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Jaylen Brown and the quest to reach his ceiling as an NBA star

Jaylen Brown has the tools to become a star, but does he have the room to grow into one?

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Before the Kawhi Leonard saga mercifully came to end and there was a slight chance he could be a Celtic, an interesting debate started to form around Jaylen Brown vs. Kawhi Leonard. On its face, Leonard is clearly the superior player and with his enormous hand size and wingspan, he’s just too much of a physical anomaly to cleanly project Brown into. However, the two players do have some similarities.

They both came into the league as non-shooting, elite athlete wings that were seen as raw projects offensively. Both got onto the court with their defense and then both proved their shots were far from broken. Leonard burst onto the scene as the Spurs secret sauce against prime LeBron, capturing a Finals MVP. Meanwhile, Brown helped the injury-riddled Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, coming in second in scoring (18 ppg) and first in USG (24.5) while shooting 39.3% from three on 6.2 3PA, and defending the opposing teams’ best perimeter players while battling a hamstring injury.

Like Leonard, Brown’s new task will be finding his space to grow on a team already full of stars. It’s easy to forget now, but entering his third season, Kawhi was playing with “still kind of in prime” Tony Parker, “somehow still good” Manu Ginobli, and the ageless and always good Tim Duncan.

For Brown, the task is similar. He’ll be joining “very much in their primes” Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward while him and his fellow wing-mate Jayson Tatum try to find their spots on a team that will be looking to compete in June. Some have begun to question if the Celtics youngster can actually reach his full potential while still wearing green. However, a look into Leonard’s ascension provides a reassuring view point.

It’s mostly forgotten now, but it’s easy to forget how Kawhi became Kawhi. It wasn’t a sudden jump in statistical production like some stars, but rather a slow methodical build-up that was starting to reach its peak in 2016 before his hamstring injury derailed him. For reference, here is how Leonard and Brown stacked up in their second seasons.

The part that sticks out to me more than anything is the field goal attempts and usage. Leonard doesn’t actually reach Brown’s USG% until his fourth year in the league. (For those unfamiliar, usage is an estimate of the percentage of a teams plays used by a player while he’s on the floor.) The message here isn’t some attempt to say Jaylen was better than Kawhi at the same age and therefore can be better, but rather, Brown has taken a larger role than Leonard ever had in his first three seasons in Boston already. So, should the door close on Brown being able to reach his full potential in Boston? Well, that depends.

Taking the next steps

The first thing that comes to mind when you think about a player expanding his role is taking more shots. For Brown, that avenue probably won’t be possible because of the additions of the teams stars, but it’s also not crazy to think Brown could maintain his shot attempts or get a slight bump to maybe 12-13 FGA a game. Regardless, that’s not a huge appetite of shots which means that Brown is going to have to learn to do more with less, and lucky for him, he could be doing a lot more within his role.

The mid-post

One of the more underutilized areas of the basketball court is the mid-post. Analytics have correctly pointed out that the mid-range shots are less valuable overall than three-point shots and therefore a player should aim to avoid those shots in favor of adding three-point shots. Brown did an excellent job of that transition last year, cutting down on his pull-up 16-footers and getting more comfortable finding the three-point line. The best example of that was his game-winner against the Jazz where he despite the game being tied, he had programmed his mind to always seek out the three-pointer over the long-two.

With that being said, in doses, I think it’s important to have a bit of mid-post game to throw at teams for a few scenarios:

  • Attacking mismatches
  • An emergency kit for isolation situations
  • A counter to being forced off the three-point line
  • Leveraging opportunities out of the play type to get to the line (we’ll get to that later)

In the playoffs, we saw the advantages of being able to attack this mismatch when Brown found himself being guarded by players who were either slower or smaller than him such as JJ Reddick, Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli, JR Smith, and Tristan Thompson. He had some really good moments where he used his athletic ability to take advantage.

Brown’s game most likely won’t take the role of main isolation player during his time in Boston, but the threat of his mismatch potential could lead to better team offense and gets into our next area of important improvement.

