The 2020-21 Boston Celtics roster was no stranger to injury woes, as they struggled through a snake-bitten season that saw them lead the NBA in games missed due to injury/COVID by a substantial margin. Rotation consistency was nonexistent, with players shuttling in and out of the lineup on a regular basis. Through it all, though, Jaylen Brown was one of the few constants, having avoided COVID or significant injury to be one of the team’s few consistently available players.
At least, until he wasn’t anymore. As the calendar turned to May, the Celtics were struck by the most brutal hammer blow of the year: Brown’s season was over. The 24-year-old wing suffered a torn ligament in his wrist late in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and just a few short games later, he was done for the year.
The injury put a sobering end to what was otherwise a truly revelatory season for Brown, who, for the second year in a row, put together a season worthy of some level of Most Improved Player consideration. In 2019-20, the leap was Brown growing into a legitimate top two/three scoring option — rediscovering his jump shot, finishing plays efficiently, attacking the rim. He outgrew concerns about his offensive talent that took root the season before to illustrate that he could score dependably in a play finisher role.
This season, the growth may have seemed a little more subtle, but it was arguably more important by a sizable margin. This was the season that Brown grew from “solid starter” to “NBA All-Star,” proving in the process that he’s capable of being top-shelf talent for an NBA playoff team. So in what areas did that growth come from?
It starts with Brown’s shift from play finisher to play initiator, which is perhaps the single most important development for any star caliber NBA wing. He’s always been effective at the rim and behind the three-point arc, but those looks have traditionally been set up for him, be it by Marcus Smart or Al Horford or someone else. Taking that next step and creating good offense with the ball in his hands was a crucial development. The jump in his efficiency as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll (from 0.87 points per possession last year to 1.02 this year) is emblematic of his newfound ability to lead the dance.
Brown’s bag has expanded, as well. Last season, he added a reasonably reliable mid-range jumper to his arsenal, shooting 44% between 10 feet to the three-point line. This season, he matured that shot into a legitimate weapon, ticking that number up to 48% on higher volume, with a lower percentage of those looks coming off assists. That improved pick-and-roll efficiency comes into play here: coming off a screen, he can get to his midrange almost any time he wants.
This new level of shot creation translated behind the three-point arc, as well. Though he’ll never create three-point looks at the level Jayson Tatum does (precious few NBA players can), Brown made some inroads towards improving in that regard. In the 2019-20 season, 89.5% of his three-point makes came off of assists; this year, he shaved nearly a full 10% off that number with a rate of 79.8%.
He’s still an elite catch-and-shoot threat first and foremost — he hit just 31% of his pull-up threes this season, compared to a 43.1% rate on catch-and-shoot attempts — but it’s still a new dimension to his game that will pay dividends, especially in the playoffs.
No small part of all this scoring growth is that Brown looked like a completely different guy creating off the dribble this season. He’s grown remarkably confident with the ball in his hands, with a more effective handle than we’ve ever seen from him previously. Kyrie Irving’s time in Boston may have been mostly fraught, but you can still see some of his more positive influence when Brown is busting out dribble moves like this.
Offensively, this has been what separated Brown and Tatum as scorers. Tatum’s burgeoning ability to self-create shots via his signature step-back/side-step threes has been crucial towards his development into one of the league’s great scorers, and Brown has needed some dependable moves of his own to ascend as an offensive weapon.
Brown still isn’t the scorer that Tatum is, but putting all this together means he’s now more of an “Option 1B” than “Option 2.” Adding the pick-and-roll ball handling and shot creating on top of his already established proficiencies at finishing at the rim and scoring efficiently off the ball from three makes him a legitimate three-level scorer. His 58.8% effective field goal percentage ranked 50th in the NBA this year, ahead of more renowned scorers like Paul George, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Luka Dončić.
This newly realized version of Jaylen Brown was one that carried the Celtics for stretches of time while the team struggled with constant absences related to COVID exposures and injuries. The apex of his season arguably came in April, when he shot 50% from the field and 43% from three across 13 games, while cracking 30 points in a game four times (including a monstrous 40-point, 17-of-20 shooting performance against the Los Angeles Lakers), all despite battling through multiple nagging injuries (including the wrist injury that eventually ended his season).
The question is: what can Brown add next? With him having reached a bona fide All-Star level of play this past season, the avenues for improvement are becoming more specific. His performance on the defensive end still needs work, for starters. He has a reputation as a strong on-ball defender, and he largely is one, but he still remains something of a detriment defending away from the ball in a team context.
Beyond that, there’s always more room to grow as a creator, and with the Celtics’ having struggled to move the ball at times this season, Brown improving further as a passer can only help. His career-high 16.5% assist rate this season was a good start in that regard. Ticking those pull-up three-pointers into the mid-30% range would also be a valuable weapon.
Moving forward, the Celtics doubtless hope that Brown’s wrist injury has fully healed by the beginning of the 2021-2022 season. It’s the same injury that held Romeo Langford out from the bubble playoffs through more than half of this past season, with the major difference being that Langford injured his shooting wrist, while Brown injured his off-hand side. He had successful surgery in mid-May, and the early expectation is a return to basketball activity three months after the surgery.
Assuming he returns in good health, there’s plenty of reason for excitement about Jaylen Brown next season. He has grown almost exponentially season-to-season over the past few years, and the bar for him now rests comfortably at perennial All-Star level performance. It’s unfortunate that he did not get the opportunity to showcase his development on the postseason stage, but with better fortune in the season to come, he’ll have another opportunity to put the league on notice on the biggest stage before too much longer.