After a month of annoying trade rumors and hasty speculation, Kevin Durant and the Nets decided to “move forward with their partnership.” For Celtics fans, we can finally take a break from pontificating on the merits of trading a package centered around Jaylen Brown to acquire the 34-year-old Durant.
After watching Jaylen blossom into an All-Star and the Celtics play dominant basketball from February on, do we really want to break this team up? Sure, a KD trade could be the most definitive path to Banner 18, but there’s a chance it would ruin the chemistry and culture this organization has built over the last few years that culminated in a Finals appearance last season.
Alas, this article isn’t about Durant. It will focus solely on the six-season progression of Jaylen Brown – how he went from a raw athlete to an uber-skilled two-way force. His development from his year at Cal to his stellar 2021-2022 season is nothing short of remarkable, and I hope to chart this development over a series of 25 clips.
Rookie Year: “Boo me once, shame on you”
6.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 45.4 FG%, 34.1 3FG%, 17.2 min, 78 GP, 20 GS
Draft Night 2016. The Isaiah Thomas-led Celtics won 48 games with Jae Crowder as their second best player and Jared Sullinger as their starting center. They extracted the most out of that scrappy unit, but in the playoffs, were overmatched by the Hawks in the first round.
They had the role players, the culture, the coach, but were missing the star, and Jimmy Butler ostensibly could have filled that role. All season long, the Boston media clamored over Danny Ainge’s “treasure trove” of assets. But Trader Danny decided against trading for Butler, and the Bulls traded him to Minnesota for the (at the time) Mickey Mouse package of Zach Lavine, Kris Dunn, and a pick swap that turned into Lauri Markkanen.
At the TD Garden draft party, fans booed Wyc Grousbeck when he took the stage to take questions about the #3 pick. They weren’t necessarily booing Jaylen Brown, but rather the disappointment/frustration of not making a splashy trade after a full season of rumors.
Jaylen was athletic beyond belief and possessed a rare intellect for an 18-year-old. But after a one-and-done season at Cal, he was labeled a non-shooter with poor feel for the game and limited skill. Considered a long-term project, he joined a Celtics team that didn’t need another non-shooting defensive-oriented player.
The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie gave the Celtics a D+ for their draft. NBA insider Chad Ford gave them a C. Paul Flannery wrote about their awkward status quo. Jaylen was an intriguing prospect, but at third, he was considered a reach when Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, and (lol) Dragan Bender were all available.
Whereas most top-3 picks begin their careers as a beacon of hope on a losing team, Jaylen joined a playoff team where minutes weren’t guaranteed. He was impressive in Summer League, but more than anything else, his off-court activities got the lion share of attention, between his chess mastery, graduate-level courses at Berkeley, not hiring an agent, and self-learning new languages and instruments.
He quickly won over fans and proved he wasn’t as bad a shooter as the college numbers suggested. Here, in the team’s fifth game, he drains a contested three late in the shot clock over Tristian Thompson:
This was the game Jaylen won over some initial doubters. He played 35 minutes against the defending champion Cavs and scored 19 points. Boston lost by six, but Jaylen finished +15, and was slowly winning Brad Stevens’ trust.
But he was still a rookie, and there were some early growing pains. Against the Bulls in their second game, Jaylen made a costly turnover late in the game after leaving his feet and not knowing whether he’d pass or shoot:
The first Shaqtin’ moment of his young career. Down by two with under a minute to play, this turnover essentially sealed it for Chicago, but more importantly, he was entrusted with late-game minutes in just his second career game over guys like Gerald Green, Amir Johnson, and Terry Rozier.
In one of his first great dunks, he emasculated Nikola Vucevic into posterized oblivion:
Kudos to the Orlando bench for keeping a poker face.
In the weeks before All-Star break, Avery Bradley got injured for ten games, Jaylen filled in as the starter, and the Celtics won nine out of ten. His numbers (24 minutes, 8.8 points, 39.7% FG) weren’t particularly impressive, but he guarded quicker guys like JJ Reddick with as much aplomb as he did bulkier bodies like Blake Griffin, embodying the versatility that would soon take over the league.
The final rookie clip is from Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs. Watch how he defends LeBron James:
Did you notice how Boston was getting absolutely pummeled? The game was out of reach, but Jaylen still competed his tail off. LeBron had his way the entire game, embarrassing Kelly Olynyk and Al Horford in 1-on-1 situations, overpowering Jae Crowder, and making Isaiah Thomas look like a schoolboy. Jaylen wasn’t having any of that, and despite getting throttled in the series, the Celtics were in good hands with the first major gift of the Brooklyn pick haul.
