Like any good sports writer, this piece about Jaylen Brown will begin by focusing on Marcus Smart. That make sense, right?
The Celtics tough-nosed, otherworldly defender has been starting at guard for the Cs since November 26th. How have things been since then? Was this a smart (yes, pun-intended) decision by 2020 presidential contender Brad Stevens? NBC Boston Reporter Chris Forsberg can answer that for you.
With Smart in the starting lineup, the Celtics have gradually regained their form and are turning into the legitimate contender many thought them to be. Starting lineups, however, are a zero-sum game. When one guy goes in, another guy goes out. That guy: Jaylen Brown.
A hand injury led to Brown leaving the starting lineup, only to see Smart come in and never relinquish the role. But since then, Brown has reclaimed most of his 2017-18 form; a sophomore year performance that inspired daily #NBATwitter takes which read like, “If I were Danny Ainge, I’d think twice about including Brown in a Kawhi Leonard package.”
Brown’s injury, although apparently still lingering and bothering him, has been a blessing in disguise. Remember when Chris Paul was acquired by the Houston Rockets and half the world thought there wasn’t enough ball to go around between him and James Harden? That same theory (although debunked in H-Town) had been applied to this Celtics season.
With Gordon Hayward coming back, how would young stars like Brown and Jayson “More Mid-ranges” Tatum handle their different offensive roles? What would those roles even be? Who was going to suffer the most?
Coach Stevens had this chemistry issue partially fixed for him. Eventually, he decided to swap most-improved candidate Marcus Morris into the lineup for Hayward. The injury to Brown, however, organically slid Smart into the lineup.
It was a natural fit. Although he is posting the best shooting numbers of his career, Smart is someone who does not require shots to be effective. Rather, he oils an offensive machine by playmaking as a facilitator, setting the tempo and creating easy transition points from defensive turnovers. In other words, there was more ball to go around for Tatum, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, less chefs in the kitchen.
The lineup numbers demonstrate the difference. The Cs new starting lineup (barring injuries) features Horford, Morris, Tatum, Smart and Irving. This lineup has logged the most minutes for the Celtics and the team has benefitted from it. Compare it the other two lineups which have seen the most minutes (below.)
The difference has been stark and positive. The current starters, sans Brown, has made massive leaps in Net Points, Net Field Goals, Net Field Goal Percentage, Net 3-Point Percentage and Net Assists. Not too shabby.
|A. Horford | K. Irving | M. Morris | M. Smart | J. Tatum||173:32||+14.1||+9.1||+.072||+0.2||-2.4||+.035||+.069||-7.3||+1.0||+3.7|
|J. Brown | G. Hayward | A. Horford | K. Irving | J. Tatum||138:10||-4.3||-1.8||-.020||+0.8||+5.5||-.028||-.015||-3.8||-3.5||-3.4|
|J. Brown | A. Horford | K. Irving | M. Morris | J. Tatum||58:11||-1.3||+3.1||+.028||-2.1||+3.4||-.106||+.016||-8.1||-0.9||-1.6|
I know what you’re thinking: “So, when is this dummy going to talk about Jaylen’s resurgence?” Now. I will do that now.
Recall when I said starting lineups are a zero-sum game? When one guy is named a new starter, someone has to go to the bench. This logic could also be twisted to lead someone to believe that although the starting lineup should improve, the reserve lineups could struggle. Contrarily, that is not the case in Boston, which is why Stevens should always be considered for Coach of the Year.
This change not only made the Cs starting lineup better but, bolstered the bench as well. Earlier in the season the Celtics would give up leads, often in the third quarter and when the reserves came in. Not anymore. Brown’s move to the bench has not only benefited him, but the team is reveling in it as well.
I researched which lineups had the highest Net Points on the season so far. The first lineup is one the Cs are beginning to close games with. The next two not only feature Brown but, feature him as a focal point in the offense in an off-the-bench role.
|1||G. Hayward | A. Horford | K. Irving | M. Morris | J. Tatum||33:28||+58.3||+3.4|
|2||J. Brown | G. Hayward | M. Morris | T. Rozier | D. Theis||33:28||+32.1||+2.2|
|3||J. Brown | G. Hayward | K. Irving | T. Rozier | D. Theis||24:17||+32.0||-8.1|
Assuredly, Brown’s move to the bench has played a major role in the Celtics season turnaround. It remains to be asked though, how has Brown fared as an individual player? Pretty damn well.
Before Brown’s injury and consequential move to the bench, he averaged 11.1/4.1/1.6 while shooting 39.8 percent from the floor and 25 percent from deep. Ew. Since becoming a reserve player Brown has put up 13.7/4.2/1.9 on 50.6 percent shooting from the floor (!) and 35.8 percent from behind the arc. Talk about a change of course, right?
Additionally, Brown is doing this while playing four less minutes per game than what he did as a starter. His efficiency has skyrocketed, and although his defensive performance has stepped up as well, it may make more sense to focus on his offensive uptick. So what has Brown done differently to bring about this revamped play?
