“This is unique. This isn’t the way it is everywhere.”
Those were the words Celtic’s coach Brad Stevens uttered to Jaylen Brown as the organization and fans paid tribute to Paul Pierce, thanking and honoring him for his legendary career with the franchise. Stevens clearly recognizes the talent that Brown could end up being if he lives up to his potential. It’s notable to me because this is almost where Pierce was in his career exactly 18 years ago.
A rookie small forward out of Kansas, who was overlooked before being selected by the Boston Celtics with the number ten pick in the draft. He would go on to have a sensational rookie year, averaging 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. Pierce shot 43.9% from the field, 41.2% from deep, and 71.3% from the line. It’s worth noting that he played 34 minutes per game and was also 21 years old during his rookie season.
For comparison, Brown is a rookie small forward out of California. Much of the NBA draft hype revolved around Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Dragan Bender, and Kris Dunn. In fact, most mock drafts had the Celtics selecting Kris Dunn, with Brown typically falling to the Sacramento Kings or Toronto Raptors. When Brown was originally selected by the Celtics, boos rained down in TD Garden, and people were questioning GM Danny Ainge’s decision.
Now? The Celtics are cruising. They have won seven straight games, grabbed the two seed out of Toronto’s hands and are right on Cleveland’s tail as we approach the all-star break. Boston sits a mere two games back of the Cavaliers, despite not being at full health for most of the season. Maybe the craziest part of this win streak is that the Celtics have done it despite missing Avery Bradley, who’s still recovering from an achilles injury. Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk also spent some time out with ailments.
One move that has correlated with Boston's recent winning streak? Jaylen Brown’s insertion into the starting lineup. With Bradley missing 14 of the last 15 games, Coach Stevens has toyed with his starting five. Marcus Smart took over for the first seven games of Bradley’s absence and the Celtics got off to a 3-1 start, only losing to Toronto after giving up a fourth quarter lead. However, the team would drop three straight to New York, Portland, and Washington, forcing Stevens to go back to the drawing board. His decision was to move Smart to the bench and to bring the rookie into the starting five. This helped bolster Boston’s bench, allowing them to have an experienced point guard to help run the second unit and Smart has played that role beautifully. Smart’s defense has also been insane, by the way.
Over the last seven games, Brown is averaging 9.4 points and 4.7 rebounds in 24.1 minutes per game. Looking deeper, The numbers don’t tell the full story, but it’s easy to tell that he is developing. Brown looks much more polished offensively and is in better tune with the offensive and defensive systems. If anything, it finally looks like he is comfortable on the court and he’s reacting more instead of having to stop and think first. One big knock on Brown coming out of Cal was his defense, but he’s holding shooters to 38.8% when they’re being guarded by him, that’s 6.7% below the league average. For the most part, the critics that chirped loudly on draft night have been silenced, except for when they’re calling for more minutes for the first year pro.
Things are beginning to click for Brown. You can tell he has a heightened sense of confidence in his offense and he's proved it during this recent streak.
Here, Brown is given the hand-off by Jonas Jerebko, he then takes one dribble to square himself with the basket and drills the mid-range jumper over Ingram. Brown has to show he can make these consistently to keep defenses honest.
Brown catches the pass from Smart and drives baseline, which causes Austin Rivers to get caught on the Kelly Olynyk screen. This gives Brown an opening to the basket and he takes it, Griffin tries to contest but Brown just muscles through him for the bucket.
Later in the fourth quarter, Brown was at it again. This time he caught a pass in the corner from Isaiah Thomas. JJ Reddick closes out with a weak contest, allowing Brown to beat him. Griffin jumps to try and block Browns shot, but he uses a hook move to negate the defense, finishing through contact and making the basket as he’s fouled.
Brown struggled to finish at the rim and from the floor during Summer League play back in July. He shot only 32.4% from the field. His field goal percentage numbers have risen to 42.6% during the regular season, and a big reason why is because he’s finishing at the rim at a higher level. He's shooting 59.4% when he's within three feet of the basket. Unfortunately, from there, his percentages fall fast. He shoots 34.2% from 3-10 feet, that drops to 27.8% from 10-16 feet. From deep, Brown is shooting a mere 29.2%. He was a labeled as a work in progress offensively when he was coming into the league, and so far that has held true. Brown’s jumper needs a lot of work, but he has the tools to develop an elite stroke. His shot is already pretty up and down and effortless, spending time with a shooting coach over the offseason would aid his development. Good shooters repeat the same repetition every time they shoot, Brown’s form is already good, he just needs to be consistent.
His play is catching the eye of Brad Stevens and he’s earned a larger role on this team. It’ll be interesting to see how minutes are dished out when Avery Bradley is fully healthy. Brown’s success could mean even less time for Jerebko and Gerald Green. After capitalizing on the opportunity that was left in front of him during the wake of Bradley’s absence, it’s clear that Brown is ready for an uptick in regular rotation minutes. He has a bright future ahead of him, along with the rest of this young team, it’s time to let the rookie shine.