How Jaylen Brown Turned His Basketball Weaknesses into Strengths

One of the most exciting aspects of NBA fandom is watching a promising young player tap into his lofty potential. Sometimes it happens in a hurry, but oftentimes it occurs incrementally.

Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown falls into the latter category, as he’s gradually grown from a high-upside-yet-erratic teenage rookie into a steady, dynamic scoring weapon.

The No. 3 pick in 2016 entered the league as a raw prospect in many ways. He was viewed as somewhat of a risky pick, with few dependable talents beyond his athleticism and cerebral approach. But Brown proceeded to exemplify the value of patience in young prospects.

He’s significantly polished most key areas of his game and developed into a 20-plus points per game scorer. All that athleticism and IQ (basketball and otherwise) have been on full display throughout, and he’s still only 23 years old. 

Before Brown was leading peaceful protests against police brutality in Atlanta during the NBA coronavirus shutdown, he was in a scoring groove. He averaged 21.8 points per game in February, notching 20-plus points in his last six games before the hiatus. He’s looking the part of a legitimate sidekick star, supporting Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker in dynamic ways.

Not every prospect lands in a strong culture with a top-tier coach, but credit Brown for capitalizing on his opportunities. To appreciate his evolution, it’s important to remember the kind of player he was in high school and college.

During his high school career in Georgia and his one-and-done NCAA campaign at California, Brown’s explosiveness was his predominant asset. His pre-NBA success leaned on physical dominance, although he offered glimpses of skill that garnered NBA Draft interest.

Dec 9, 2015; Berkeley, CA, USA; California Golden Bears forward Jaylen Brown (0) looks to pass against Incarnate Word Cardinals guard Shawn Johnson (41) in the second half at Haas Pavilion. Cal won 74-62. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Brown flashed offensive potential during his college season, but he was hardly dependable. He scored 14.6 points per game on 43.1 percent field-goal shooting and 29.4 percent from the college three-point arc. Leading up to the draft, one NBA scout expressed his concerns to Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis:

He’s an average ball-handler. He’s a below-average shooter. In AAU and college he played bully ball, but that doesn’t translate to the NBA…His basketball IQ is lacking. Special physical specimen and athlete. The trouble is when you make him go multiple directions. His last month and a half was awful. Makes me really nervous.

Some of those shortcomings were apparent during his rookie year in Boston. He displayed many of the deficiencies we often observe in young, raw prospects. However, it quickly became apparent that he was dedicated to improving and that his dexterity was conducive to development.

One of the most important fundamentals Brown has addressed over the last four years is dribbling. As a teenager, he had a rather loose handle and a predictable repertoire of ball-handling maneuvers. It also didn’t help that his decision-making was questionable, as he made frequently ill-advised forays to the bucket.

Defenders frequently picked his pocket or disrupted him on drives like this one. Watch how far he puts the ball in front of him during this rookie mistake:

Brown has since tightened his ball-handling skills and expanded his repertoire significantly. He doesn’t always try to overwhelm opponents with his athleticism and sprinkles in a lot more finesse.

Arjun Balaraman of noted that opponents often put their third or fourth-best defender on Brown because their top stoppers are busy checking Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum.

Most importantly, though, Brown’s ability to break down defenders off the dribble raises the Celtics’ collective ceiling…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.

Notice how much smoother and tighter Brown’s dribble-drives are in the following clips against the Dallas Mavericks this season. He does a much better job getting defenders off balance and protecting the ball. I’m somewhat impressed with the crossovers on the perimeter, and more encouraged by the way he keeps control through the remainder of the drive:

Brown also combined the ball-handling improvement with better shooting touch and shot selection to buoy his mid-range efficiency. His in-between game was not pretty four years ago, and so it’s extremely encouraging for Celts fans to see how much he’s progressed.

Nonetheless, he shot an anemic 30.1 percent on two-point jumpers at Cal (per Hoop Math) and didn’t do much better when arriving to Boston. Brown converted just 30.5 percent of pull-up two-pointers as a rookie, and he was below 40 percent from every interval range outside of three feet (3-10 feet, 10-16 feet, 16-feet to three-point range).

While he had the agility to rise up and get off a bunch of different shots, his choices and fundamentals were sloppy.

Take this 2016 turnaround jumper against the Cleveland Cavaliers, for example: The raw talent is there, but he could have created a better shot for himself or kicked it to a couple of different open teammates here:

As he’s ironed out his shooting form and focused on higher-quality attempts, Brown has boosted his pull-up 2-point percentage every single year. Now he’s at 45.2 percent on those shots, and that’s dramatically enhanced his per-possession effectiveness. 

Here is a side-by-side illustration of how Brown beefed up his mid-range efficiency from his rookie year to now. He’s actually turned into one of the league’s more formidable weapons inside the arc:

The upward trend from mid-range helped him post a career-best 55.2 percent on two-pointers, as well as his best true shooting mark yet (58.9 percent).

Brown is also a noticeably steadier three-point and free-throw shooter than he was a few years go. He hit 38.1 percent from distance and a career-best 73.6 percent from the free-throw line this past season.

His loftier shooting results from every level are a product of sharper fundamentals and more confidence. Brown keeps his shooting elbow tucked in more consistently, and he doesn’t rush his arm release as much as he used to. He also smoothed out his shooting release so it’s more fluid and less mechanical, which is not a transition that all prospects can make.

Given Brown’s more dependable slashing repertoire and more respected perimeter accuracy, Brad Stevens used him more interchangeably in his schemes the past couple of seasons. For example, he could deploy Brown as the initiator or a floor-spacer in his “Chin” series, depending on the situation:

Another impressive, subtle improvement lifted Brown’s scoring productivity and efficiency: He improved his per-possession free throw rate despite taking fewer attempts at the rim.

He saw a career-low 27.5 percent of his field-goal attempts within three feet of the rim, yet earned a career-high 6.1 free throws per 100 possessions. He’s making smarter drives to the rim, picking his battles more wisely and drawing contact more shrewdly. 

Again, don’t forget Brown is still just 23 years old. There is likely more scoring upside for him to discover in the next couple of years.

He could keep improving from three-point range and from the charity stripe, and his slashing game could expand as well. Whether he keeps improving depends on his individual dedication and the Celtics’ collective growth.

It’s been a treat to watch him neutralize many of his weaknesses, and even turn some of them into strengths.