If you cast your mind back to early 2020, before lockdown and the NBA Bubble, you may recall that one of the top stories in the basketball world was the meteoric rise of Jayson Tatum. The third overall pick from the 2017 draft was starting to live up to the hype in his third season. Behind Tatum’s silky smooth offensive game, the Celtics came within two wins of the NBA Finals.
Fast forward to the present day. We are nearing the halfway point of a relatively normal NBA season. The Boston Celtics are having an up-and-down season, but still find themselves in the mix for a top-4 playoff spot in the East. And it is no surprise to anyone that the team’s best player for much of the early season has been… Jaylen Brown?
To be clear, both Tatum and Brown are deserving All Stars this year. Boston’s problem is not the talent or performance of its two young stars. But if last season was Jayson Tatum’s emergence as a budding superstar, then this year has been Jaylen Brown’s quiet but confident step forward into a starring role of his own. Brown has shown himself to be, at the very least, a viable second option on a contending team. So what is different this year? What do the numbers tell us about Jaylen Brown’s improvement?
When Jaylen Brown was drafted, he was regarded as an explosive athlete with raw, unrefined talent. It is safe to say now that his talent has been refined. Perhaps the clearest display of Brown’s skill set comes in his transition offense. According to NBA Stats, Jaylen Brown is currently second in the league in both Transition Points (202 as of Feb. 24th) and Transition Points Per Game (7.0), trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo in both categories. In third place in each category, behind Brown, is LeBron James. Other names from last year’s top five transition scorers include James Harden, Devin Booker, and Russell Westbrook. While transition points are not everything, this is a category where the league’s best often shine. In 2020-21, Jaylen Brown is scoring in transition more than everyone except for the league’s reigning MVP.
Brown’s prowess in transition is emblematic of his strengths as a player. Mike Gorman, the Celtics’ play-by-play voice of 30 years, has observed on the broadcast this year that Jaylen Brown excels at playing “North to South.” Brown is able to get to the rim like a power running back in the NFL. His size and speed make him a force both in open space and in the half-court game. Brown has always possessed the athleticism of an elite finisher. Over the course of his career, he has added strength and a tighter handle to his game. The results so far this year speak for themselves; when he is on his game, he can get to the rim at will.
No doubt, some transition offense is the result of active team defense resulting in more transition possessions. Brown’s role as a strong wing defender certainly helps to generate more transition scoring attempts. But Brown’s scoring in transition is not simply a product of high volume opportunities. Brown is converting on 64.4% of his transition field goal attempts this year. Only LeBron is scoring at a higher rate among players with at least 100 transition field goal attempts. And that scoring efficiency highlights another area of big improvement in Brown’s game this season.
While transition scoring accounts for some of Jaylen Brown’s improvement, this is certainly not his only area of improvement. No matter where he is on the floor, Jaylen Brown is shooting at a career high rate through his first 29 games this year: 50.1% field goal rate, 40.2% 3-point percentage, and 77.1% from the free throw line.
All of these improvements in shooting percentage come with an increase in Brown’s shooting volume as well. With Gordon Hayward leaving Boston for Charlotte, and Kemba Walker‘s inconsistent availability, Jaylen Brown has been asked to take on a much larger role in the Celtics’ offense this year. He has responded by becoming a more efficient scorer than ever before. It is no surprise that he is easily averaging a career high in points per game: 25.7, up from last year’s 20.3. Adding over 5 PPG is perhaps the quickest way to get noticed in the NBA.
While effective scoring on high volume opportunities is impressive, it is not always the winning formula, and what separates good players from great ones in the league is their ability to make others around them excel as well. Although Boston has struggled of late, there is still reason for optimism as both Tatum and Brown expand their abilities as the focal points in the offense, and their ability to make plays even when they are not the ones scoring.
As Jaylen Brown transforms into a more complete offensive player, he is being trusted with more responsibility in Boston’s offense. He is handling the ball more, and more than ever before in his young professional career, he is facing NBA defenses that are designed specifically to stop him. And so we are beginning to see the development of Jaylen Brown the playmaker. This area is still a work in progress, of course, but the emphasis there is on progress.
A simple look at Brown’s numbers attest to his improvement in this area: he is already averaging a career high in assists (3.9 per game). And according to Basketball-Reference, Assist Percentage (an estimate of the rate of teammate field goals which he has assisted) has skyrocketed as well this season, up to 20.4% from 9.7% last season. The assist numbers continue to go up for Brown on a nightly basis. As Brown’s comfort with his new role continues to grow, so too should his assist numbers.
There is still room for improvement in Jaylen Brown’s game, obviously, and the Celtics continue to struggle to find consistent performances on the roster behind Tatum and Brown. But in a career marked by year-to-year improvements, Brown’s leap forward this year has been his most impressive yet. Together with Jayson Tatum, the Celtics at the very least have a duo that should be elite in the Eastern Conference for years to come.