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Learning to adapt with Jaylen Brown

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The year may not have gone as planned for Jaylen Brown, but history shows that that’s when he does his best work.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

From the outside looking in, this has been a new experience for Jaylen Brown. In his first two years, the big question that was considered in Jaylen Brown’s development was “how high?” This year, we’ve added the caveat of fitting that into a championship-level team. The balance is tough and one that Kyrie Irving laid out eloquently to Jackie MacMullan in December:

“It’s not about how many shots he’s making or percentages or stats or anything like that. Now it’s about, ‘How do you get out of your own way to become the best version of yourself in an environment with other great players?’ You’re not in an environment where we can wait around for you. You’re not surrounded by decent players who you will automatically play over, no matter how you perform. Now you have to work because other guys are putting in their work, trying to accomplish a goal bigger than themselves. The beautiful thing about Jaylen is he’s smart enough to figure this out. He’s in a transitional year.”

The challenge for Brown on its surface sounds like a brand new thing, but in reality, it’s been the same theme that has followed in his short NBA career: the ability to adapt.

One of the rare traits Brown possesses is his ability to progress very quickly in short periods of time. Starting from his rookie year, Brown was behind the likes of Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Jonas Jerebko, and at times, even Gerald Green. Because of the limited space, whenever Brown got into the game, he was tasked with defending first and foremost, but a mistake on the defensive end always led to an immediate substitution.

As Gerald Green recalls, “Jaylen didn’t know the [defensive] rotations, the guys would get on him. I pulled Jaylen aside and told him, ‘They just want you to be better.’ To his credit, he didn’t say, ‘F--- this, I don’t want to be everyone’s punching bag.’ Instead, he said, ‘OK, I understand.’”

Brown was able to turn himself into a 38.5% shooter from three after the All-Star break and became a positive on the defensive end. Then, when he seldom played against the Bulls or Wizards in the teams first two rounds in the playoffs, he continued to stay focused and had a critical Game 7 performance to secure the Celtics trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017.

In Year Two, he was given the starting job after Smart personally bowed out because he felt he could make a bigger impact with the team’s second unit. Even then, his job was largely going to be defense with Stevens going out of his way to say Brown needed to become a lock down defender for the team. But within minutes of the start of Brown’s sophomore season, Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and Brown’s responsibility suddenly increased. Then when Kyrie went down with a knee injury before the playoffs, his responsibility increased even more.

How did he respond? With Irving he averaged 14.1 ppg (second leading scorer on the team), 5.2 rpg, while shooting 37.3% from three on 4.4 attempts. From the time Irving went down till the end of the regular season he averaged 17.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game while shooting a ridiculous 57.1% from three on 3.9 attempts. In the playoffs, he averaged 18 ppg, 4.8 rpg, and shot 39.3% from three on 6.2 attempts. He also became the youngest Celtic ever to score 30 plus points in a playoff game.

It was during that time where Brown also showed some creativity as a guy who could possibly create for others and himself in a way that was not reasonably projectable or expected in his second season. Here, he runs a pick-and-pop to perfection with Aron Baynes, keeping C.J. McCollum on his back while making Jusuf Nurkic commit before giving it to Baynes for a clean look:

In two years, Brown has had his role changed numerous times in his NBA career and has always responded by rising to the occasion and then some. This year, the battle is different but the war is the same: how can you adapt to this team?

The turn of the new year has been kind to him in this regard. During this time, Brown has averaged 13.9 ppg, 4.6r pg, shot 70% from the free throw line (which would be a career-high), brought his 3P% up to a respectable 36.5%, and he has the highest net rating among rotation players on the team (6.6) via NBA Stats. Brown is also 6th among guards with at least 4 attempts at the rim at FG% in the restricted Area (66.4%) and 10th in FG% in the non- restricted Area paint attempts (41.9%).

Heading into his rookie season, Brown worked with Jimmy Butler’s trainer Chris Johnson who told Sports Illustrated this about Jaylen Brown’s offensive potential:

“For a kid like Jaylen, it’s footwork, balance. His ability to play off the catch. His ability to get into an attack position and score efficiently off of one and two dribbles. You don’t get a bunch of dribbles in the NBA. I also feel like Jaylen has an opportunity to be able to have a deadly mid-post game. Like other big guards — right now Jimmy (Butler) is really deadly on his mid-post game.”

Brown’s work with his team and a guest appearance from Tracy McGrady seemed to focus on utilizing the mid-post as a counter to attacking a clogged lanes and opening up his game a little more in general. Via Cleaning the Glass, Brown’s “short mid” attempts have jumped from 12% of his mid-range looks last year to 20% of them now. Of those attempts, he’s in the 74th percentile. In other words, it has been a reliable weapon for him.

Brown’s athleticism, strength, and balance give him the natural foundation to be a mismatch concern for opposing teams and this year, he improved his footwork and balance which allows him to utilize his high release point and hang time to be where he gets his best separation.

He’s also been able to show some counters that indicate he’s reading the defense rather than just settling for the shot. This play against the Nets was a great display of footwork and reading the shot blocker.

Outside of an improved mid-post game, Brown has made great strides in ball-handling decisions. The numbers don’t show themselves in assist numbers (has averaged 1.2 apg during this stretch which would be his career average), but it does play a part to why early in the year the offense was the worst when Brown was on the floor and how now it goes up a tick when he comes in the game.

Early in the year, Brown (and other Celtics) played offense like they were taking turns and not trying to get in each others way rather than playing off each other like most imagined would naturally happened. Brown got caught up in that himself and it led him into one of his worst habits of prematurely deciding to try to score rather than reading the floor. Here’s a play from December:

As soon as Marcus Morris passes Brown the ball, he had already made his mind up to try and score and only made the (inaccurate) pass when he realized he couldn’t get a shot for himself.

Compare that to this where Brown could have forced the issue in a semi-transition opportunity, but instead slowed down, passed back to the lead guard, and allowed the team to run offense in which he ended up being the beneficiary.

Or this where rather than holding on to the ball and trying to take on a mismatch on his own, he found the cutting Kyrie, kept moving after the pass, and ended up getting his second consecutive three.

These plays don’t end in assists or anything in the box score other than a made shot for Brown, but it’s those choices to play off your teammates that allow the Celtics offense to become dangerous when he’s in the game.

Things could always be better. He still doesn’t get to the line enough and his three-point shooting has improved from earlier in the year but is still behind his elite clip from last season. But he’s learning how to add value to a championship-level a team and though the role might not be ideal, he seems to be approaching it with the right mindset and let the world know he was on his recent interview with The Jump.

“It’s a lot, It’s a lot, I'm not going to lie to you. Mentally, Physically, everything. It’s just about adjusting to the league, as part of this business that we’re in is being mature and handling it the right way, be a professional and stuff like that so I've [taken] it and I've learned and it’s actually made me a lot better as a basketball player and as a person than I expected.”

As the playoffs come around, Brown is continuing to trend up as he successfully adapts to the new set of circumstances that were provided for him. It might not have been the cards he expected, but it’s the card he was dealt, and as Brown’s career has shown thus far, this is where he does his best work.