Personally, I dislike any narrative that pits Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum against each other, and I seriously dislike the talk of who is the Boston Celtics' primary and secondary options. Sure, I’ve partaken in those discussions, and I have my opinions, but the truth is, both Tatum and Brown are among the best wings in the NBA, they just get their buckets in different ways.
That’s where the problem is, though. We see Tatum bringing the ball up the court, initiating the offense, attacking double teams, and breaking opponents down off the dribble. We also see Tatum drawing foul after foul, and creating shooting opportunities out of nothing. And that sets the tone for what we expect from Brown.
However, Brown is not the same player.
His skill set is different, he excels at different things and needs to be utilized in a different way. Brown isn’t the guy you want regularly initiating the offense — he can do it, but it’s not where he’s at his best. He’s also not the guy you want trying to create his own shots multiple times per game. And you most certainly don’t want Brown looking to push the pace as the ball-handler — that’s when his dribble becomes problematic.
For the past 2 years, I’ve repeatedly stated my belief that Brown is better served being utilized as a ‘play finisher,’ that thought process has received its fair share of pushback, and that’s fair. However, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Brown’s best games are coming when he’s utilized in a finisher role, and the burden of creation is taken off his shoulders.
One thing that Brown has improved on tremendously in recent seasons is his ability to absorb and finish through contact, and it can be seen in the above play. Curling off a weak side stagger screen, Brown gets the ball at the top of the perimeter and begins a straight line drive to the hoop, taking a bump whilst in the air but still getting the shot to fall. This type of possession is play finisher-esque, Boston put the ball in Brown’s hands, in an area where they know he’s effective, and let him go to work, with little-to-no need for him to focus on manipulating the defense.
We see a similar outcome on this possession. This time, Brown is ‘stampede cutting’ (a fancy way of saying cutting towards the rim without the ball) also known as a ‘slot drive,’ with Marcus Smart running the offense, a quick pocket pass allows Brown to gather the ball and explode to the rim to finish off the offensive possession.
Brown came into the league billed as an athletic slasher, so it’s no surprise that he excels in this area, especially now he’s added size and strength to his frame and understands how to attack defenders with angles and explosiveness. Still, Brown is far more than just a straight-line driver, and the Celtics ensure his offense reflects that.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Brown is currently averaging 50% shooting in the mid-range, ranking him in the 88th percentile among NBA wings.
Above, we can see how the Celtics utilized a dribble hand-off between Derrick White and Brown, with the idea being to send Brown ‘middle’. After contemplating shooting a 3, Brown attacks the defense before pulling up for a jumper around the nail. You can see the gravity Brown holds as a mid-range shooter by watching how the Mavericks' defense looks to dig from the wings and step into his shooting pocket with Luka Doncic looking to close down the space.
Here we see a similar possession when Brown comes off the Smart screen with the view to getting the ball while curling into the mid-range area, looking to shoot off the catch and put the defense on skates. Of course, if somebody was cutting baseline, Brown would also have had the passing option, should he feel it necessary.
All of this is to say that Brown is often at his best when the rock is put in his hands for one specific reason: to score. When you remove the additional burden that comes with being tasked as a playmaker or play initiator, you’re freeing Brown to be the best version of himself and lean into his elite skill set as a versatile three-level scorer.
“The things that he’s doing when he’s at his best, is the same thing JT’s doing at his. You know, JT has been in the talks for the MVP race, and when JB is playing the way he’s playing at his highest peak, he’s in that race too…We got two sharpshooters that can do some damage. So, I’m saying, when JB is playing at his highest, he’s an MVP candidate as well,” Smart said.
Of course, there are times when Brown can create for himself and be successful when doing so, yet, the more you can reduce these moments, the more effective they’ll be, as defenses gear themselves up to contest the shot, drive or rip-through, or look to kill a passing lane if the ball is in rotation.
After defending Brown as a play finisher for the entire game, we saw the Celtics wing shock, Luka, by self-creating off the dribble, creating all the space he needed with a behind-the-back crossover before sealing the Mavericks superstar to his outside hip and opening up a straight line to the bucket.
If Brown had been operating as a primary ball-handler for most of the game, odds are that Luka is expecting Brown to attack, calls for a help defender, and forces Brown to play through traffic, knowing that’s when he’s most susceptible to turning the ball over.
Just to reiterate, I’m not saying that Brown isn’t capable of playing in a similar role to Tatum, rather, I’m saying that he doesn’t have to. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with accepting that your strengths are both different and complementary, especially when the results are so clearly defined.
I’m not going to stop labeling Brown as a play finisher, however, I do hope that the label isn’t seen as a negative connotation, or dismissive of his overall skillset. All I’m saying is if I want someone finishing off a transition play, attacking off the catch, or completing a set where the defense is in some kind of motion, I’m looking for Brown before anyone else.
After all, as we saw against Denver, and have seen multiple times this season, Brown can get buckets when his role is to score the rock and defend.