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The case against the case against paying Jaylen Brown

Jaylen Brown isn’t a perfect player, but the Boston Celtics shouldn’t be afraid to pony up to keep him.

2019 NBA Playoffs: Milwaukee Bucks Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Several days ago, you may have read an article on CelticsBlog that suggested that the concept of paying Jaylen Brown substantial sums of money to remain on the Boston Celtics for years to come is one to be wary of. The following is a counter argument to that notion.

Before we begin, let’s agree on one thing. The author of the piece referenced above, Max Carlin, is an astute observer of the game of basketball. Many of his critiques of Brown’s game are accurate. But they’re also framed from a particular perspective. One that supposes that Brown - a young intriguing wing in the final year of his contract - is about to cash in on a major payday, but lacks the ability to grow into the kind of player that deserves oodles of cash.

There isn’t much debate to be had about the former notion. Good wings aren’t easy to come by in the NBA, especially those who are in their early 20s. They tend to be compensated accordingly. On the latter point, however - that of Brown’s potential for improvement - reasonable minds can disagree. And so we shall.

Let’s begin on the offensive side of the ball. Brown has proven himself a capable shooter, smart cutter, and occasional handful in isolation to this point in his career. His handle is admittedly limiting. Brown struggles to leverage his athleticism as a consistent on-ball threat due to a lack of comfort with the ball in his hands.

That’s concerning for a player that the Celtics may want to make a major financial commitment to, but it’s something that needs to be couched in context. Boston has asked Brown to play a specific role for the majority of his three-year career, one as a spot-up shooter with the green light to attack closeouts.

To expect him to have developed the skills of a primary offensive engine in isolation or a burgeoning pick-and-roll maestro is entirely unfair. The Celtics simply haven’t given him enough repetitions to develop in either domain in a particularly substantial way. Brown was offered the keys to the car a bit more often last year, and the results were predictably mixed.

Such is the nature of learning to play in the NBA. And yet, there are reasons for optimism. Brown is athletic enough to score in spite of his middling ball handling. Here he is drawing an and-one on Josh Hart despite a more or less failed attempt at breaking him down off the bounce.

And it’s not just in the space of transition where Brown’s athleticism allows him to access the paint despite an alleged lack of shake to his game. Take a look at how he scoots right past Kevin Durant in the half court.

There’s nothing advanced about these plays, but sometimes - often times at the game’s highest levels - basketball is primitive. Being bigger, faster, and stronger than the person in front of you has real value in the NBA, and Brown can check those boxes against most of the league. Tightening his handle and developing his off hand would go a long way towards enabling Brown to become an even more effective scorer. Those are both things that can be improved upon.

There is enough evidence of Brown’s limited development as ball handler to remain skeptical, though, and even if he makes meaningful strides, he hasn’t shown the necessary passing accumen to suggested he could function as the primary focal point of an offense. Such is the most frightening thing about paying Brown.

He struggles with decision making, in particular making complex reads or recovering from broken plays. Give him a simple decision and he’ll make the right choice no problem.

But make one pass a little bit off target, and suddenly Brown is scrambling, missing multiple opportunities to create good looks, and tossing up ill-advised shots.

Plays like the above combine with strikingly low assist numbers to cause some serious dread among those who believe big contracts should only go to perimeter players capable of being number one options, high-level facilitators, and game-changing defensive bigs. And while there is a ton of value in all of those player archetypes, they aren’t the only means of bringing substantial, positive value to a team.

Brown isn’t ever going to be James Harden or LeBron James, slinging around off-hand skip passes or dropping beautiful pocket passes through razor-thin margins. Some players just have a preternatural ability to facilitate offense. Brown isn’t one of them, but that doesn’t preclude him from improving to be at least a decent decision maker. Feel for the game isn’t stagnant.

Every single player in the NBA improves their ability to read defenses, make complex passes, and improve their judgement about when to shoot, drive, or pass over time. Brown is no different. And to suggest he has no feel for the game based on his decision making alone to this point of his young career is unfair.

Brown’s scoring numbers off cuts aren’t impressive - a result of somewhat limited finishing ability - but he’s got a knack for sneaking through defenses off the ball that represents an intuitive understanding of where to be on the court.

He could benefit substantially from working on controlling his body by the basket, and desperately needs to improve his free throw shooting to take advantage of fouls he draws both as the result of cuts and all aspects of his game. Brown ranks in the 84th percentile among his positional peers on the percentage of shots on which he draws fouls, per Cleaning the Glass.

