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Jaylen Brown’s defense is still developing

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Jaylen holds his own as an individual defender, but his team defense is still a work in progress.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Brown’s reputation as a defender exceeds his abilities to some extent. He’s a sturdy on-ball defender, but gets caught with his pants down off the ball too often to be considered elite although I thought he showed some real improvement on this road trip.

The idea of basketball being a make-or-miss sport can apply to the defensive end as well. Defensive possessions can be results-based and binary, meaning you either react in time to prevent a basket or you don’t. This is where we see the tale of two Jaylens.

Here’s a play where LeBron James catches four Celtics off guard for an easy cut:

I wouldn’t strictly blame Jaylen here with all of Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Daniel Theis in the vicinity to potentially cut him off. Still, I’ll point out that Jaylen completely turns his back to LeBron while double-teaming Anthony Davis, which encourages LeBron to cut. Any number of Celtics could have been the more ideal help defender to stop him, but Brown’s positioning might have prevented the play before it happened.

Another example from Utah:

This is arguably worse team defense than before, as Mitchell blows by all five Celtics. Again, it’s not solely on Jaylen to clean this up, but as the last line of defense I’d say he had enough time to react to the drive. Giving up a corner three as a result is a calculated risk I’d be willing to take if Mitchell is forced to pass with 1.7 on the clock, leaving Georges Niang with no choice but to rush the shot.

Here’s Jaylen helping Romeo Langford defend LeBron on a post-up:

It’s a much different scenario, but you can see Jaylen repeatedly checking on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the corner as LeBron starts to make his move. It’s also a lot clearer this time around that he was the only one in position to help if Romeo needed it. Still, it’s an example of what we’d like to see more of from Jaylen if he’s going to live up to his reputation. Right now, he benefits immensely from playing alongside Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, and Tatum who’ve been unquestionably better on the defensive end this year.

Remember when Terry Rozier was top-10 in a bunch of defensive metrics while playing big minutes for the Celtics? Brown is infinitely better, but the idea still stands. The Celtics have a defensive infrastructure that hides individual weaknesses remarkably well.

As an on-ball defender, Jaylen does much better, although he consistently makes one key mistake: buying up-fakes. He’s been better recently, however:

Last year, this is 100% an and-1 opportunity for Mitchell. Here’s a much tougher assignment:

Jaylen is a study one-on-one one defender whose stats are probably hurt by the task of guarding larger players. In four games against the 76ers (the only team Boston has played four times this year), Brown has guarded Tobias Harris for over nine minutes, giving up about 15 pounds. Harris shot 2-11 in these minutes, so the stats favor Brown in this case. He also held Kristaps Porzingis to 3-9 shooting over 8:25 across two games.

In general, the individual matchup numbers are pretty mixed, as you’ll see:

via stats.nba.com

Brown is 22-years-old with room to grow, but this season could be a decent snapshot of what should be a long career. One thing we know right now is that he doesn’t have Marcus Smart’s defensive instincts, so he probably won’t become a skeleton key to guard all five positions, but that doesn’t mean he won’t grow into it.

I hate the idea of putting ceilings on athletes, but if I had to put one on Brown’s defense, I’d say he could get about 20% better than he is now. He’s got the foot speed to switch onto guards, the strength to bang with power forwards, and decent enough awareness to help off the ball. If anything, I think he learns to leverage his strength to gain better position, just like he does on his short mid-range shots and post-ups.

Physical developments aside, I trust Jaylen to improve on defense because of his work ethic. He’s the only player besides Smart I would make this type of claim for, and the true source of improvement in my mind is learning through endless repetition and failure. Brown is definitely someone who can analyze his own shortcomings, so I think he’ll work out the last of his poor defensive tendencies soon.