I will show you some film to augment the points, but to begin we must talk about Brown’s mentality. A notably brilliant young man, Brown knows how much potential he has to be a scorer from all three levels of the court. His skill set may not be where he wants it yet, but Brown is cognizant of his physical gifts and how he needs to take advantage of them.
After watching his sophomore year (especially the postseason) the eye test told us that JB would be looking to take the next step forward in his player development during 2018-19. We can see it in his shooting distance numbers.
During his first two seasons, Brown took 37 percent of his 3-point attempts from the corner and nailed an awesome 42.9 percent of them. During that same span he also took 50.3 percent of his shots with 10 feet of the hoop and another 36 percent from deep. For those who struggle with math like I do, that means 83.6 percent of his shoots either came close to the hoop (within 10 feet) or from beyond the arc. His 2017-18 heat map says it all.
This season tells another story. He has essentially doubled the percentage of shots he takes from the mid-range when compared to last year. Secondly, as a starter, he had been staying away from the corners despite traditionally shooting a high percentage from there. The eye test told us that Brown wanted to develop his isolation scoring by taking advantage of his (somewhat) improved handle and firmer grasp of his athleticism. The numbers also reveal his intentions as well.
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Yet, with Hayward, Irving, Tatum and Horford also having the talent to command having the ball in their hands often, Brown found himself playing outside of the flow of the offense. Would he do nothing more than stand in the corner or attack the rim on cuts and poorly defended closeouts? Or would Brown try and see if his offseason work could come into fruition by creating for himself more?
Brown is not the only one to fault here. Tatum has taken a wild amount of mid-ranges. Hayward has had ups and downs while navigating his way back into rhythm. Morris is no stranger to hoisting up iso shots. But how has being a reserve changed and opened up Brown’s game?
Often as the emphasis of the second unit offense, Brown has seen his touches and usage rate increase, as well as his confidence. With these units Brown can accomplish his goal of being more than a corner shooter and lane-cutter. And he should! The guy is immensely talented! He knows his athletics gifts and is learning the skills to wield them in full force. How many guys can bump the mobile and strong Clint Capela out of the way during a drive and then thrown down a non-dominant handed dunk on his head? Brown needed opportunity, as he got it from Stevens.
As a starter, in November, Brown averaged 1.6 pull-up attempts per game and his 47.4 percent of them. In December, in a reserve role, Brown took 2.3 pull-ups per game and hit 51.9 percent. For what it’s worth, his December percentage was better than both Irving’s and Tatum’s. It wasn’t a major increase in attempts per game with pull-ups but, it was a noticeable one nevertheless and indicative of Steven’s plan for Brown.
I could show you some footage of Brown nailing a smooth pull-up during garbage time against the Pacers after a broken play. Or, I could show you film of Brown working on his pull-up with Tracy McGrady over this summer. Better yet, how about I embed them both as links in this paragraph and let you decide which ones to watch. Either way, the dude has earned some minutes to use these moves during games.
His post-up touches, a part of his game which I happen to like, have gone up too. In November Brown shot less than one post-up attempt per game. As a reserve in the following month, Brown took 1.8 post-up attempts and finished second on the team for field goal percentage by hitting 70 percent of them. Watch him hit a post-up fadeaway like a veteran, against the bulky Derrick White nonetheless.
Lastly, his usage rate is revealing as well. In November, Brown had a usage rate of 20.4 percent, third highest on the team. When December came Brown’s rate increased to 22.7 percent which was good for second highest on the team, despite coming off the bench and playing less minutes.
A higher usage rate means Brown can both simultaneously work on and show off a part of his game he has been criticized for: his handle. Jaylen has made strides in that category this year, with this next clip being some solid proof. He displays his better sense of body control as well.
Are these numbers drastic in terms of their increases? No. They still are, however, an indicator of why Brown has remained a reserve. He is getting the touches he deserves, the freedom to fail, and the chance to gain confidence by showing off the improvements in his game. Smart move, Mr. Stevens, smart move indeed.
Brown’s re-upped confidence is almost palpable, too. It’s new, but this is my favorite clip to explain it. Here, Brown runs to the left corner, where he hit 48.3 percent from last year. All-Defensive teamer Victor Oladipo catches up to Brown. What does Brown do? Simply shoot it over him, despite one of the best defenders in the game being right in his mug.
Somehow, this move completely worked out for the Celtics. As a team, they are playing their best ball to date and showing signs that they could become the favorites to come out of the East before the season ends. Brown also gets what he wants. The guy traded the reputation and ego-boost that comes from being a starter on a title contender for more offensive opportunity. That paid off as well, for both player and team.
Don’t take my word for it though, take Brown’s. During an interview with Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, when asked about his new role with the team, Brown replied:
“We’ve got a lot of players, a lot of pieces out there, so I’m trying to figure out who you are and where you fit into this team. It’s going to continue to change and things like that. You’ve just got to be patient and continue to work hard, and everything will fall in place.”
Pretty well-spoken for the optimistic wing, no?
If Brown keeps trending the way he is currently going, and remains a reserve, do not be surprised if he gets 6th Man of the Year votes when the season is over. For now though, just enjoy the ride and watch a young star in the making get better with each game.