On Wednesday, hours after rioters stormed the United States Capitol and the NBA’s first nightly game list came to an end, the league’s eyes turned to a 24-year-old forward in Boston.
Celtics forward Jaylen Brown gave an impromptu speech on the clear privilege of whites and the double standards associated with Wednesday’s events, joining a chorus of poignant comments across the NBA. Brown has become one of the leading voices in the fight against racial injustice and police brutality in recent years. He’s considerate, charismatic, and frankly everything you could want in a franchise host. Brown could be a defining Boston athlete in the 2020s just by virtue of his activism. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got off to a spectacular start in 2020-21.
It’s important to consider Brown’s unique position in both Boston and the NBA before delving into his production on the court. Brown is a leading figure in the fight against injustice in a time of legitimate crisis in America, formerly leading protests in Georgia and participating in numerous efforts to get the vote. As the NBA and WNBA continue to drive social change, Brown is a fitting leader across the league.
Brown also represents the future in Boston specifically, one that has become increasingly clear in recent months. He spent the first two years of his career in and out of trade rumors, serving as the lead potential piece in potential blockbuster trade for Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. General manager Danny Ainge abstained from deals both times, pledging to Brown and the (rightly) untradeable Jayson Tatum. Brown landed a four-year, $ 115 million contract in October 2019. Tatum signed up for a five-year, $ 190 million contract in November. Kemba Walker absorbed more salary cap space, and in recent months the pool of available superstars has shrunk considerably. Barring one change from James Harden, Tatum and Brown are Boston’s leading men for the foreseeable future. We will have to wait and see if Ainge made the right decision. But even in a crowded East, maybe betting on Brown is the sensible decision.
Brown’s rise was different from his running mate in the All-Star Game. Tatum’s climb was relatively swift, highlighted by a heads-up battle with LeBron James in the 2018 Eastern Conference. Tatum has been considered a future All-NBA talent ever since, and is among the best players under 25 years of age in the league. Brown’s rise, by contrast, has been a more measured incline.
I chatted with Brown in April of his rookie year as Boston prepared for his final playoff run with Isaiah Thomas. Cal’s product had gone from a shortened stint at Berkeley to a major role with a title contender in just 12 months, putting the young rookie in a rare situation for a high lottery pick. Brown was released at the end of the NBA early in his career. He played significant minutes for a No. 1 seed as a rookie. He struggled to find his place for much of the Kyrie Irving era. But the trials have helped make Brown an early All-Star contender. Now in her fifth season, Brown has become a true co-star alongside Tatum. The wide-eyed former rookie is a relative veteran on Boston’s reshaped roster.
Brown is in the midst of a fairly early season break through nine contests. He’s averaging a career-high 26.2 points per game, hitting his career highs in assists, steals and blocks. The percentages are just absurd. Brown is shooting 71.4 percent, the best in the league, on middle-range jump shots. Has hit 67.3 percent of pull-up attempts. His dominant shot numbers are probably an aberration to some degree, but the metrics represent a huge leap for Boston’s leading swingman. Brown was once little more than a stationary shooter. Now he’s not just a secondary scorer, but a possible top pick on the right night.
Jump shooting has never been an issue for Brown after his rookie year. He shot 39.5% in a significant jump on attempts in his second season, serving as a reliable 3-D threat. Brown’s defense has been consistently stellar. He can play over the rim in transition. However, to be truly valued as a co-star alongside Tatum, Brown had to become a more well-rounded player. We’ve seen that version emerge in the last two seasons. Brown’s control and control on the rebound continues to improve. He’s quiet in the crowd, a far cry from his first two years, and an increasingly impressive dealer at the pick-and-roll. With Kemba Walker out of the rotation, Brown is a necessary playmaker.
How sustainable Brown’s game really is can define Boston’s season. This is an imperfect roster as it currently stands, with Walker on the mend and an untested rotation to boot. The stakes are high with Payton Pritchard and Jeff Teague. Perhaps Gordon Hayward’s business exception could make a difference in the coming months. For now, Brown’s scoring and playmaking burden will remain heavy. Even when your shots inevitably cool down, you’ll still have to demand extra attention from your defenses. There is a notable lack of firepower on nights when Tatum or Brown sizzle.
There is an obvious potential boost in such available firepower. Harden is an imperfect player, whose warts have been on the horizon in recent months. But there is no denying his offensive brilliance. Harden is arguably the top scorer of this century. He runs doubles unlike any player in the league, except maybe Stephen Curry. It’s easy to see Brad Stevens plotting an avalanche of buckets as teams scramble to contain Harden and Tatum. But is going nuclear the right thing to do for the franchise? Brown is making a compelling case against doing so.
Brown’s growth may not result in a title for Boston in 2021. There will likely be some frustration with another outing in the Eastern Conference playoffs, with the title drought increasing and the avenues for improvement narrowing. Some will regret a missed opportunity regarding Leonard. The current dynamic duo will be questioned. But as things stand today, it’s hard to imagine a more prudent path than Boston’s current one.
Brown is currently one of the brightest and most influential players in the NBA. He and Tatum are exactly what you expect as pillars of the franchise. None of the stars have turned 25, and a half-decade of final opportunities is likely to await them. Brown has become a true cornerstone of the franchise. Both the Celtics and the NBA are better for it.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.