I’ll admit I had kind of the same first impression of Jaylen Brown that Billy Donovan apparently did: Super-talented young player but seemed to rev his engine only in spurts.
I wouldn’t have gone as far as to suggest Brown didn’t play hard during his one season at Cal. And I certainly wouldn’t have put limits on his NBA potential based on my limited observations during games (with no access to watching him practice).
Still, there were times that Brown seemed to glide through portions of games. He had what appeared to be a look of deliberate nonchalance. I never got the impression he was disrespecting the game, but I didn't confuse him with, say, Jason Kidd, who attacked every moment on the court during his two seasons with the Bears.
Anyway, it seems that Donovan — now coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder but then at Florida — made what Brown considered disparaging, perhaps disrespectful comments to him about his work ethic.
According to a story by Mark Murphy in the Boston Herald, the exchange occurred six years ago while Brown was playing on an under-18 national team coached by Donovan.
Unhappy with his playing time, Brown asked Donovan about it.
Donovan’s response, according to Brown: “You’re only going to be in the league for three years because you don’t play hard.”
Brown has not forgotten.
Fast forward to this summer and the Celtics’ fourth-year wing is a borderline NBA all-star, a 20-points-per-game scorer, a strong defender and a respected voice on social and political issues.
Donovan recalls the conversation he had when Brown was a 17-year-old, not even enrolled yet at Berkeley.
“I think that when we first started playing, as tryouts were taking place, he was clearly, if not the best, then certainly top one, two or three most talented guys there,” Donovan said in the interview with the Boston Herald.
“When we started getting into some structure and started playing, he was someone in my opinion had unbelievable talent and unbelievable ability, but I was trying to get him to understand just how hard he had to play and compete, because I thought the playing hard and competing would take his game to a different level because of his overall talent.”
Donovan now sees a grown-up Brown, perhaps a different guy than he first experienced.
“Jaylen has obviously done incredibly well,” Donovan said. “I always really liked him as a person, I thought he was a great guy and enjoyed finding out a little bit more about his family. We recruited him a little, not a lot, but I just felt he had so much upside with his talent.
“I say this a lot, you don’t want to have talent be necessarily a curse to you. And I think he’s developed into a great worker, from everything you hear. I don’t know what kind of impact I had, but I tried to be as honest as I could to help all of them.”
Brown now has enough distance from that moment six years ago to recognize what Donovan was trying to say to him, and to understand there may have been value to it, even if he still harbors some ill feelings.
“What he meant by that, I realized as I got older, was that I wasn’t playing to my potential,” Brown said. “I was probably the best player there, but I wasn’t applying myself as best as I could. I was using my talent to beat people, and I could have been outworking them as well.
“I kind of realized that when I got older, and I realized what that really meant, in terms of who I am and what life is about. Everybody has talent, but talent will only get you so far. That was his way, and I really didn’t appreciate that at all. It upset me. I’m not cool with him to this day. For someone to say that was a lot for a 17-year-old. I appreciate the message he delivered, and to this day I kind of think about it, because that message was added to my work ethic.”
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo
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