Making the right reads

The above possession kind of has all the glory and worry that comes with Jaylen Brown. His ability to grab and go to shrink the defense was great, but his tunnel vision has long got him in trouble. On this play, Brown lucked out because he was going against a Cavaliers team that didn’t care much to get back in transition, so despite getting himself stuck in the paint against Hill he was able to find Morris on a bailout. However, it’s that tunnel vision that can lead to a combination of wonky shot attempts or turnovers.

Here’s a play from later in the series:

Right off the bat, spacing is an issue.

Tatum hasn’t even gotten out of the paint yet and his defender (Hill) was there with him clogging up the lane. Despite this, Brown still bolts right into the wall of defenders and gets himself stuck enough to allow Korver to get the block. That’s just a fundamental lack of reading the court. Doing something as simple as waiting for Tatum to get to the corner forces Hill to make a decision of leaving Tatum wide open for the worst shot to give up in basketball or following him and opening the lane for Brown to attack.

At Media Day, Brown vowed that he had improved on making plays for others. The results thus far in the preseason haven’t given us much clarity.

Brown will be in the role where his job will be to space the floor as a versatile shooter and off-ball cutter and he’s been using the preseason to get his shooting rhythm back highlighted by his 15.2 FGA per 30 minutes. That’s not a bad thing on its face, Brown is one of the team’s best shooters and he’ll most likely have the duty of being the play-finisher to Irving, Hayward, and Horford’s playmaking. However, there wasn’t much to take away regarding his overall ability to make the right reads, and we probably won’t get much of that until the team starts finding itself offensively. The question for him isn’t going to be answered by gaudy assist numbers, but whether he is making the right reads offensively rather than making his mind up on his next move before reading the situation.

During Leonard’s time in San Antonio, one thing Pop said that helped Leonard improve as a player was when he realized that a play drawn up for Leonard wasn’t for him to score, but for the team to score. That seems like the next step in Brown’s ability as a playmaker.

Free Throws

This one is two-fold. For one, Brown needs to shoot a better percentage from the free throw line. Brown is one of the bizarre cases in that he was able to turn himself into a knockdown shooter while not making a jump in free throws (career 65.8% FT shooter) which has usually been an indicator of good three-point shooting. Jaylen has already indicated that he spent a majority of his off season improving his free throw shooting and has had nice stretches during the year such as an 18-game stretch after the all-star break where he shot 90% from the line. Consistency will be a theme for him going into this year and as a player who will have to maximize his possessions. This will be a big way to make improvements to his games that don’t include a jump in usage. The latter part of that is the second-part of his inquiry: Jaylen Brown needs to get to the free-throw line more.

Jimmy Butler, another player Brown has been compared to, was able to get to the line five times a game in his third season despite only having a 16.8% usage. The point being, even with a diminished role, Brown can absolutely improve from his 3.3FTA/game that he had last season. Butler does it through aggressive pursuits at the rim and a strong mid-post game where he’s able to get opponents in the air and draw contract. Jaylen does his best work going downhill, whether out of set DHO’s, attacking closeouts, or in transition.

Per Basketball-Reference, 3.7 of Brown’s 7.1 2PA were at the rim, 2.1 of those were in the mid-post, and the remaining 1.3 attempts were of the “long-two” variety. Brown can maximize his possessions by upping more of his attempts at the rim and decreasing his long-two attempts even more. Of course, that sounds easy when you’re looking at numbers, but practically speaking, that could be made possible by simply playing off of better playmakers who can take advantage of another avenue of getting to the rim: cutting.

Cuts don’t necessarily equal free throws, but they do raise the chance of more attempts where Brown is headed downhill which, up to this point, have been situations where he has been able to get to the line. It’s also another way to maximize possessions because it’s about playing off others. The theme here is simple: re-purposing shot attempts to maximize scoring potential without increasing usage substantially.

Expectations for this season

What Brown has going for him is an excellent foundation and a situation where he has already shown an ability as a legitimate shot-maker, strong defender, and a functional athlete who’s rapidly learning how to translate his physical gifts into an offensive weapon. The path to stardom exists in the long-term, but the goal this year should come from becoming a star in his role. As Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Jimmy Butler showed us, the path to stardom is a marathon, not a race.

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