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Jaylen Brown’s improvement off the dribble is raising the Celtics’ ceiling

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Jaylen Brown has improved leaps and bounds off the dribble this year, and is taking advantages of the mismatches caused by the Celtics’ versatility.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

What a roller coaster several days it has been for Jaylen Brown. After receiving word on Thursday that he would not be playing in the All-Star game this year, Brown put that disappointment behind him and earned his way to a second Eastern Conference Player of the Week award on Monday after spearheading the Celtics to a dominant 116-95 victory over the Sixers with 32 points on 13-23 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds. In what was a statement win for a Celtics team without Kemba Walker over Joel Embiid and the Sixers, the fourth-year guard dominated every match up Philadelphia threw his way, from Al Horford to Matisse Thybulle, and even All-Defensive Team candidate, Ben Simmons.

Despite the Celtics’ blistering start to the season, it was difficult to imagine them getting three All-Stars and, with Walker a near lock, the second spot was always going to be a toss-up between Brown and Tatum. Even up until just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed as though Brown might get the nod but Tatum’s improved shooting efficiency and knack for hitting big shots over the last month eventually landed him his first All-Star berth.

And while Tatum has gained most of the plaudits this year, Brown has quietly taken a huge leap himself. He isn’t hitting Tatum-level step back threes yet, but one big area of improvement for Brown this season has been his comfort level creating for himself (and others) off the dribble.

Last year, he was a bit one-dimensional when driving to the basket, but it seems as though the game has slowed down for Brown this season. He’s taking his time on drives and is manipulating the defenders into getting the shot he wants in a very Hayward-ian fashion. Creditably, Brown is improving even as he is driving more than ever, up to 8.7 drives per night this year from just 5.1 last season.

Most importantly, though, Brown’s ability to break down defenders off the dribble raises the Celtics’ collective ceiling. One of Boston’s best defensive traits is that the team is full of versatile wings easily capable of switching defensively. With Brown, Hayward, and Tatum starting on the wings, the Celtics can match up against many different kinds of looks, and JB is a big part of that. Despite being the shortest of the trio at 6-6, Brown is the heaviest at 223 pounds, and that strength allows him to size up against all sorts of 4’s, as is necessary when opposing teams go with two traditional bigs, like the Bulls or the Sixers. This defensive versatility usually leads to at least one mismatch on the other end – and it’s often for Brown, as teams focus their primary defensive stoppers on Kemba, Tatum, and more often than not, Hayward before Brown.

With predominantly third and fourth options on him, Brown has a size or speed advantage most nights, and is now showing the necessary touch to take full benefit of these mismatches. Take Saturday’s game against the Sixers for instance. Brown was matched up against former teammate, Al Horford. While Brown’s strength allows him to contain Horford on the defensive end, his speed offensively was clearly going to be too much to handle for the 33-year-old. On the very first play of the game, Brown ran him around a couple screens before pulling up for an easy, open free-throw line jumper.

One thing is obvious: Brown’s handle is much tighter this season. It’s pretty clear to those who saw him play during his first three seasons that Jaylen Brown is doing things with the ball this year that he was simply not capable of doing before. I mean, come on, this is just filthy from JB against Matisse Thybulle, no slouch himself on the defensive end.

Brown’s confidence and assertiveness on the offensive end just radiate in that clip. From the second he gets Thybulle on the switch, he looks in control and absolutely dices the defender with the hesitation.

Earlier, I mentioned the first play of Saturday’s game against the Sixers where Brown connected on a pull-up jump shot at the free throw line. The mid-range has actually been the area where Brown’s improved play off the dribble has helped him the most. After converting on just 40% of his mid-range looks last season per Cleaning the Glass, Brown is up to 47% this year, which ranks in the 89th percentile for all wings.

In terms of pull-up jump shots, Brown now has a 49.6 eFG%, which ranks 31st out of the 95 players who have taken at least 75 such attempts and is more than 7 percentage points above his 42.3 eFG% from last season. The data backs up Brown’s improved play off the dribble, too. His percentage of unassisted field goals made has skyrocketed up to 39.2% after sitting at just 32.6% last campaign, as he is creating more shots for himself off the bounce.

Thanks to the offensive weapons available at the C’s disposal, Brown will never be the focal point of opponents’ game plans, and his ability to exploit mismatches and take players off the dribble, as he has done this season, could prove vital in the playoffs when the game slows down.