- Unlike most lottery picks, Jaylen Brown is getting ready for a playoff run. The 20-year-old has gone from rookie project to a rotation mainstay for the Celtics in just a matter of months.
Jaylen Brown’s rookie campaign has certainly been different than those of his fellow 2016 lottery picks. The No. 3 overall selection of California, Brown is less than a week away from his first playoff run, something no top-five selection has done as a rookie since 2012. A little over a year removed from his final college game, Brown isn’t planning on simply making an appearance in the playoffs—he’s now primed to be a key piece of the Celtics’ postseason rotation.
Last year at this time Brown was in Berkeley. Hawaii bounced Cal in the first round of the NCAA tournament, ending Brown’s college career after just 34 games. He declared for the draft on April 21, and nearly a year later Brown has evolved from a 19-year-old freshman to averaging 17 minutes per game for a Celtics team with championship aspirations.
“I’ve hit that rookie wall a few times but it’s all mental,” Brown said. “I’ve got to be locked in everyday and be prepared to help this team... Scoring the ball, guarding different positions, I’m ready to do whatever is needed of me.”
Consider the uniqueness of Brown’s place in Boston. Last year’s No. 1 pick Ben Simmons has yet to appear in an NBA game, and the other three rookies selected in the top five of the 2016 draft play for teams with a combined .332 winning percentage. Rather than toil through the remainder of his rookie season in Minnesota, Phoenix or Los Angeles, Brown has found his place among one of the league’s premier organizations.
Suns standout guard Devin Booker made note of Brown’s spot with the Celtics in late March. After Booker erupted for 70 points in a loss to Boston, he spoke to reporters after embracing Brown at the final buzzer.
“I told [Brown] he’s here in Boston,” Booker said. “You’re winning, so you should be more happy than me.”
Boston has won a lot this year, reaching 50 wins for the first time since 2011. However, Brown hasn’t always served a primary role. He struggled to see the court behind the Celtics’ slew of wings in the season’s first four months. Boston averaged just 98 points per 100 possessions with Brown on the floor before the All-Star break, a mark that would rank last in the league.
Few questioned Brown’s ability to get to the rim coming out of California, nor his ability to defend opposing wings. He’s got a quick first step, long arms and enough speed to blow by defenders in transition. But a lack of consistent outside shooting kept him off the floor. Knocks on Brown’s ability to hit open jumpers date back to college, where he shot 29.4% from three. The first four months of Brown’s first NBA season weren’t much better; he made 30.4% of his three-point attempts, five points below league average.
Despite his struggles, Brown was ushered into action in early February as starting guard Avery Bradley missed 18 games with a strained right Achilles. With more playing time, Brown shined.
He led all rookies in three-point percentage during the month—shooting 45.5% from beyond the arc—and meshed well with All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics raised their offensive rating to 111.0 with Brown on the floor, fifth best in the league for the month of February. And along with consistent outside shooting to compliment Thomas’s whirling drives to the rim, Brown was also critical in shielding the 5’9” point guard on the defensive end.
“Jaylen keeps growing every game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Where we really want to see growth from him is defensively. He’s a long guy who can do a lot for us, but we want to see him consistently give us quality minutes of the defensive end heading into the playoffs.”
The peak of Brown’s season came in a late February battle against Detroit. Trailing the Pistons 98-96 with just over 30 seconds remaining, Brown waited in the right corner as Boston forward Al Horford bulldozed into the lane. Horford sucked the help defense to the middle of the floor, leaving Brown open in the corner. Horford then swung the ball to Brown, who promptly sunk the contested three despite being fouled. It was the biggest basket of his young NBA career, propeling Boston to a 104-98 victory.
“My shooting has always been something people critiqued me on,” Brown said. “But ever since coming [to Boston] people told me to keep shooting and keep my confidence up. I’ve been shooting it a lot better of late, so I hope to keep that going the rest of the year.”
Opportunities for Brown to enter the starting lineup faded in March as Bradley returned to action. But his minutes have stabilized over the past month, averaging around 20 per game. After scuffling through the beginning of the season, Brown is now a key cog in the Celtics' machine. He fits the Boston prototype on the perimeter, another lengthy, versatile wing alongside Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder.
“Jaylen’s been able to fill in for us pretty much every night,” Smart said. “He adds another body for us and he’s a unique guy. We can play him anywhere on the floor and expect him to give us good minutes.”
While the regular season has been filled with success stories for Brown and the Celtics, now comes the hard part. This season marks the third consecutive playoff berth for Boston, but the team hasn’t made it out of the first round since losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2012. Coming off a 50-win regular season, validation won’t come without success in the playoffs.
Brown will be far from the focal point of Boston’s attack. The Celtics will rely on Thomas’s wizardry as they have all season, but Stevens isn’t one to shorten his bench under pressure. Boston had eight players average over 15 minutes per game during the 2016 postseason, and Brown is expected to consistently produce, even in a limited role. Should the Celtics need more from Brown, they know the rookie is ahead of the curve.