The Kyrie Irving Trade Accelerates the Growth of Jaylen Brown

Boston’s wing of the future is suddenly a major piece of the present.

No matter what your feelings about Kyrie Irving, Boston undoubtedly sacrificed two of its most valuable players to get him. The Celtics are trying to pull the trick of building for a championship window three years from now without closing the one that’s currently open, and their ability to do that hinges massively on what they have in Jaylen Brown.

Brown seems the logical choice to fill the 3-and-D void created by Jae Crowder’s departure. (Gordon Hayward will carry too heavy an offensive load to be purely a two-way specialist.) He showed encouraging flashes during an up-and-down rookie year, eventually earning Brad Stevens’ trust in the playoffs and showing his potential to be a strong two-way player. But he’s still extremely raw, and much of his ability and value is still theoretical at this point.

At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, Brown has the ideal physical tools for an NBA wing, possessing the strength, length, and quickness to handle everything from combo forwards to point guards. Not many rookies cone into the league able bang with threes and fours and stay with smaller dudes off the dribble. But Brown is a special athlete, and his defensive potential is evident:

Without Crowder and Avery Bradley on the roster, it will be imperative for Brown to become a stopper, which Stevens says could be Brown’s most important contribution in his second year.

“Jaylen’s got to become a lockdown defender for us,” Stevens told Chris Mannix of The Vertical. “He’s going to continue to be good [offensively], but especially with losing Avery,[1] it’s going to be really important that Jaylen takes the next step defensively.”

Taking that step necessitates consistently fighting over screens, taking fewer risks, and maintaining focus for entire possessions. Brown has a tendency to bite on pump fakes, which more experienced players use to bait him into silly fouls, and can be prone to falling asleep off the ball. He still lacks high-level defensive discipline, a requirement for someone expected to hold the league’s best perimeter players in check. When he dials in, though, it looks something like this:

That’s a lockdown defender. In both of those plays, Brown switches onto multiple players, stakes out proper help position, and alters a shot attempt. He can hold his own on an island as well:

Boston has a slew of versatile, switchy wings that can slide between three or four positions. If Brown brings activity like that in his sophomore season, Stevens will be able to configure some nasty defensive lineups.

The growth of Brown’s individual offensive game was one of the interesting subplots of Boston’s season. He’s a nifty finisher around the basket (with either hand!) and periodically broke out some slick moves in isolations:

Brown also looked good at times playing out of the mid-post, an area that could one day be one of his sweet spots.

“He’s gotten better at his shot, he’s gotten better at creating, he’s gotten better off the pick-and-roll,” Stevens said of Brown. “He works hard.”

He’ll still force drives that aren’t there or plow through traffic without a real plan, but the foundation is there for a dependable off the dribble game to blossom. He’s a better ball-handler than people realize and an explosive leaper who can get to the rack. Brown only used 29 plays as the pick-and-roll ball-handler last year, but he should become more effective in that area over the next few years as he absorbs more playmaking responsibility.

The offensive tool most in need of immediate improvement is his jumper, which was the biggest knock on Brown coming into the league. Brown shot nearly 38 percent from three after the All-Star break, and his shooting mechanics were visibly smoother by the end of the season. He also canned over 40 percent of his triples as a starter. Even if that figure tails off this season, the quality of his looks shouldn’t. Irving demands a defense’s full attention whenever he has the ball; Hayward and Horford exploit inattentiveness with off-ball movement and sly passing; and Stevens’ system fosters motion and ball movement. Get the defense scrambling and off-balance, and open looks materialize:

Brown will get a lot of looks just like that one, and he has to make opponents pay. While it would be a shock if he shot as well as Crowder or Bradley did last season, he should at least be adequate in that role. Those sweet corner threes are the shots he’ll see more of and should seek out as a starter. As a rookie, he drained 43 percent of his triples from the corners, including 46.4 percent from the left side of the floor.

Weaponizing his jumpshot also allow him to more effectively attack closeouts and play as a slasher, which he prefers to do. Brown averaged a shade under a point per possession on spot-up plays last season, a good, but not great, mark. Even a slight increase would make the Celtics much more dangerous with him on the floor.

Boston clearly believes Brown will take these steps and continue to grow as a player. But an eventful summer suddenly hit the accelerator on that process. More meaningful game reps will help his progress, and it’s possible that we see a another major start-to-finish improvement from Brown. Whether the Celtics are contending for the present or the future, he is an integral piece of the puzzle.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com. 

[1] This interview was recorded before the team traded Crowder.

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