smiling. So I probably came off probably a little but weird to some of the customs people. But I was happy to be here."
Jaylen Brown is in town to represent the United States for Team World in the NBA Africa game Saturday, an annual exhibition that has become the motherland's equivalent to All-Star weekend. He'll be teammates with global stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis, as well as Americans like Kyle Lowry, DeMarcus Cousins, and CJ McCollum—who was kind enough to crash Brown's media call Thursday.
Brown stands out as the youngest player in the competition. His role looks much like he did grinning through security: Unsure exactly why he's there, yet soaking it all in.
"I'm really not sure how it came about, but I'm just happy to be here," Brown said. "They invited me and asked me to participate in the event in South Africa and I jumped on it. I'm super excited about my family being here and so far, we're enjoying the trip."
He finds himself in a similar situation to the one back home. A fledgling of a star striving to be the most mature man in the room, functioning in that capacity well ahead of schedule. There hasn't been a top-three pick in his sophomore season with such a prominent role on a title contender since James Harden.
Jaylen has spent the summer advertising his next step, posting a video series of his offseason workout program. He spent the summer league in Brad Stevens' laboratory, serving as a guinea pig as his boss tries to perfect his recipe now that Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum have been added to the ingredient list. Brown relished the opportunity, looking to diversify his basketball portfolio as much as he can as a ball handler and dynamic scorer.
Stevens has operated on a hypothesis that starts with a switch-heavy defense and ends with as many ball handlers and shooters on the floor as possible. It was essentially the Celtics' summer league mission statement, making it as hard as possible for the defense to determine who exactly is running the show on the floor.
"It was by design. I think that's exactly what we pinpointed on coming in. Just trying to get better at different aspects of my game and just trying to use summer league for what it's worth," Brown said. "There's still nuances to that side of the game that I'm still working on. Being a ball handler, creating for others, running the team, being a leader, that type of stuff is going to help me in the long run and that's the type of stuff I was trying to excel at and learn on at summer league."
Brown's most apparent flaws as a scorer his rookie year were dribbling against a squared-up defender and learning how to bail out of an action to avoid trouble. Brown is looking to evolve from attacking weak-side closeouts or cutting backdoor to being an initiator. While his familiar symptoms were still popping up at summer league, he's continuing to iron them out of his game.
"I for sure put in a lot of work this year and I'm for sure think it's going to pay off. The same player, but just a better player. A smarter player and now a more experienced player, me being in my second year. I'm excited for the next year. I think it's going to be easy because I play with a lot of good players."
Being a spot-up shooter to space the floor is valuable, but it's one of the most common definitions of a role player. That's not something Brown's ever been interested in settling for. His ambition is one of the reasons the Celtics went with what was once a perceived reach for him in the draft.
Most players are comfortable just growing into being reliable floor spacers in their second year. But Brown wants to remain ahead of schedule, working to be a complete player as soon as he can.
"I've really made strides in scoring on different levels. Not just simplifying the catch and shoot, but I think I've gotten better in my arsenal and I think defensively, I've improved as well. Just getting stronger, getting faster, more explosive, bigger. I think all of that is - being a better athlete helps you be a better defender, a better basketball player."
Sophomore goals are often about just hitting your shot, proving you can stay on the floor by contributing to the point total. But Boston has valued multi-faceted player development under Stevens, building up two-way players out of the first round who can work their way into the rotation by fitting into any hole that opens up. It's how Brown, who was seen as a big wing who could play the four, ended up starting in place of Avery Bradley last year while Bradley was injured.
"Versatility is like one of the things that our team is built on," Brown said. "So, for me, just showing my versatility and working on that is just helping our team."
Brown is trying to learn new skills, and now he's in Africa to experience new worlds. There is a portrait painted of Africa that is often bleak and desolate. Brown came to Johannesburg with an, "empty slate," devoid of expectations. So when he touched down in the home of Mandela and saw familiar surroundings, he felt like he was home.
"Ah man, it feels great. There's like a lot of perceptions of what Africa looks like or what it is, but it's completely different from what I thought it would be. It's kind of similar to back home if you ask me. I feel at home.”
"When we first arrived, there's buildings everywhere. It's a beautiful city. There's branding, there's marketing. Everything you can imagine is similar to back home. I was just like outside of a city, I thought I was like in Augusta, Georgia or something, instead of being all the way out across the world. But it's a beautiful city and a beautiful country and I'm happy to be here."
Brown was pleasantly surprised to see a bustling major city, learning first-hand why it is one of the most iconic cities in the world. As the fourth-largest city in Africa, the size and scope of a metropolis like Johannesburg is not too far off from his hometown up the highway from Atlanta. Brown's hometown of Marietta, Georgia was 31.5% African-American according to the 2010 census. Johannesburg registered at 73% Black African in 2011.
"It feels like a city where they have everything, but just a lot more black people, to be honest. It feels like a city. It feels like home."
But being in a city like Johannesburg, where unemployment is 37% and of which 91% of those residents are black, is sparking Brown's priority for community involvement even further. He relished the opportunity to work with the campers at Basketball Without Borders and take in everything from a historical and socio-economic perspective in South Africa.
"To be honest, it's my driving force. I actually think about it a lot. It's what keeps me going, just using the game to influence not only my community, but to spread light on a lot of different things that athletes have a voice to do. So, it crosses my mind a lot. Just being here to get some perspective and seeing things here kind of changes your perspective as you look back at home and see what's going on there. People are a lot more deprived and are a lot more poor here than they are in America, yet they don't seem to be bothered by or complain about it. It actually kind of seems like they were happy in a sense, which they should be. But it was just interesting to see that. Where I'm from or etcetera, it's just a different perspective.”
So he finds himself on a break from the daily offseason grind, taking it all in from South Africa. On Stevens' Celtics, versatility goes beyond the court. Players receive input and guidance from experts of varying fields beyond sports and are free to hone an identity that goes beyond a cookie-cutter athlete template.
Brown came to the Celtics proud of it, looking to take classes at Harvard and play chess in the square. His leader Isaiah Thomas bequeathed a mantra that continues to guide that cosmopolitan spirit.
"[Thomas] says, ‘When I die, if I'm just known as a good basketball player, then I didn't do my job. I failed as a human being,'" Jaylen said. "It's one of the things that Isaiah on our team says a lot and one of the things I live by. If you just remember me as a basketball player, then I didn't do enough while I was here."
He'll do plenty in Africa, with a chance to grow, prosper, and give back at home for years to come.