Sophomore Year: “I’m supposed to be the franchise player, but we’re in here talking about Tatum?”
14.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 46.5 FG%, 39.5 3FG%, 30.7 MP, 70 GP, 70 GS
The following season, Jaylen saw his points double from 6.6 to 14.5, his minutes nearly double from 17.2 to 30.7, and his three-point percentage jump from 34.1% to 39.5%. An offseason of wheeling-and-dealing left him as one of four returning Celtics. Out went Isaiah, Crowder, and Olynyk. In came Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris.
He played with more command and control. As a rookie, he was always playing at 100 miles per hour, but developed a patience that the scouts never could have projected during his one college season. He mastered his catch-and-shoot role, easily overcoming his “non-shooter” label.
In this November game in Atlanta, Dewayne Dedmon doesn’t completely respect Jaylen’s range, and he calmly sinks the jumper:
Coach Mike Budenholzer is notorious for letting non-shooters shoot, and Brown proved he no longer belongs in that category. He recognized the space he was getting and drills the shot in his face.
On this next clip during a home game against Golden State, Jaylen strips Steph Curry, recovers the loose ball, and finishes with a slam:
A guy like Jaylen can defend guards as well as he defends wings. He left his feet on defense, but not enough that Steph could draw a shooting foul. Jaylen takes advantage of his open stance, knocks the ball away, beats Zaza Pachulia to the loose ball, and the crowd erupts after his dunk. Jaylen was huge in this game, scoring 22, as the Celtics won their 14th straight game against the supervillain Warriors.
On this play, he picks up a loose ball and goes coast to coast for the finish:
He was patient the whole time. The floor was poorly balanced with three guys on the left side. He had a bad angle, and rookie Jaylen would probably try to outrun and out-jump everyone. Instead, he turned on the breaks, took two deliberate strides, and gave Danny Green a little nudge to clear his way to the rim.
In the playoffs against Philly, Brown showed his patience once again, but this time on an elbow jumper:
He could have taken the contested three on Dario Saric, but up-faked and easily found a driving lake. When he saw the paint was congested, and the smaller JJ Reddick picked him up, he calmly pulled it back and drilled the elbow fadeaway.
Draft aficionados doubted Jaylen could develop this high-level feel for the game. He had on-court poise that was rare for a 20-year old. With him and Tatum on the wing, Kyrie in the backcourt, Horford in the paint, Gordon Hayward healthy, and Marcus Smart on a new extension, the 2018-19 Celtics were in the driver’s seat for the championship (…so we thought).
3rd Year: “Scapegoat season”
13.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 46.5 FG%, 34.4 3FG%, 25.9 MP, 74 GP, 25 GS
I’m sure many of us would like to extinguish the 2018-19 season from our memory. The Celtics didn’t crack 50 wins and got gentlemen swept by the Bucks in the second round. The year was marred by internal dysfunction, and early in the season, many blamed Jaylen Brown for the lack of offensive cohesion.
In their eighth game against Indiana, he gets tied up by Tyreke Evans amidst a hero-ball drive:
He could have kicked it to Hayward when Victor Oladipo sagged off, and he had Morris open in the corner. Not even halfway through the second quarter, this was already Jaylen’s 10th shot of the game. Sure, blue-chip wings deserve a green light, but on a team like the 2018-19 Celtics, where shots are currency and nobody got the minutes they wanted, it’s better to spread the ball around early and limit these types of “I got this” shots.
A few plays later, he doesn’t get the ball twice when he’s open:
Aron Baynes missed him on the baseline cut, then swung it to Morris, who opted to take the two-dribble pull-up instead of passing it to Jaylen for the open three. Maybe Morris didn’t want to give him the ball after Jaylen got tied up a few possessions earlier. Or maybe he thought to shoot whenever opportunities presented themselves, not knowing when the next chance would come.
Simple plays like this hurt a team’s chemistry. In Jaylen’s mind, he’s coming off a tremendous second season and is eager to make the all-star leap. But on that team, they needed him to be a role player.
Brown shot poorly over the first 20 games, connecting on only 25 percent of his three-point attempts. The Celtics had a 100.4 offensive rating when he was on the court, which would be the worst in the league by leaps and bounds.
