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Jaylen Brown’s next act: playmaker

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With Gordon Hayward gone, the Celtics might need to put the ball in Brown’s hands more often this season and beyond.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Days after the Celtics bowed out of the Orlando bubble in a 125-113 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told the media he believed Jaylen Brown was ready to take the next step.

“I’m also not surprised by the progress he’s made as a player and how good a player he’s becoming right before our eyes,” Ainge said while discussing what Brown has done as an activist for social change. “I think he’s ready to take on bigger roles, bigger opportunities and I couldn’t be happier to have him on the Boston Celtics and be with him at this time of his career.”

Indeed, Brown has drastically improved since arriving in Boston as a raw, athletic wing out of California-Berkeley back in 2016, particularly as a shooter and in transition, where his handle has tightened enough for him to not only lead the fast break but finish those opportunities himself.

But what’s next for Brown? That question may have been answered for him when Gordon Hayward opted out of the final year of his deal with the Celtics and agreed to a four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets. With him went a lot of ball handling responsibilities, and while a lot of those will surely be divvied up between Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and the newly-signed Jeff Teague, it’s fair to think Brown might be in line for some leftovers, too.

Considering the pick-and-roll is such a huge part of the Celtics’ offense, it makes sense to start there. Boston used the play type with the sixth-highest frequency this past year and finished tied for second with the Dallas Mavericks in points per possession at 0.98. Hayward was a big part of that. He spent 230 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball handler (third-most on the team) and his role as a tertiary creator in these situations will need to be replaced.

Brown saw a massive leap in his usage in that role from 2018-19 to 2019-20, going from 58 possessions to 147. Though the actual production didn’t change much from one year to the next (0.85 PPP in 18-19; 0.87 PPP in 19-20), his numbers this past year weren’t far off from Hayward’s.

2019-20 Pick-And-Roll Ball Handler

Player Possessions PPP Percentile
Player Possessions PPP Percentile
Gordon Hayward 230 0.89 61.1
Jaylen Brown 147 0.87 56.3

That, of course, isn’t to say Brown is the playmaker Hayward is at this stage. What it does say, though, is that Brown might not have much further to go to at least replicate what Hayward did for the Celtics’ offense in that specific role. Where Brown lacks in making some advanced reads, he more than makes up for it with his ability to put pressure on defenses with his athleticism.

What that does is force teams to make tough decisions. When Brown gets downhill, do they stay at home and allow him to attack his defender one-on-one or do they rotate over in help to take his driving lanes away and make him find the open man, trusting that he might be just as likely to set up a teammate as he is to turn the ball over (2.2 assists to 2.3 turnovers for his career).

You see it happen here against the Toronto Raptors. Brown snakes around the screen set by Daniel Theis and finds just Marc Gasol standing between him and the basket with plenty of runway in front of him. Kyle Lowry rotates ever so slightly to deter the drive, leaving Hayward open and with just enough time to get a shot off before Lowry recovers. It’s not an advanced read by any means, but it’s proof Brown is capable of making the simple play. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed.

If for whatever reason Brad Stevens isn’t 100% comfortable with Brown working in these sets on a more full-time basis just yet, there are other ways to get him involved as a playmaker.

In a similar vein to the pick-and-roll, the Celtics can put Brown in positions where he has free reign to attack the basket off the bounce on drives. He averaged 8.5 drives per game last season, passing out 29.8% of the time for 0.5 assists and 0.6 turnovers.

Again, not great numbers by any means. The film is more encouraging, though, as it shows his ability to suck in the big man and dump off passes to his teammates at just the right time so that a recovery is nearly impossible.

Here, the Celtics catch the Washington Wizards a little out of sorts in semi-transition. Walker swings to Brown, who then uses his superior speed to blow by Rui Hachimura on his way to the basket. Thomas Bryant sees that and rotates over to prevent Brown from throwing down an easy dunk, with Brown waiting for Bryant to completely commit to him before making the dump off to Enes Kanter for the easy two.

Up by fourteen, this is the simple play to make. Perhaps in a different situation, Brown would have recognized Isaiah Thomas coming down towards the paint and fired a kick-out pass to Carsen Edwards for the wide open three.

The hope is that Brown can continue to make the right reads with the ball in his hands and add more nuance as he continues to improve without taking any massive steps back as his volume increases. He’s an extremely smart individual both on and off the court, so it seems like the safe bet is that he’ll be able to make that happen.

The abbreviated offseason certainly didn’t give him—or most players—enough time to really make big strides, but we’ll find out in due time. I expect Brown to really surprise a lot of people this season with his ability to create for himself and others as a more ball-dominant player. He’s incredibly gifted athletically and that alone makes him a threat with the ball. It’ll be up to him to do the right thing with it.