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CelticsBlog exit interview: Jaylen Brown and his commitment to growing on and off the court

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Jayson Tatum’s ascension to All-NBA status could’ve overshadowed Jaylen Brown’s adjacent leap if Brown didn’t set himself apart with social commentary and a strive to lead. In a year where messaging became as consequential as the on-court product in the bubble, Brown became a critical voice.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Three Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Jaylen Brown stood up. Behind the closed doors of the two most consequential meetings in the bubble--during the NBA’s Jacob Blake protest and after Boston’s Game 3 locker room confrontation--Brown displayed his strongest skill: leadership. Both confrontations reportedly involved accountability. If the players prematurely ended the NBA season in June, would they continue their social justice fight at home? After the Celtics melted down in two consecutive games against the Heat, would Marcus Smart concede his role in the collective collapse?

Brown’s critics questioned his ability to balance those two scenarios simultaneously in 2017. Infamously deemed “too smart” with aspirations that supposedly conflicted with basketball success, Brown averaged 21.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 47.6% shooting in the playoffs. He brought concepts like incrementalism to basketball press conferences, served as an NBPA vice president, and fulfilled his on-court role as a Celtics star during the most tumultuous year in league history.

“I get this question a lot: ‘Jaylen, what do you identify as? The intellect? Or do you identify as an athlete? ... I hate the dichotomy of it,” Brown said during his Harvard University talk in 2018. “I hate the fact that it has to be one or the other. I hate the fact that there’s no possibility for both.”

Brown’s multiplicity doesn’t prove his singular greatness. More so, it dispels the notion of singularity and simplicity projected onto athletes in America. Brown has also dispelled racial misnomers in sports like “how Black athletes were typically praised for athleticism while IQ was cited for white athletes” as part of his graduate class at the University of California.

It’s not special for an athlete to be able to excel in various aspects of their life. He’s one of many who have used his profession to make a larger point about society as a whole, like how the late Chadwick Boseman talked about how the box office success of Black Panther was indicative of how an all-black cast could carry a movie. Brown should be viewed as an exception, but rather an example of taking advantage of opportunity and a public voice. Trailblazers like Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick faced harsh criticism and consequences for athletes and Brown has committed to further their mission.

“Nobody would be surprised that he’s become a voice of our locker room, a voice of our organization,” Danny Ainge said last week. “He’s in meetings with our owners and with Allison Feaster and with Dave Hoffman organizing our plans for social justice. He is special and I knew that from the first time I met him ... I’m also not surprised with the progress that he’s made as a player ... I think he’s ready to take on bigger roles and bigger opportunities.”

Brown, who made $6.5 million during this past year-long season, starts his $115 million extension next season. That contract appeared less likely for Brown one year ago. The Celtics got the deal done on the last possible day and Ainge, ensured that one of the league’s most inspirational voices and talents will be associated with Boston through his prime.

Brown averaged 19.5 points per game on 49.7% shooting and 39% from three in his first 10 games, as Tatum struggled finishing and Kemba Walker acclimated to the lead scoring role. The start of a season propelled Brown alongside PJ Tucker as the two best corner three-point shooters in the NBA.

Tatum found himself into December and formed a high-paced, athletic scoring tandem with Brown only matched by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As Tatum primed his ascent to All-NBA status, Brown’s stats also ballooned to 22.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 56% FG and 44% three-point shooting — a borderline All-Star. The two combined for 50 points six times out of 11 games that month.

Brown averaged 2.6 pick-and-roll possessions per game, double any amount he ran during his first three NBA seasons, ranking in the 56th percentile with 0.87 points per possession. The transition game remained his biggest strength, matching LeBron’s 1.23 PPP in the playoffs. He shot 42% on catch-and-shoot threes and his dribbling visibly improved.

Brown’s 1.00 PPP allowed defensively in isolation fell in line with other modern 4’s like Paul George, Anthony Davis, and Jae Crowder. Brown’s signature performances during the year included his impressive defense on James in Boston’s narrow loss to the Lakers in LA and his series-long shutdown of Pascal Siakam in round two of the playoffs. Alas, Brown would’ve guarded James in the NBA Finals.

He will factor primarily in Boston’s ability to reach that point next year. The Celtics went 17-2 when he scored 25+ points this season, including 2-1 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. In the other loss, a double overtime thriller, Brown unloaded 30 shots to score 31 points, 16 rebounds in a +4 effort that keyed Boston’s rebounding advantage throughout the playoffs.

After his confrontation with Smart after Game 2, the two found an understanding that propelled Brown to 25.3 PPG on 57% shooting for the rest of the series. The only challenge remaining for an indisputably talented core is to maintain a hierarchy that keeps Brown alongside Tatum as the engines of the offense.

“We different,” Tatum said after they Jays combined for 52 points in a win over the Pistons. “From what I can tell, he’s stronger than me, more athletic, faster, he can jump higher. We do a lot of things similar. We’ve been playing with each other for a while. We just try to feed off each other, we know what each other can do on the court. It’s still a learning experience. Hopefully we can still play with each other for a very long time. For now, just stay in the moment.”