On December 12th, ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan published a feature on Jaylen Brown. Among other things, she set out to highlight his slow start to the season, along with his struggles to fit in with the new hierarchy of the healthy Boston Celtics — the struggles that led to his demotion from the team’s starting lineup. In it, Brown preached patience with his disappointing performance, and pledged improvement:
“This is a story that’s being written,” Brown says. “There’s going to be highs and lows. Everything that’s happened, the energy will change.
“Come back in two weeks. The numbers will be different, and so will I.”
It’s been nearly two months now since MacMullan’s piece was published, and one thing is evidently clear: Jaylen Brown’s energy has certainly changed.
Wednesday’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets put a cap on one of the best months of Brown’s career, as he scored 14 points per game on blistering shooting splits of .491/.418/.732. He scored 20 or more points in six games this month, including three of his last four games, and looks like a wholly different player from the one that shot worse than 40% from the field through the first two months of the season.
So, as you know I enjoy asking: what has changed? Well, Brown has some ideas. Monday, fresh off 21 points in the team’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, he discussed his new mindset and — interestingly — how his move to the second unit has seemingly set him free as a player.
“I’m just playing basketball, trying to be aggressive. The second unit has more opportunities, and I feel more comfortable being myself ... so I’m just coming out and playing the way I know I can play,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s different between earlier in the year and it is now, I just think I’m being more aggressive, there’s more opportunities, and I’m just being myself. Earlier in the year, it was a little more tough than it is now. I feel like in the second unit, we can be able to play the way we want to play.”
“Playing aggressive” has been something of a mantra of Brown’s lately. When asked about scoring 20 or more points in three of his last four games after the win over Charlotte, he voiced a similar refrain. “I’m just trying to be aggressive, trying to come out and play the right way,” he said. “My teammates found me tonight. I’m just having fun.”
The show he put on against the Hornets suggests that this is more than just a canned response. Brown looked like he was having fun. He played with as much energy as we’ve ever seen from him, flying around the court and knifing his way to the rim with gusto. This is the best form of Jaylen Brown: the one who is straight-up physically dominant over opposing guards and, more importantly, knows it. The second quarter brought a bombastic breakaway dunk that will feel familiar to fans of his 2017-18 emergence:
Aggression is certainly key to Brown’s game, but the right dosage can be hard to find. Too much, and he’s launching one-man cavalry charges into the waiting arms of the defense in the paint. Too little, and he disappears entirely for long stretches at a time. On Wednesday, Brown got the formula just right.
The product was devastating for the Hornets on both ends of the court. Few players can match Brown’s combination of size and speed at the guard position, and when combined with his quick-twitch defensive reflexes, he becomes one of the most impressive sources of instant offense. He can turn a team over in the blink of an eye — even the smallest fumble of the ball can lead to a lightning-quick transition assault in the other direction.
Brown’s transition game can be devastating, and when it’s working, it can unlock so many other dimensions for him on the offensive end. The threat of his speed is so substantial that when he dials it back just a little bit, it can be completely discombobulating for defenders. Here, he drags his feet just enough in transition that Devonte’ Graham thinks he’s safe. Graham doesn’t hustle to put himself in front of Brown, and it opens up a lane for one of the most casual cuts to the basket you’ll see on an NBA court.
Against the Hornets, Brown staged a full-on siege of the rim, but what elevated his performance was how he had an impact in virtually every other phase of the game, as well. He posted his fourth consecutive outing with multiple made threes (though he did hit just two of his eight attempts), and recorded the first 20-10 double-double of his NBA career. It felt as though he was just in the right place all night long. Notably, he cleaned up a pair of offensive rebounds for second-chance lay-ins (though one went uncredited due to an awkward lob pass).
While passing remains the largest hole in Brown’s all around game, he provides flashes of a decent ceiling as a facilitator. He’s a smart player who sees the court reasonably well, and it’s not hard to imagine him picking up a few more assists per game in years to come. For example, I was a particularly big fan of this silky alley-oop feed to Daniel Theis in the game’s closing minutes.
In the end, the Celtics romped their way to an enthusiastic 32-point victory, and as we’ve seen often in the month of January, Jaylen Brown’s aggression was the tip of the spear. After the game, he summarized the Celtics’ ongoing evolution as well as anybody could. “It’s a different rhythm, it’s a different environment, and we’re learning,” he explained. “Everybody’s learning, everybody’s adjusting on the fly. And I think we’re doing alright.”
“Doing alright” feels like an understatement of almost comical proportions. The Celtics have now won seven of their last eight games, with their lone loss coming in a toe-to-toe slugfest with the defending champs. This is a team that looks to be finding themselves, and Jaylen Brown has been at the core of it all. A change of energy indeed.