When free agents sign contracts, NBA team PR staffers usually get busy crafting a cocky “look at how good our signing is” press release. But when Jaylen Brown signed his behemoth 4-year, $115 million extension in October, the Boston Celtics’ statement read like one big backhanded compliment.
“Jaylen is a true professional who did a great job accepting his role last season, and he is a major part of our championship goals,” said Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge.
The context, of course, is that Boston’s dysfunctional 2018-19 season—rife with egos, short on success—was particularly hard on Brown. He flitted in and out of the starting lineup, and his shooting and defense regressed from his breakout sophomore campaign.
No matter. After Ainge’s nine-figure bet, the fourth-year swingman has boomeranged back to form in 2019-20.
He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals while posting a phenomenal 62 percent true shooting number. Forget “accepting his role.” The Celtics may soon have to mention a 2020 All-Star Game appearance on press releases about Brown.
But here’s the thing: His role hasn’t really changed. Relegated mostly to spot-up duty and transition sprints last year, the Georgia native looked disengaged and uncomfortable. He’s playing more minutes this season, sure, but Boston’s offseason overhaul hasn’t suddenly thrust the ball into his hands.
Isolations, pick-and-rolls, and handoffs—the staples of a superstar diet—account for less than a quarter of Brown’s possessions, per NBA Stats. His usage rate sits at 23.9, up just a tick from last season’s 22.1. Current teammates Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward and even Marcus Smart all get more touches. And when Walker sits, Brad Stevens normally taps Tatum, not Brown, to carry the bench mob.
Instead of changing his role, he’s mastered it.
No player in the NBA finishes more spot-up possessions than the 23-year-old. And he ranks in the 88th percentile in efficiency on those plays, pouring in 1.22 points per possession. It doesn’t hurt that he’s making 40 percent of his treys, including half of his corner looks. Stevens is even using him as a screener to free him up for open above-the-break triples:
But after several hundred NBA attempts, we already knew the shot was legit. The new stuff is what’s exciting.
Defenders who close out too eagerly have no chance against Brown this year. His pump fake is Oscar-worthy but keeps him low to the ground and ready to pounce. Depending on how scrambled the defense is, he can leverage it into either an open side-step three or an unstoppable sprint to the hoop:
When defenders are a little more tepid, the 6’7” youngster whips out the advanced stuff.
Once lax and elementary, his handle has tightened to the point where he can generate decent shots even against defenders he can’t outmuscle or outrun. The dude has built up an arsenal of in-and-out dribbles and crossovers that look almost tailor-made to use after snagging an errant pass:
For the first time in his career, Brown is totally under control when he breaches the arc. Instead of flailing up shots on the move, he uses smooth footwork to get to his spot and rise up in-rhythm. That patience is paying off to the tune of 47 percent shooting on pull-up twos.
More importantly, he’s dominating at the rim. A nuclear athlete with a chiseled frame and a 7-foot wingspan, the 2016 draftee has always looked the part of an elite finisher. But his rushed drives often knocked him off balance and limited his effectiveness at the hoop. He’d pair highlight dunks with no-prayer bricks off the backboard.
Now, those zero-G hops only get unleashed in transition. Once in the half court, he’s honed an old man head-fake and hop-step game that opens up his right hand and spooks defenders into an early jump:
That little bit of guile, not to mention some much-improved touch off the glass, have boosted his percentages around the rim from the mid-60s to 72 percent, an elite figure for a swingman.
These skills should transfer over to more on-ball work.
A litany of star wings—from Paul George and Jimmy Butler to Kawhi Leonard and Victor Oladipo—were 3-and-D types before assembling all the pieces and making the final leap. But that quartet is far from the norm, and Brown’s head-down style and lack of natural playmaking nous have long been his biggest weaknesses. He has more turnovers than assists in his young career to date.
Ask him to dissect the very best defenses and you’ll come away disappointed:
There are flashes, yes. Brown is an aforementioned terror in transition, and Stevens has empowered him to corral rebounds and take off. He’s the most efficient player in the NBA on post-ups (caution: itty bitty sample). He can roast switching bigs in isolation or make simple reads in the two-man game:
But in a league of heliocentric offenses predicated on a short list of simple, ruthlessly perfected actions—think Harden’s iso or Luka’s pick-and-roll—Brown instead feasts in chaos.
He relishes a scrambling defense, or a transition sprint, or a scrum around the rim. You’re not going to call a play for him to initiate offense in crunch time. But, on the flip side, he’ll grift his way to 20-plus points without ever having to call a play for him.
In recent memory, Danilo Gallinari is the only perimeter player to have put up as many points per 100 possessions as Brown (29.8) on as low usage (23.9). Beyond Gallo, you have to go back to prime Peja Stojaković or Hall-of-Famers Reggie Miller and Adrian Dantley to find wings who have done more with less. Maybe that’s not really what stardom is nowadays, but it’s still useful.
To be fair, the kid wasn’t ever designated to be Boston’s Next Big Thing. He’s played on late-round playoff teams every year of his career, chipping in with energy, shooting, and stout, versatile defense. That tightly defined role has likely limited his first-option instincts—or at least how much we see of them.
On the other hand, he’s become a no-fuss contributor who can slot into star-studded lineups and still make a positive impact on both ends.
If that’s his ceiling, those shiny new paychecks won’t look too bad for Boston. Wings are in demand around the league, and, even on his new deal, the Celtics man is slated to make significantly less than Khris Middleton, CJ McCollum, Tobias Harris or Andrew Wiggins.
He’s younger and may already be better than all those dudes.
But perhaps his across-the-board improvements and flashes of playmaking ability are signs of untapped potential. Maybe we’re just scratching the surface, and Brown will soon outgrow the role he’s made his own.
Nate Wolf is an NBA writer with bylines at The Basketball Writers, NBA Math, and BBall Index, among other places. He is also a Marcus Smart devotee who’s never seen a flop he didn’t respect. Follow him on Twittter at @NateWolfNBA.