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Magic number: Jaylen Brown and the free throw line

After averaging the second most free throws on the Celtics last season, Jaylen Brown needs to continue to attack the rim in 2018-2019.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Brown is a problem. He’s arguably Boston’s most athletic wing. He may not have the playmaking skills as Jayson Tatum or Gordon Hayward, but his improved three point shooting (39.5 3FG% up from 34.1% over double the shot attempts) and his ability to get to the rim have made him a big threat when the ball swings to him on the perimeter. At 6’7, 225 lbs., he’s also added a post game to punish smaller shooting guards in the half court and is a terror in transition.

However, the bugaboo in Brown’s game has been his free throw shooting. Brown’s game is conducive to generating free throws attempts. As a slasher, he’s attacking close outs with defenses recovering to help. With defenders in less than ideal position, he could be a foul magnet and last season, he was. He was second in FTA’s last season and his trips to the line seemed to coincide with Celtics’ success. They were 25-7 in games that Jaylen Brown shot 4+ free throws in; they were 15-15 when he shot two or less.

Unfortunately, Brown is a below average free throw shooter. After the All Star break, he shot 79.4% from the line after starting the season a dysmal 58.8%. In the playoffs, he fell back to earth and shot 64% in the season. During his hot streak, Brown said:

“I’ve been concentrating, just working on my focus and my breathing a lot more, and I’ve been able to slow my heart rate down,” Brown said Monday morning ahead of his team’s shootaround at United Center in Chicago. “I’m thinking a lot less about it and I’m just shooting it.”

This should be a point of emphasis for Brown this summer. With his skill set and continued improvement and a potential bump in star power with the refs, he could raise his free attempts to 5-6 per game and if he gets to a respectable 75% clip, that could open his game up even further because teams won’t want to put him on the line. Search “hack-a-Jaylen” on Twitter and you’ll find a lot of results dating back to January. Those 2-3 extra points a game don’t seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but every shot--particularly free throws--matter. Brown called them the “easiest shots in the world.”

We’ve seen a few sneak peeks into what Jaylen’s been working on this summer. Of note, 1) both videos from Vegas with the Celtics coaching staff and with Tracy McGrady start with Brown shooting a free throw and 2) he’s putting in work on his one-on-one game. All those side steps and fadeaways will layer in nicely with his attacking style. It gives his game more twitch and the more off balance his defender is, the higher the chances he could get fouled.

In Boston’s projected starting lineup of Brown, Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford, Jaylen could conceivably have the most favorable size match up to start games. He’s bigger than most 2’s in the league (like Klay Thompson) and could abuse opposing shooting guards in the mid-range. His development could mirror that of DeMar DeRozan. DMDR’s point average hovered in the teens with his FTA’s around 5 per game in his first few seasons. He didn’t become a consistent 20+ point scorer until he started getting to the line 8+ times a night. With the Celtics firepower around him, Brown may not reach that level in his rookie contract. At this point, he’s more complementary than focal, but he’ll have his opportunities to be the primary scorer on possessions.

To Brown’s credit, we’ve seen how quickly he can improve his game over a summer. When his outside shot was a knock on him coming out of Cal, he improved his three-point shooting from 29.4% at Berkley to 34.1% in his rookie season to 39.5% as a sophomore to 39.3% in last season’s playoffs. As Bobby noted in an earlier piece about Brown’s free throw shooting, it could just be a confidence issue and Jaylen doesn’t seem like the type of person to shy away from a challenge.