Jaylen Brown drew the most cameras of his entire sophomore campaign in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The most urgent coverage he received fell upon his absence as he rode away for miles on a stationary bike, never to return with a hamstring strain.
Boston pulled away from the Bucks in only a momentary victory while worried eyes darted toward Brown’s status for the 76ers series. The odds seemed long of the Celtics winning, underdogs with or without Brown, on top of all their other injuries. He missed only one game, returned to his double-figure scoring average and punched out Philadelphia in Game 5 with 24 points.
Amongst the chaos of the Gordon Hayward injury on opening night, Brown’s sensational slam to open the season stood largely forgotten. That set the theme for the rest of the season. While Jayson Tatum amassed one of the greatest rookie seasons in franchise history, injuries struck seemingly bi-weekly and the team’s defensive fortitude grabbed headlines, Brown’s jump from 6.6 to 14.5 points per game hit the back-burner.
With Brown filling the scoring hole dug by the absence of Avery Bradley and Hayward, his production shifted toward expectation. His shooting workload increasing twice over his rookie year shot attempts, his three-point shot reached the edge of 40 percent and he drew the high class defensive matchups in the back court yet the moments that appealed to observers most were when he didn’t appear.
He built that standard by scoring over 10 points in 16 of the Celtics’ first 20 games. Short strings where he’d sink below raised concerns of inconsistency, but to the contrary he pressed through nearly every challenge thrown at him in a tumultuous season on and off the court.
For Brown, as teammates fell constantly around him, the 2017-18 season did its best to rip him off the floor into a suit alongside Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis and Hayward.
That’s where he found himself after a moment of terror that rivaled the Hayward scare. Its outcome miraculously pointed in the positive direction, but when Brown flipped upside down in a March game against the Timberwolves following a dunk and fell directly below on his head the worst entered the minds of many.
“Prayers sent to you right now and up Jalen Brown!!!!,” LeBron James tweeted in the aftermath. “Glad to see you walk off on your own.”
The onslaught of internet support signaled good will, but is usually reserved for the worst injuries. With that consolidation, the visual of Brown’s injury rivaled Hayward’s.
It appeared that he could have brushed up against paralysis, or at least a significant back injury that would end his season. He instead landed with a headache, missed just six games and returned with 10+ points in three of his next five games.
He managed to laugh the heart-stopping moment off. One that Al Horford observed was “probably one of the worst falls I’ve seen.”
Appreciate everybody I'm ok .. Got a headache tho good team win !!— Jaylen Brown (@FCHWPO) March 9, 2018
Before his two most significant physical comebacks, he faced a mental catastrophe in November. Perhaps the greatest challenge the season threw his way.
On Oct. 14, days prior to opening night Brown and his Atlanta friend Treven Steede faced off at the Celts’ practice facility in a laugh-filled one-on-one. When Brown had nobody to eat lunch with in high school, Steede had opened his arms to him and they remained best friends.
“For him to do that, even with the circumstances, ever since then that’s been my brother,” he recalled.
Days before Brown would return to their home of Atlanta to play the Hawks, less than 24 hours before a marquee matchup with the Warriors, he learned that Steede died. Through conversations with Steede’s mother and Brad Stevens, Brown reversed his decision to not play against Golden State.
He rushed through a screen to block Kevin Durant, then hit a trio of bombs from three and finished with 22 points to lead Boston’s scoring effort. When he faced reporters after, he did so on the edge of tears.
Over the next two games he’d pour over 20 points on the Hawks and Mavericks to push the Celts to 16-2 following the Hayward fiasco.
Resilient through his tragedy, Brown propelled Boston toward the eventual #2 seed they’d claim and ride to 10-1 dominance on their home floor in the playoffs.
He dropped 35 points in the Rising Stars Game, flashing Irvingesque dribble technique and his signature slams in a baby blue outfit, before headlining a speaking event at Harvard University and crafting elaborate prose on sports and race in America.
“Sports is a mechanism of control,” he said. “If people didn’t have sports they would be a lot more disappointed with their role in society. There would be a lot more anger or stress about the injustice of poverty and hunger. Sports is a way to channel our energy into something positive. Without sports who knows what half of these kids would be doing?”
Sharp social commentary from the self-described introvert led into words of encouragement toward the final series of the season. He wanted James in the Eastern Conference Finals, “we’re not scared of anybody,” he noted to Stephen A. Smith.
Through his leaps and bounds as a player and person, Brown possibly played the definitive role in setting the atmosphere for a completely revamped roster further tarnished throughout the season to make the run it did. His one-two youth punch in combination with Tatum yielded the early 7/11 nickname that never quite continued once Irving claimed #11.
Areas remain for Brown to grow in. His limited possession time and high usage off ball reflected a need for further progression toward improved ball-handling. Moments still emerge where a pass off the drive would help his game. An ability to create for himself more often would have done Boston’s postseason chances wonders especially in their 1-7 road games where him and Tatum led the team in offensive rating.
Yet they’re 20 and 21 respectively with two seasons ahead to fully cement themselves as the C’s centerpieces. If Brown layers his game anywhere near the level his predecessor Bradley did season to season, then it’ll be harder for his leap to slip under the rug in 2018-19.