Development in the NBA is not linear. There are peaks and valleys, leaps forward and steps back. With more practice comes new skills, with new environments comes different opportunities and with more experience comes a better understanding.
Players, like all of us, are constantly evolving, trying to not only improve themselves, but figure out how to best adapt to their situation. Perhaps no player exemplifies that more than Jaylen Brown.
He played a bit role in his rookie season, then surged into the spotlight in his sophomore campaign, as he helped lead a shorthanded Celtics team to the Eastern Conference finals. But with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury, he stagnated in his third season. Unsure of himself or his role, he put up decent numbers, but didn’t show the type of improvement everyone was expecting.
All of which leads us to this 2019-20 season. Unburdened by the drama of last season’s team, and given a more expansive role, Brown blossomed into a borderline All-Star. He didn’t end up making the team, but through the first 50 games was averaging career-high numbers across the board: 20.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals, with very solid shooting splits (49.0/38.1/73.6) and strong wing defense.
His athleticism and versatility on the defensive end were never in question, but as his offensive game has improved, he’s turned into a perfect complementary player for the Celtics’ stars, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. The question now is, where does he go from here?
Shooting is always a key, obviously, and after a shaky 2018-19 campaign, he seems to have stabilized his shot this season. He’s at 38.1 percent from 3-point land overall on 5.6 attempts per game, and over 45 percent from each corner, which is pretty much all you can ask for; he’s never going to be Steph Curry. Plus, he’s improved his free throw shooting to 73.6 percent.
Instead, the biggest area for improvement in Brown’s game is his playmaking. He’s almost always looking to create for himself, to the extent that passing appears to be an afterthought, and he actually has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, putting up 2.2 assists and 2.3 turnovers per game.
While the Celtics don’t want to stifle his aggressiveness, there are a few ways he could clean up his game to become an even more dangerous player. Let’s take a look.
Brown’s handle was sketchy at best coming into the league, and you can clearly tell he’s put a tremendous amount of work into improving his control. There would be times this season where he’d break out some really nifty moves that he wasn’t able to do in seasons past.
Here he is putting a number of combos together before hitting a jumper over Eric Gordon:
And here he uses another impressive sequence to get into the paint for a bucket over Ben Simmons:
At the same time, there are still too many occasions where he simply loses control and the ball flies out of his hands. You don’t need an expert to explain that it’s tough to make plays when you can’t keep possession.
Brown’s downhill, attacking style is going to lead to some turnovers and mistakes that you’ll live with because of the pressure he puts on the defense, but if he can cut down on some of the more careless ones, it would go a long way toward improving his game.
Missing the easy pass
Brown has a quick first step, and loves to put his head down and barrel his way into the lane. For the most part, he’s had a lot of success this season. He’s shooting 65.5 percent in the restricted area, and his free throw attempts (4.3 per game) and percentage (73.6) are both way up.
However, he does have a tendency to get tunnel vision at times. Whether it’s with his pure athleticism, or one of his improved dribbling moves, he’ll easily beat his first man, only to be met by multiple help defenders who force him into trouble.
On many of these occasions, instead of careening into traffic, the easier play would be a simple kick-out to an open shooter. Just look at all of these examples.
First up, from their matchup in Minnesota against the Timberwolves. He gets Naz Reid on the switch and does the hard part to shake him with the dribble and get into the paint. From there, Brown has Romeo Langford all alone in the corner — Langford’s defender has actually fallen down in the paint — but decides to try a really tough lefty runner that he misses:
Next, he takes a kick-out from Daniel Theis against the Lakers, and uses his quick first step to beat two closing defenders. As he approaches the paint he has shooters all around the perimeter; the easiest play would be taking a little jump stop and firing a pass out to Kemba Walker at the top of the key. Instead, he tries to dunk on Anthony Davis, which doesn’t go well:
The final example is a similar situation. Theis kicks it out to him on the wing, and he easily blows past charging Bulls big man Lauri Markkanen. Again he has shooters around him, and a collapsing defense. Gordon Hayward is wide open at the top of the key, but he opts to contort his body for a difficult layup that doesn’t go:
None of those are tough passes from a physical sense; Brown doesn’t have to whip it cross court or thread the needle between defenders. But they are a challenge from a mental standpoint, because you have to be thinking ahead and reading the game. The recognition of where the open man is going to be has to come before you start the drive.
Brown is a scorer, and his main skills on the offensive end are always going to be knocking down spot-up 3s and attacking the basket. His ability to get into the paint is key for the Celtics, and they won’t want to stifle him.
But if he can reign in some of his energy just a bit and figure out when to go all-out on attack, versus when to just make the simple pass to his teammates, it could be the difference between him being a high-level role player and making his first All-Star Game.