As someone who has voted for the NBA’s rookie of the year award countless times in the past, I usually don’t put too much stock into a team’s record because, as we know, rookies do diddly when it comes to victories.
The good ones may move a team a step or two further away from the lottery, but their focus initially centers around bettering their game, not the team’s record.
And then there’s Jaylen Brown.
A top 3 pick on a team built to go deep into the playoffs isn’t exactly going to get the young fella on the floor for big minutes right away.
But to Brown’s credit, he has had to work a lot harder than most of his fellow rookies to get on the floor because the talent he’s competing against is better.
And while his minutes haven’t been nearly as abundant because of that, there’s no mistaking Brown’s impact on this Celtics team in his first NBA season.
That alone should keep him in the conversation for the league’s rookie of the year award, which is a wide-open race now that Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid’s season is over after having played just 31 games.
Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon and Sixers forward Dario Saric are the likely front-runners for the award at this point.
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But to dismiss Brown’s candidacy would be punishing him for doing what every player who comes into the league is charged with doing, and that’s helping their team win games.
Boston (40-22) has the fifth-best record in the NBA, reaching 40 wins faster than any of fourth-year coach Brad Stevens' previous Celtics teams.
Isaiah Thomas is a top 5 MVP candidate, while Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder are all defensive standouts who should get some all-NBA defensive accolades.
Still, the growth and emergence of Brown has been most surprising.
Selected with the No. 3 pick in the June draft, the Celtics were doing all they could to move the pick in hopes of packaging it to land a player who could make an immediate impact.
But this seems to be another one of those situations where the best deal that Danny Ainge made, was the deal he didn’t make.
Because as you watch Brown play and see the growth in his game, it’s clear this kid can help Boston both in the short and long-term.
He has size, length and athleticism that puts him on a different plane than any of his teammates.
And maybe the most important part of Brown’s game that you don’t see, is his confidence.
His first NBA start came against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
All he did was have his best game of the season (up to that point, anyway), dropping a then-career high 19 points on James and the Cavs.
He made his share of mistakes that night, but did something you seldom see rookies do: he made in-game corrections on his mistakes as opposed to repeating them a few times before it sunk in as to what he could and could not do.
In conversations with Celtics assistant coaches, it’s that understanding of what he does wrong and how to fix it quickly, that makes him an atypical rookie.
His teammates know how impressive he is as a player. And having seen the NBA's rookies up close in games, they know that Brown is as good or better than most of them.
As much as they would love for him to get the award, they know all too well just how difficult it can be for a player in Brown’s position.
“It’s hard because most rookies who get rookie of the year are playing for bad teams,” Isaiah Thomas told reporters recently. “They play 35 minutes a game, take any shot [they] want. Bigger picture, it’s better for him to be on a playoff team, understand how to win games and he knows what he brings to the table. He’s a big part of what we got going. He definitely wants to win rookie of the year, but it’s hard going up against guys not really playing for nothing.”
The interesting thing about the rookie of the year award is that the premise of rewarding big numbers on bad teams flies in the face of what coaches and players often say about team success being the best path towards individual honors.
“For the most part, I do believe individual awards do follow team success at some rate,” Stevens told reporters recently. “But I also understand the rookies that are playing 38 minutes a game are going to be the ones that get the most attention; that’s just the way it goes. That’s one of the things I like about Jaylen. He doesn’t really care about that stuff. I think the biggest thing is he wants to get better every day. He’s been very consistent in his approach, whether he played 10 minutes the game before or started and played 30. He doesn’t change who he is on a day-to-day basis which is hard when you’re the third pick in the draft and everybody wants to see you play more and more and more. It’s hard to be consistent and just wanting to get better and learn.”
But Brown has done that, and in doing so, he has taught the league a lesson or two about his off-the-charts athleticism.
Arguably the best example of that came Friday night in the 115-95 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers when Brown caught an alley-oop lay-up, switched hands in mid-air and finished the play while being fouled.
“He [Avery Bradley] put it in the vicinity and I got it,” Brown told reporters after Friday’s win. “I appreciate Avery for throwing the pass.”
And those who will vote on rookie of the year should appreciate the fact that Brown is not your run-of-the-mill candidate who forces you to choose between which rookie is better at stuffing the staff sheet.
Instead, voters now have the option of voting for a guy who impacts winning, which is a rarity when you’re talking about the top rookies.