Less than a week after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown declared his desire to play with Boston’s Summer League team. The sting of defeat, mixed with his natural inclination toward continual improvement, was sufficient enough for Brown to want to put in extra hours, despite a long playoff run and the pedigree of having been a top-three draft pick.
A number of more playful offseason narratives dwarfed Brown’s performance in Summer League. His hosting a welcome to the NBA party, starring in the NBA Africa Game, and releasing a series of documentary-esque Youtube videos come immediately to mind.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of endearing summer stories, though, is the fact that Brown had one of the more fascinating rookie seasons of recent memory (at least among Celtics players). Statistically he wasn’t very good, and yet many prognosticators believe he could develop into the best player from his rookie class.
That stance is based in Brown’s underlying talent (which is notable), but perhaps even more so in his physical tools (which are prodigious). However, it also comes back to his attitude of always wanting to get better. It’s the right mindset for turning the brief moments that Brown looked like a future All-Star last year into a consistent reality.
Brown showed particularly intriguing flashes on defense. He is already strong enough to hold his own against the league’s biggest, most physically dominant stars. Take a look at him contain LeBron James on the block one-on-one.
He’s also quick enough to stay with the most slippery ball handlers the NBA has to offer. Watch him stick with Steph Curry, even through a rugged screen from David West.
Brown isn’t consistent enough to handle either of those types of responsibilities full time, but the fact he has the tools to even consider covering players as different and talented as Curry and James is endlessly tantalizing. It’s a level of versatility that very few players possess.
And yet, even with his notable streaks of impressive individual defense, Brown rated out as a net neutral by most defensive metrics. The reason behind that really boils down to two facts: Brown didn’t always play great individual defense, and his team defense was lacking fairly often.
Brown has a tendency to get overexcited on defense at times. Ask him to lock up a knockdown shooter, and he might do so just a hair too tightly, neglecting help duties when his man is two passes away. Match him up with a non-threat from the outside, and he’ll sag off a bit too aggressively, forcing a scramble back to his man and creating unnecessary cracks in Boston’s defense.
Brown is also prone to fits of reaching and lunging, and he bites too hard on pump fakes too often.
Let’s be clear, this is an overly critical assessment of Brown’s defensive game. That he wasn’t a total dumpster fire is better than most players his age can claim. His instincts are good, and his base physical ability is incredible. He needs to grow if he wants to mature into his defensive potential, though.
Doing so may require him to be a few inches better positioned, more measured and balanced in closeouts, and right in his split-second decisions more frequently. The difference between being passable, good, and great comes down to some really small but critically important abilities. Those things should come with time. Both Brown and the Celtics will be hoping that Brown will develop the requisite offensive ability needed to keep him on the floor.
Brown proved to be a slightly better shooter than anyone anticipated, posting solidly below-average .454/.341/.685 shooting splits (per Basketball Reference). Those aren’t good numbers, but for a player who many claimed couldn’t shoot at all upon entering the league, Brown performed admirably. His ability to hit from beyond the arc was particularly encouraging.
If he can turn himself into a respectable shooter and cash in on his defensive potential, that would be enough to be a very valuable player. He’s capable of more than just that, though.
Brown is already a good, albeit low-volume, post-up player and a sneaky cutter, particularly along the baseline. In fact, cutting was, as is the case for many players, his most effective means of scoring the ball. He averaged 1.29 points per possession on plays like the following (per NBA.com).
Brown can also be a real threat on the fast break, when he can hold onto the ball. He posted a 61.7% effective field goal percentage in transition, but an 18.6% turnover rate (per NBA.com), indicating that Brown is an effective and explosive finisher at the rim who struggles to get there with the ball in his hands.
All three of Brown’s most effective offensive skills—cuts, post ups, and spot-up shooting—require very little dribbling. He’s got a loose handle and a developing feel for the game, both of which make attacking the hoop a challenge.
There are plays in which Brown puts it all together. He’ll use his quickness to blow by his man, explode to the hoop, and pause in mid-air to bounce off a defender and create space to finish. Those plays are brilliant. Brown’s ability to absorb contact and hang in the air is otherworldly. But they’re also the exception, and not the rule.
More often than not, when operating in isolation, Brown struggles to create separation from the man defending him, picks up his dribble, and hoists an ill-advised midrange jump shot.
He has the raw speed and power to be a nightmare for those attempting to stay in front of him, but until Brown’s craft and handle allow him to change pace and move as efficiently as possible towards the hoop, they’ll never be of much use to him. The same is true in the pick and roll.
Brown coughed up the ball on an almost unfathomable 27.6% of possessions in which he functioned as a pick-and-roll ballhandler (per NBA.com). The Celtics opted not to utilize him in that role frequently, which was wise, but if he hopes to develop into a well-rounded offensive player, then Brown will need to find a way to do better.
That’s probably not a reasonable expectation for next year. If Brown can grow even incrementally with the ball in his hands, that would be a great next step. The question becomes whether or not the Celtics have the patience to give him the space to do so.
Boston will be competing at a very high level next year, and Brown projects to play a significant role. There is a decent chance he could function as a starter, particularly if Brad Stevens is leaning towards opening games with Al Horford as a center. As such, it may be of value to define the difference between what Boston can reasonably expect to get out of Brown, what role they need him to fill, and what role they hope he can grow into over time.
The first two are closely tied. Boston needs Brown to be a good defender and an average to above-average three-point shooter. As long as the Celtics aren’t expecting Brown to be the fully actualized defensive menace he holds the long-term potential to become, or a deadly marksman from deep, that’s a relatively reasonable expectation.
What Boston hopes Brown grows into is a lot more than that. It’s unclear if they expect him to become a threat in isolation or the pick and roll, but they’ll want him to be able to use his athleticism to attack closeouts off the dribble, and they should have some much higher expectations for his defensive ceiling.
I’ve grown more and more interested in Shawn Marion as a possible comp for where Brown is headed (with a much prettier shooting stroke). In his prime, Marion was a great defender with incredible versatility and enough offensive skill to keep his team operating at an elite level. That definitely lives within Brown.
It’s possible that more lives within him as well. It’s way too early in his career to say that he can’t be an offensive focal point. If he hits his defensive ceiling, tightens his handle, and finds a way to funnel all his athleticism and energy towards the rim effectively, then look out. That player is the kind that doesn’t get compared to anyone else because he’s good enough to have others compared to him.
Next year will go a long way in defining how realistic it is to think Brown could take the developmental jumps needed to land him on a path to such stardom. He won’t be that player for the Celtics just yet, and there’s a possibility he never will, but one thing is for sure—he’ll be working as hard as he can to get there.