The team started 10-10, Jaylen received a heavy dose of criticism and eventually got demoted to the bench. ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan detailed the turmoil in December:
“Opposing teams have privately used words such as “disjointed” and “detached” to describe him. When the season’s first Real Plus-Minus ratings were released, Brown ranked 417th out of 430 players. The question “What’s wrong with Jaylen Brown?” became a leaguewide referendum.”
Jaylen responded to the criticism:
“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown says. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.”
After the slow start, he played well despite the internal strife. He embraced his bench role and eventually earned back the starting spot as the playoffs approached. But this was a dysfunctional team that wasn’t optimal for his development.
On this play – perhaps a metaphor for the season – he remains in control amidst the chaos in this transition finish against Dallas:
He got better surveying the floor, using his body to shield defenders, and finishing at awkward angles. In the clip, the Celtics had all but given up, down 13 late in the fourth. Nobody is running with Jaylen, and he’s forced to finish over three guys.
On a team littered with veterans, he showed poise off the floor, too. The 2018-19 Celtics weren’t shy about publicly airing their grievances with the team, and Jaylen Brown wasn’t shy about rejecting that modus operandi. After a head-scratching loss to Orlando, he told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps:
“We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day,” Brown said after the loss. “We can’t make comments, we can’t point fingers, we just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells.”
Third-year Jaylen couldn’t show off his full offensive arsenal, but here against Milwaukee, he emphatically dunked on Giannis:
He’s moving with more deliberation but finishing with just as much power. While his teammates, the fans, and even the coaching staff weren’t completely satisfied with his play this season, Danny Ainge was impressed by how he adapted to three starkly different teams over three seasons.
4th Year: “securing the bag and expanding his bag”
20.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 48.1 FG%, 38.2 3FG%, 33.9 MP, 57 GP, 57 GS
Does it really count as a redemption season if he never really needed to be redeemed? A few days before Opening Night, Jaylen signed a four-year, $115 million extension — a contract that many were surprised got done, calling it an overpay.
It only took a few weeks to realize that this was a bargain contract. His numbers improved across the board and he expanded his offensive repertoire, getting more opportunity to play with the ball in his hands and run pick-and-rolls.
Check out this slippery move against the Spurs:
He puts a nasty series of crossovers on Bryn Forbes, then blows by LaMarcus Aldridge with a slick hesitation move. Jaylen was projected to be more of a straight-line player coming into the league, but his game expanded to include more shake.
After only shooting 34 percent from deep the previous year, some wondered whether his 39 percent 2017-2018 was an outlier. Well, his percentages promptly went back up, and he became comfortable launching deep balls:
He steps into this long three with no hesitation. As he developed his on-ball moves, he never lost his 3-and-D instincts.
Closing out his 2019-2020 year, he embarrasses Matisse Thybulle with a pull-back hesitation move:
“So deep in his bag, like the fries are at the bottom.”
When the Celtics drafted Brown, they envisioned him as a defensive ace who played downhill on offense and hopefully developed a three-point jumper. He triumphantly exceeded these expectations and set the stage for an All-Star future.
Jaylen continued his strong play in the bubble, and in the conference finals against Miami, he averaged 23 points while shooting 50 percent on five 3’s per game. Considering their success with a relatively thin team, the Celtics were poised to make multiple championship runs over the next few years with Tatum and Brown as their building blocks.
5th Year: “Baby, I’m a star”
24.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 48.4 FG%, 39.7 3FG%, 34.5 MP, 58 GP, 58 GS
Despite COVID hitting the team hard, 2020-2021 was undoubtedly a disappointment for the Celtics. But once again, Jaylen improved across the board, and this time, he earned an All-Star selection.
He tightened up his handle, his footwork was more polished, he got more creative in isolation, and improved his drive-and-kick game. You could no longer give him any space to launch a three-pointer, or he’d drill one between your eyes, which happened here with Jonas Valanciunas:
The defense was fundamentally sound, but Jaylen disrespectfully took his time setting his feet and squaring his hips, then calmly hit the three. He hit six first-half 3’s against the Grizzlies and the non-shooting label now seemed laughable.
On this next play, Jaylen has limited space working out of the corner with Anthony Edwards defending him, one of the few players who can match him athletically. He does a behind the back spin move, takes an extra dribble to regain balance, then sinks the 16-foot fadeaway:
A few years back, he’d expend a great deal of effort to complete this difficult move in tight space. Now, he’s making it look easy. Like the first clip, the defender played him perfectly, but his offense moved into an elite territory that no single defender can stop.
