Despite their ideal starting lineup only teaming up for a single game — a 110-106 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday — the Boston Celtics find themselves 10-7, fourth in the Eastern Conference and a game back of the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets. Jayson Tatum’s stardom and Marcus Smart’s handyman, do-it-all nature, along with contributions from role players such as Daniel Theis, Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, are chief reasons the Celtics stayed afloat amid a turbulent first quarter of the year.
But above all else, Jaylen Brown’s continued upward trajectory is why Tatum’s five-game absence, a brief carousel big man rotation, and shaky wing depth didn’t set Boston back much.
In his fifth season, the 24-year-old is solidifying himself as an All-Star alongside Tatum, the (current) culmination of steady improvement across his first four years. He’s posting an assortment of career highs, notably in points (27.1), assists (3.5), steals (1.5), 3-point percentage (44.1), and true shooting percentage (61.8). Those first three statistics hold up per 100 possessions, too.
Kemba Walker’s delayed 2020-21 debut due to knee issues and Tatum’s temporary hiatus thrust Brown into an increased creation workload. He’s assimilated with ease, exhibiting strides as an on-ball scorer and playmaker. Brown kicked off the season with 33 points on opening night and has scored 30-plus in five of 17 games. It’s an eyebrow-raising number due to the fact that he had eight such outings in his first four seasons combined. He’s twice scored a career-high 42, most recently against the Philadelphia 76ers and their fifth-ranked defense.
“He’s just tough. He’s terrific. I mean, he makes hard shots, too. I mean, obviously, if you give him a three, he’s a dead-eye, knockdown three-point shooter. I don’t think he was that when he first came in the league and now, he is,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers says. “But his biggest improvement and where they’ve really developed him, off the dribble, he’s really tough. Great in-between game, great all the way to the basket, great threes. When you have all three of those things, you’re one of the better offensive players in this league and he is.”
The timing and accuracy of Rivers’ words may seem reactionary after he witnessed Brown dial up 68 points on 58.9 percent true shooting in two games against the Sixers, yet Brown has been exactly that through the season’s quarter poll: a three-level scorer excelling beyond the arc, in the midrange, and at the rim. And Rivers is spot-on with his assessment of Brown’s critical growth as a self-creator, which has helped fuel his ascension.
A year ago, off-the-dribble jumpers comprised 23.8 percent of his half-court offense, where he generated 0.84 points per possession and ranked in the 43rd percentile, per Synergy. This season, they comprise 38.1 percent of his half-court offense and he ranks in the 71st percentile at 1.041 PPP. Among 48 players averaging at least four pull-up looks per game, Brown is sixth in effective field goal percentage (54.6).
Rehearsed, deceptive footwork and a manipulative handle facilitate his rise as a shooter. Both are applied for slight advantages or space creation, tilting defenders ever so off balance before striking. He’s become staggeringly effective from roughly 20 feet and in, equipped with a toolkit of pivots, jabs, crossovers, between-the-legs snatch-back dribbles, and leaning jumpers to carry a tough shot-making mantle.
The successive step to this emergence is reorienting his shot profile for long-term sustainability. Brown is attempting just 1.8 pull-up threes, compared to 5.3 pull-up two-pointers, while his frequency of pull-up threes is actually down from 10.8 percent in 2019-20 to 9 percent this season. He’s living on a diet of challenging mid-range jumpers, and although the early returns are highly profitable, there’s impending regression to come at some point.
Among 69 players taking two-plus mid-range jumpers per game this season, he leads in field goal percentage (56.8). His prior career-high was set last season at 42 percent and a career-high 22.1 percent of his shots are from midrange, blowing past the 12.8 percent previously established. Touting both considerable volume and efficiency spike, Brown feels due for a lull at some point.
While his year-to-year progression suggests he’ll exceed that clip (and I think he will), believing he’s morphed into the league’s most prolific mid-range maven seems far-fetched. Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, and C.J. McCollum consistently lord over those leaderboards. Brown, who’s likely still adjusting to such significant pull-up volume and operating where he’s most comfortable, would, eventually, be best served swapping some of those deep twos for standard triples. This isn’t a reflective criticism as much as it’s a tweak to optimize his expanding offensive arsenal.