That’s an extremely encouraging number, particularly given the fact that he has so much room for improvement in his off-the dribble-game. Free throws are the most efficient shot in basketball if you can knock them down at a reasonable rate. Brown can’t. He made just 65.6% of his attempts from the stripe.

Improving that percentage should be one of the easier fixes a player can make, and Brown is still a slightly above average offensive player from an efficiency standpoint despite his inability to consistently knock down freebies. If he can boost his free throw percentage and improve his handle, suddenly Brown will have a number of tools to work with.

He’s been slowly developing an interesting little game in the mid-post. Tough fadeaways are never going to be the central component of Boston’s offense, but asking Brown for a bucket on the block can be a fall back when the Celtics are struggling to generate offense elsewhere.

It can also serve as a means of compensating for Brown’s limitations as a facilitator from the top of the key. Boston ran actions to give Brown simple reads from the post with some frequency last year. Shortening the distance between him and the hoop and decreasing the number of variables that might cause a challenging decision.

Again, that’s not a sustainable overall offensive model, but it is a useful wrinkle, and it’s something that Brown can use to build other parts of his game off of. Put a bigger player on him to slow him down on the interior, and he’s developed enough of a pull-up game to make you second guess such a strategy.

If you find yourself sitting here uninspired and unconvinced at this point, you probably aren’t alone. There’s nothing particularly polished about Brown’s offensive game at the moment, and the thought of paying him large dollars to develop to a point where things are a bit more refined may be something to balk at. But we’ve only considered half the game so far.

Defense has been and always will be where Brown’s greatest potential lies. Brown is long and strong, and has the quick feet needed to stay in front of all but the most lightning fast of players. He’s not yet a true lockdown perimeter defender, but he has all the tools to become one.

He can stay with lead guards step-for-step.

Take a shot from big wings without getting knocked off balance.

Even stand up to most bigs in the post with relative effectiveness.

However, he falls asleep too often away from the ball, but Brown isn’t a zero as a help defender. He’s got the burst to zip into passing lanes and steal lazy passes, which he frequently turns into transition opportunities.

He’s even got decent timing coming off his man to block shots, though whether or not he always makes the right decision to do so is another matter.

Brown needs to be more consistent defensively. He overhelps, overplays his man, and commits stupid fouls too frequently. Those are hallmarks of a young player, however, and if you are able to look past them you can see the outline of a special defensive player.

And that brings us to the crux of the debate about whether or not Boston should pony up to keep Brown in the fold. Let’s say he realizes his full defensive potential, but remains mostly a spot-up shooter offensively. Is that player worth a $20+ million contract? Lockdown wings are extremely useful, but they’re not nearly as impactful as the best defensive bigs in the game.

What if he grows to be an above average isolation scorer capable of handling a substantial offensive burden every night, but never quite gets to his ceiling defensively? What if he grows on both ends and becomes the league’s next awesome two-way wing, a la Jimmy Butler or Paul George? (Sorry to those dreaming he could be Kawhi Leonard 2.0. That guy is an entirely different species of player).

What if he’s something totally different than any of those options? Perhaps there are more likely outcomes in which Brown fails to be worth a big deal, but there is almost no scenario in which he isn’t at least a useful player, even if he becomes an overpaid one.

He’s just about to turn 23, and he’s already proven a capable option in multiple playoff runs. You can choose to see him as something of a developed quantity - just an athlete with too many holes in his game. Alternatively, you can opt to view Brown as a competent two-way wing with lots of room to grow into something more.

The latter seems worth a roll of the dice, particularly given the Celtics’ financial situation. They won’t have cap room next summer, even if they let Brown walk. The same is true the following year, assuming they pony up for Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward opts into his contract, both exceedingly likely.

Once Hayward is off the books in 2022-23, Boston could maneuver its way to some pretty significant space that a big contract to Brown might eliminate. Doing so would require cutting bait with Marcus Smart (again assuming Tatum has a nice fat deal on the books), even without Brown on the roster.

It’s never folly to plan three years in advance, but to determine that Brown won’t be worth paying upwards of $25 million by that time seems premature. The Celtics can simply let this year play out, gather a bit more intel, and then make a determination on how to proceed. The alternative approach would be to trade him.

Boston should certainly entertain that possibility if the right package comes along, particularly one that might bring some positional balance to the roster, but it’s unclear that Brown would be able to fetch a return that offers more in the way of long-term potential than simply re-signing him this summer.

Brown has a strong foundation to build from, a willingness to push himself to improve, and raw athleticism that is incredibly hard to replicate. That’s an awful lot to opt not to keep.

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