Over here, he unleashes a move that I don’t believe any other NBA player uses:
Dribbling through the legs is usually for protecting the ball from the defender, but nobody does a through-the-legs crossover to get by his man. It works when the defender is sagging to one side, like on this possession against TJ Warren. After crossing the ball over to the left, he takes a long stride with his right leg to clear his defender. He started using this through-the-legs crossover in his fourth year, then mastered it in his fifth and sixth years.
The curse of being so individually skilled and athletic is trying to do everything yourself. Later in the Pacers game, he tries to finish over three defenders and gets blocked:
Theis, Smart, and Tatum were all open beyond the arc, but Jaylen decided to take it himself. Him scoring on this play wouldn’t be inconceivable; however, it would take another year for Jaylen to instinctively make the right play for the team as opposed to trying to create something out of nothing.
6th Year: “Shifted energy”
23.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 47.3 FG%, 35.8 3FG%, 33.6 MP, 66 GP, 66 GS
On Opening Night, Jaylen scored a career high (at the time) 46 points in Madison Square Garden fresh off a bout with COVID. I’m not going to clip his 35-foot clutch three pointer on Evan Fournier because he has too many other good clips across 66 regular season and 24 playoff games. We know the 2021-2022 Celtics took a while to get going, but once they did, they were unstoppable.
I’ll start with a defensive clip:
Unbelievable defensive effort here from Jaylen Brown, who caught Embiid on a cross-match, and Dennis Schroder, who saw it and continually sucked in for help. And then Brown finishes the possession by forcing a miss with his own help defense. This is WOW stuff!!! pic.twitter.com/09340F9tdW
— Marc D’Amico (@Marc_DAmico) December 2, 2021
He denies Joel Embiid the entry pass three times, then blocks Tyrese Maxey at the rim. This type of late-game effort from your team leader is invaluable. He could have easily allowed Embiid to get the ball then wait for a double team, but he’s relentlessly battling for space with a guy who has five inches and 50 pounds on him.
I’m sure everyone remembers this one:
Everything here is perfect: the through-the-legs crossover, the splitting of two defenders, the baptization of Maxi Kleber, the bench reaction, and the daps to Kevin Garnett on his number retirement afternoon.
Jaylen is not only more skilled and more athletic than most people he plays against, but he also has a higher motor. Even in the playoffs, when fatigue impacts everyone, Brown zooms around the court to make spectacular plays like this in Game 1 versus Brooklyn:
First, he beat everyone back on defense and perfectly times the block. Then he outruns everyone on the other end and finishes the layup through contact. In a game like this, where the Celtics won by a point, this four-point swing may have been just as important as the buzzer-beating layup.
During Game 5 of the Finals, he again utilizes his through-the-legs crossover before weaving and bobbing through three Golden State defenders:
Draymond is one of the smartest defenders of all time, but he couldn’t figure out Jaylen Brown at the rim.
The final play is from Game 2 versus Milwaukee at the end of the first quarter:
It starts with him bringing up the ball guarded closely by Wes Matthews, who’s a stout defender with a low center of gravity. Jaylen keeps him on his right hip, then when the help comes, he stops to freeze them, but never breaks stride. Tatum, noticing his defender is distracted, cuts baseline. Brown sees him, and Boston gets an uncontested layup to close the quarter.
The Celtics have two dynamic wings who know how to complement one another while not compromising their individual games. Like the above clip, there’s an ESP element to playing hundreds of games together. When the defense reacts a certain way, the Jays know how to respond both on and off the ball.
I wouldn’t want to trade him for Kevin Durant, even if it were straight up (which isn’t possible because of salary matching, but you get my point). Aside from Kawhi Leonard, I can’t think of any player that’s improved over his first six years to the degree of Jaylen Brown.
And we got to watch it all.
At the time, I didn’t understand it when he liked the tweet that said Boston fans disrespect him. After watching all these clips, I see his point of view. He’s an unbelievable player who regularly gets overlooked.
He was there during the final Isaiah year, the good Kyrie year, the disastrous Kyrie year, the pandemic years, and last year, when the Celtics reached Game 6 of The Finals. Maybe after a few months of play, the Kevin Durant rumors will pick back up, and Jaylen will again find himself in trade talks. When that happens, I’ll gladly plant my flag on the “keep Jaylen Brown at all costs” hill.