Even if he was hitting his career mark of 41.9 percent from mid-range, he would be averaging 25.8 points on 58.9 percent true shooting, a career high on both fronts. Of course, the newfound self-creation adds a wrinkle to this, but some of that can be offset by his growth curve. All of this, really, is to say that Brown is probably in line for some sort of regression to the mean, but by no means will that derail his offensive breakout.
The ripple effect of Brown’s burgeoning pull-up game is the way defenders must account for it. Although a career-low 29 percent of his shots are at the rim — some of that is tied to his mid-range proclivity — he’s converting a career-best 70 percent of them (81st percentile among wings, according to Cleaning the Glass). He approaches driving a bit like a savvy running back, patient enough to wiggle around until the opening arises before shooting the gap and teleporting inside. He’s discerning in these moments, leveraging hesitation dribbles to bait defenders with his developing pull-up gravity, maximizing the utility of screens and keeping opponents in the dark. At the rim, he’s explosive and strong, and capable of finishing with either hand.
Brown’s leap in scoring efficiency, going from 58.3 percent true shooting and 38.2 percent beyond the arc last season to 61.8 percent true shooting and 44.2 percent beyond the arc now, undersells him. He’s handling significantly grander creation responsibilities while upping his raw efficiency. Whereas 40.4 percent of his field goals and 11.6 percent of his threes were unassisted last year, 47.4 percent and 24.4 percent are in 2020-21. It would be entirely understandable if his shooting splits dipped when tasked with setting the table for himself more often, but the opposite is happening, providing another impressive layer to his rise.
Asserting himself as a legitimate three-level scorer — ranking in the 80th percentile or better at the rim, from midrange, and from deep, per Cleaning the Glass — has necessitated a passing evolution, too, and one that Brown is fulfilling. His assist rate has nearly doubled from 9.6 percent (45th percentile among wings) to 18.8 percent (89th percentile), and he’s on track for the first notably positive assist-to-turnover ratio of his career.
Some of this improvement is derived from reads being simplified by the level of defensive concern he commands. With the scope of his scoring gravity broadening, opponents must allocate more help his direction on drives, probes, or ball-screen actions. Openings surface, and after placing an emphasis on improving this, Brown is cognizant of them.
“I think he’s really worked on it over the years and worked on all the different reads that the game presents. He’s seeing a lot more attention and so there’s a lot more opportunity to make those plays, too,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens says. “When teams start loading up their help on you, when you start seeing blitzes occasionally in pick-and-rolls, when you start seeing more help off of your screening actions, then, you know, the right play is to make the next right pass. … As you get to be a better scorer, in my opinion, your assist numbers should go up because that’s just gonna mean you’re drawing a lot more attention.”
The key word in Stevens’ summation of his star wing’s rise rests in the final sentence: should. Brown’s assist numbers should swell, but adapting so quickly does not always occur for players who enjoy such rapid improvement. He came out from the jump primed to boost his own offense and the quality of looks for teammates based upon that scoring boon. When defenders focus on him, he executes the straightforward play. Other times, he’s showcasing stuff rarely flashed before, spraying timely kick-outs or interior drop-offs, both of which stem from his budding craft and comfort as an initiator. He spots when the defense fixates on him and, compared to other seasons, is more prompt and adept in processing all of that.
Occasionally, he still has a tendency to flip on the blinders and miss easy reads, lasering in on his own shot to the detriment of the offense. His North-South handling issues lead him into precarious spots that involve lots of pivoting, searching, and stagnation. Those worries may be more prevalent should the shooting regress a bit, but given Brown’s massive strides over the past four seasons, he should be capable of further passing and handling evolution.
Given his off-ball versatility, functioning as a spot-up shooter (43 percent on catch-and-shoot threes since the start of last year), pick-and-pop/roll man, and flowing downhill off of screens/advantages, his on-ball game makes him a highly scalable player. He fits in well around various archetypes and skills.
It is perhaps easy and natural to offer a side-eye at Rivers’ statement about Brown’s league-wide standing minutes after a 42-point explosion against his team. Rivers, though, was correct, not only in his assessment of why Brown is thriving, but also in his conclusion. Jaylen Brown is one of the better offensive players in the NBA and at 24 years old, “better” could soon become “best.”