Jaylen Brown found himself in familiar circumstances when the Boston Celtics faced off against the Charlotte Hornets in early November, streaking down the court against a retreating defense with the ball in his hands. Throughout the first three years of his career, Brown has developed a reputation as a threat to hammer home monster dunks on top of backpedaling foes.
But on this particular evening, Brown opted not for a face-melting posterization. Instead, he slowed his pace just enough to catch Bismack Biyombo - the only impediment between him and the rim - off balance, slithered toward the basket with two obscenely bouncy steps, and placed the ball delicately off the backboard for a pair of easy points.
Brown’s layup lacked some of the eye-popping athletic violence that Celtics fans have come to embrace throughout his early career, but the fact that the young wing has added such a move to his arsenal is plenty exciting in its own right. And the play in Charlotte was far from an isolated incident.
Brown has shown off a variety of finger rolls and scoop layups by the basket, that are translating into makes more effectively than simply trying to punctuate every possible drive with a thunderous jam. He’s tightened his handle, and is noticeably more in control with the ball in his hands, shifting speeds and even relying on the type of pump fakes that used to drive him crazy on the defensive end.
The craft Brown is demonstrating is the result of years of experience and practice. He’s made incremental improvements to his game season after season, and appears on the verge of taking a significant leap forward as a player. He’s leaning on his left hand in ways that seemed almost unimaginable even just last year.
However, Brown’s percentages by the basket have dropped precipitously since Gordon Hayward was sidelined by a broken hand. He plummeted from the 86th percentile in shooting at the rim to the 75th over the course of the last two games, per Cleaning the Glass. Such is the nature of early-season statistics.
A decline in performance in Hayward’s absence may have been inevitable. It’s easier to be balanced and in control heading to the hoop within the ample space that Boston’s best five (Daniel Theis, Hayward, Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker) offers. Even more so when attacking defenders in rotation, a frequent occurrence thanks to Hayward’s acumen as a facilitator. Not having Hayward has resulted in mucked up driving lanes and more responsibilities as an offensive engine.
Brown hasn’t been able to thrive by the hoop in such an environment. That’s not a real problem. The Celtics optimal outcome doesn’t require him to be a monster at the rim as a primary creator. It does require him to be one if he’s playing a supplemental role on offense though. He’s demonstrated an ability to function in that capacity when Boston’s roster has been at full strength, and he’s done so to an impressive degree.
Long term, the Celtics will hope Brown can translate his effectiveness scoring by the basket into any offensive context - both as a focal point and in a bit role. It would appear he might not quite be ready for that yet, but there is plenty of reason for optimism through Boston’s first thirteen games.