Sixety-four days is not a long off-season for an NBA player, let alone for a player that’s as busy as Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics.
But only nine weeks separated Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the last game of the Celtics’ 2019-20 season, and the day individual player workouts were due to begin. On that day, December 1, Brown was speaking with a NASA Goddard panel about education inequality, capping off a year in which the 24-year-old forward has been heavily involved with various social justice causes.
Yet despite a truncated and hectic off-season, Jaylen Brown still found enough time to improve his game and take the fabled ‘leap’ towards superstardom.
So far this season, he’s averaging 26.2 points, around 5 rebounds and just over 3 assists per game, on 54.7 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. It’s a big increase in scoring, considering Brown averaged 20 points per game in 2019-20 and just 13 two seasons ago.
What’s more impressive is that Brown has increased his efficiency along with his scoring. He’s seen a rise in shooting percentage at almost every spot on the floor, especially from mid-range, where he’s shooting 71.4 percent this year compared to 42 percent last year.
Obviously, with the season being only nine games old, there isn’t a large sample size, but the progress is clear to see. For example, against the Memphis Grizzlies on December 30, Brown scored a career-high 42 points in only three quarters – but he attempted just six free throws. He gained half of his points from beyond the three-point arc, and shot 71 percent from the field.
Brown is having an impressive statistical season, in fact, at the time of writing, he is leading the entire NBA in total field goals made (94), is second in two-point field goals made (73) and is fourth in total points (215).
But it wasn’t just a statistical outlier of a game that has given him league leading numbers. Against the Detroit Pistons on January 3, he shot 81 percent from the field and finished with 31 points – all without attempting a single free throw. He again punished defenders from deep, hitting five threes, and a certain three pointer late in the fourth quarter showcased how quickly Brown has developed.
With the Celtics down 117-118 with 34 seconds remaining, Jayson Tatum drove towards the rim and kicked the ball out to Brown on the right-wing. He then hit a three to give the Celtics a two-point lead. But in a game only two days earlier, with the Celtics down three against those same Detroit Pistons, Brown took a three pointer from essentially the same spot and missed.
“It was good personally, but as a unit we don’t want it to be that close,” Brown told reporters when discussing his somewhat redeeming three after the win over Detroit, taking a reserved approach when reviewing his play.
But one of his teammates was much more complimentary.
“That’s big time,” said Jayson Tatum. “He’s been playing great. He’s been really shooting the lights out, and obviously he’s worked on his game each and every year and it’s showing.”
It’s true, Brown has improved every season, but he’s always been slightly overshadowed by his younger teammate, mainly due to Tatum’s impressive rookie year and more refined offensive game. However, Kemba Walker’s injury and the departure of Gordon Hayward have given Brown the chance to showcase more of his scoring ability this year. As such, Tatum no longer has a clear advantage over Brown in his claim as Boston’s best player – both are averaging a comparable number of points per game this season. Brown is arguably the better defender, although both are incredibly versatile wings that are capable of defending multiple positions.
So, is Tatum still Boston’s best player?
Well, it may seem absurd in retrospect (especially with Tatum being named to a 2019-20 All-NBA team) but there was a discussion last year as to which Celtic should be an All-Star – Brown or Tatum? Both players are on course to make the team this year, but it shows the debate isn’t necessarily a new one.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies at the end of close games. Brad Stevens put the ball in Tatum’s hands to win the games against Detroit and Milwaukee. And on both occasions, Tatum delivered.
The situation could also be looked at bearing the 2019-20 MVP race in mind.
Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP over LeBron James, which surprised some as Antetokounmpo’s team had been knocked out of the playoffs and James was still playing for a championship. Many see James as the best player in the world, but it isn’t the ‘Best’ player award, it’s the Most Valuable Player award. Antetokounmpo was considered to be more crucial to his team’s regular season success, even if James is the better player. Tatum may well be the Celtics’ most valuable player, even if Brown is currently their best.
But the two are not mutually exclusive. Tatum’s value to Boston doesn’t mean that Brown isn’t an integral part of the team, and Brown’s progression doesn’t negatively impact Tatum’s skill or diminish it.
But Jaylen Brown’s leap this season has impacted trade rumors.
The Boston Celtics are reportedly among a number of teams that have made calls to the Houston Rockets about the disgruntled James Harden, who has made it known he wouldn’t say no to playing in the TD Garden.
It is accepted that any trade package for Harden, or any other superstar, may have to include Brown. But his recent play has cast doubt over whether the Celtics should pull the trigger.
James Harden is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and a true superstar. But in a league now dominated by perimeter play, having two long and switchable defenders on the outside could be invaluable come playoff time. Boston is a team that has been known for its defense in recent years, and Harden has a less than stellar reputation on that end of the floor, whereas Tatum and Brown are stars that play at a high level on both ends.
It’s clear to see that in the last few years, Brown has not only grown on the court, but off it too.
His voice has been a consistent and prominent one in the continued push for racial equality. After the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic to protest the shooting of Wisconsin man Jacob Blake, Brown was leading the debate with other players on how to seriously enable change if they were to leave the NBA Bubble.
Brown is important to this Celtics team and to the city of Boston. Trading away a ‘2020 Bostonian of the Year’ and the NBPA’s youngest Vice President, has the potential to be another poorly received move by Danny Ainge. He would have to convince fans it would result in banner number 18.
Jaylen Brown’s ascension has made one thing certain: he’s not a promising young player anymore, he’s on the verge of superstardom. But it’s also raised several questions. Now it’s up to the Boston Celtics to answer them.