On Wednesday, hours after rioters stormed the United States Capitol and the first slate of evening NBA games came to a close, eyes around the league turned to a 24-year-old forward in Boston.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown gave an impromptu speech on the clear white privilege and double standard associated with Wednesday’s events, joining a chorus of poignant comments throughout the NBA. Brown has emerged as one of the leading voices in the fight against racial injustice and police brutality in recent years. He’s thoughtful, charismatic and frankly, everything you could want in a franchise anchor. Brown could be a defining Boston athlete in the 2020s by sole virtue of his activism. It doesn’t hurt that he’s off to a blistering start in 2020–21.
It’s important to note Brown’s unique standing both in Boston and the NBA before delving into his on-court production. Brown is a prominent figure in the fight against injustice in a time of legitimate crisis in the United States, previously leading protests in Georgia and participating in numerous get-out-the-vote efforts. As the NBA and WNBA continue their push for social change, Brown is a fitting leader across the league.
Brown also represents the future in Boston specifically, one that has become increasingly clear in recent months. He spent the first two years of his career in and out of trade rumors, serving as the leading potential piece in potential blockbuster trades for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. General manager Danny Ainge held off on deals both times, committing to Brown and the (rightly) untradeable Jayson Tatum. Brown earned a four-year, $115 million deal in October 2019. Tatum signed up for five years and $190 million in November. Kemba Walker absorbed further cap space, and in recent months the available superstar pool has shrunk considerably. Barring a James Harden trade, Tatum and Brown are Boston’s leading men for the foreseeable future. We’ll need to wait and see if Ainge made the right call. But even in a crowded East, perhaps banking on Brown will be the sensible call.
Brown’s ascent was different from his All-Star running mate’s. Tatum’s climb was relatively rapid, highlighted by a mano-a-mano battle with LeBron James in the 2018 Eastern Conference. Tatum has been considered a future All-NBA talent ever since, and is among the league’s top players under 25. Brown’s rise, by contrast, has been a more measured incline.
I chatted with Brown in April of his rookie year as Boston prepared for its final playoff run with Isaiah Thomas. The Cal product had gone from an abbreviated stint in Berkeley to a significant role with a title contender in just 12 months, putting the young rookie in a rare situation for a high lottery pick. Brown was thrown in the NBA deep end early in his career. He played significant minutes for a No. 1 seed as a rookie. He struggled to find his place for much of the Kyrie Irving era. But the trials have helped make Brown an early All-Star candidate. Now in his fifth season, Brown has become a true co-star alongside Tatum. The formerly wide-eyed rookie is a relative veteran in Boston’s reshaped roster.
Brown is in the midst of quite the early-season tear through nine contests. He’s averaging a career-high 26.2 points per game, adding career highs in assists, steals and blocks. The percentages are just absurd. Brown is shooting a league-best 71.4 percent on mid-range jumpers. He’s hit 67.3 percent of pull-up attempts. His dominant shooting numbers are likely an aberration to some degree, but the metrics do represent a big leap for Boston’s starring swingman. Brown was once little more than a stationary shooter. He’s now not only a secondary scorer, but a potential top option on the right night.
The jump shot has never really been a question for Brown after his rookie year. He shot 39.5% on a significant leap in attempts in his second season, serving as a reliable 3-and-D threat. Brown’s defense has been consistently stellar. He can play above the rim in transition. Yet to truly be valued as a co-star along Tatum, Brown had to grow into a more complete player. We’ve seen that version emerge over the last two seasons. Brown’s handle and control off the bounce continues to improve. He’s calm in a crowd—a far cry from his first two years—and an increasingly impressive distributor in the pick-and-roll. With Kemba Walker out of the rotation, Brown is a necessary playmaker.
Just how sustainable Brown’s play really is may define Boston’s season. This is an imperfect roster as currently constituted, with Walker on the mend and an unproven rotation to boot. There’s a lot riding on Payton Pritchard and Jeff Teague. Perhaps the Gordon Hayward trade exception can make a difference in the coming months. For now, Brown’s scoring and playmaking load will remain heavy. Even as his shooting inevitably cools, he’ll need to continue demanding extra attention from defenses. There’s a notable lack in firepower on nights when Tatum or Brown sputters.
There is an obvious potential boost in said firepower available. Harden is an imperfect player, one whose warts have been on full display in recent months. But there’s no denying his offensive brilliance. Harden is arguably the greatest scorer this century. He commands double teams unlike any player in the league, other than perhaps Stephen Curry. It’s easy to see Brad Stevens scheming a flood of buckets as teams scramble to contain Harden and Tatum. But is hitting the nuclear option right for the franchise? Brown is making a convincing case against doing so.
Brown’s growth may not result in a title for Boston in 2021. There will likely be some frustration with another exit in the Eastern Conference playoffs, with the title drought growing and the avenues for improvement shrinking. Some will rue a missed opportunity regarding Leonard. The current dynamic duo will be questioned. But as things currently stand, it’s hard to imagine a more prudent path than Boston’s current one.
Brown is currently one of the NBA’s brightest and most influential players. He and Tatum are exactly what you hope for as franchise pillars. Neither star has turned 25, with a half-decade of Finals opportunities likely awaiting. Brown has emerged as a true cornerstone of the franchise. Both the Celtics and the NBA are better for it.