August 9, 2018, 1:05 pm
Just over a month before Jayson Tatum scored 24 points in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, hardly backing down from a typically dominant and determined LeBron James at a mere 20 years old, Jaylen Brown was staking his own claim as their team’s best young player. He poured in 34 points, a career-best, and grabbed eight rebounds in a hard-fought 104-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on April 22, helping the depleted Boston Celtics erase a 16-point halftime deficit by scoring 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting after intermission. Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s all-arms tip-in broke a tie score with five seconds left in the fourth quarter, giving the Bucks a crucial series-evening victory, but it was Tatum’s heroics seconds earlier that gave the Celtics their first lead of the second half – and added a signature moment to his burgeoning legend.
The rookie’s pull-up 17-footer over the outstretched arms of Khris Middleton further cemented what the basketball world had come to realize during the previous several months. The question wasn’t whether or not Tatum would grow into stardom, but how quickly he’d do so on a team loaded with individual talent that nevertheless prefers to play an egalitarian style. But with Tatum confirming his precocious brilliance and old-school flair for one-on-one drama to a national audience in real time, it became easy to forget why he had the chance to take advantage of that opportunity in the first place.
After a pair of free throws by Antetokounmpo pushed Milwaukee’s lead to four with under two minutes remaining, Brown made the last of his five triples on the night, a filthy between-the-legs step-back from the right wing that put Thon Maker on skates.
The surprising prevalence of such eye-popping moves with the ball in his hands warrants a closer look at Brown’s breakout sophomore campaign, especially as Boston, finally fully healthy, establishes a new offensive hierarchy leading up to 2018-19. Conventional wisdom says that among the many players who stepped up during the Celtics’ thrilling playoff run last spring, Brown is the one poised to see his role changed most due to the re-integration of Kyrie Irving and addition of Gordon Hayward. The realities informing that notion aren’t necessarily critiques of Brown’s blossoming skill set, either, as much as they are an acknowledgement of his ability to affect the game in multiple ways.
At 6-foot-7 and an ever-sturdy 225 pounds with long arms, Brown has the rare physical tools necessary to check quick lead guards, score-first wings and do-it-all forwards. He received five votes for First Team All-Defense at the age of 21, and considering the correlation between experience and defensive effectiveness combined with his notorious work ethic, is primed to emerge as one of the league’s most switch-proof perimeter defenders – the type it takes to make life hard on an offensive juggernaut in the modern NBA.
But earmarking Brown as a contending team’s designated stopper sells his offensive potential well short. Andre Iguodala didn’t fall back into that role until his tenth season of service, at the crest of his thirties, after a decade of being stretched past his limits as a first or second option. But following last season, when he managed the difficult feat of increasing his usage, true shooting percentage and assist rate while simultaneously lowering his turnover rate, Boston would be remiss to put an artificial ceiling on Brown, no matter the extent of Tatum’s promise, nor the expected amount of touches and shots for anyone else on Brad Stevens’ roster.
Preseason concerns about the Celtics, up to that point gritty underdogs coalescing into a whole more than the sum of their parts, adding a ball-dominant superstar to the fold in 2017-18 were unfounded. Irving’s average touch time of 4.82 seconds, his lowest since tracking data became available in 2013-14, was actually .8 seconds less than Isaiah Thomas‘ number from the previous season, but Boston still held the ball far longer than any other in the Stevens era. Irving being shut down for good on March 11 also didn’t change anything in that regard. The Celtics averaged 3.01 seconds per touch on the whole last season, 11th-most in basketball, and one-hundredth of a second more than they did after Irving went down.
The offensive principals Stevens preaches have been mostly immune to perceived threats of ball-hoggery so far, basically, but that doesn’t mean the same will prove true going forward. No team in the NBA, including the Golden State Warriors, has more hungry mouths to feed than Boston. Even role players like Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris are gifted and confident enough to expect a certain number of shots. Al Horford‘s real influence is never accurately portrayed by points or field goal attempts, thankfully, and it stands to reason Hayward, still not cleared for full basketball activities, will need some time re-acclimating to the speed of the game before assuming an offensive role like the one he had with the Utah Jazz – if he’s ready to do so at all.
Regardless, it goes without saying some Celtics will have to sacrifice more than others for the greater good, and Brown’s inherent versatility makes it seem like he could be chief among them. Knocking down open jumpers, attacking close-outs, bullying overmatched defenders on the block after switches and running the floor in transition would let Brown play to his natural and nurtured strengths without taking the ball away from teammates, whose more limited ability to impact the action on both sides of the floor means their energy is best expended on offense. It’s not like standing behind Irving and Tatum, shot-making maestros, or even Hayward and Horford in the offensive pecking order suggests any lack of confidence in Brown’s developmental track on behalf of the team itself. Kawhi Leonard, remember, would probably be wearing green and gold had Danny Ainge relented on his steadfast refusal to include Brown (and Tatum) in any trade package offered to the San Antonio Spurs.
Clearly, Boston likes the player Brown is right now and has even higher hopes for the one he’ll become. As near-consensus Eastern Conference frontrunners, though, the Celtics might feel tempted to give into temptations of playing for the present instead of the future, robbing Brown of the growing pains needed to reach his full potential. Evolving into a player of Iguodala’s ilk and caliber would be a fantastic outcome for his career, but not the one that keeps Boston’s championship window open widest and longest. The Warriors aren’t going anywhere this season anyway; why wouldn’t the Celtics try and strike the delicate balance between fostering the development of a guy like Brown and winning as many games as possible?
Doing so will be far easier said than done, of course, but represents a problem every team in the league wishes it had. How Stevens tries to solve it won’t just loom large for Brown’s future, but Boston’s at large, too.