Like most high draft picks, Al Horford was intent on getting playing time as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks.
Then-assistant Mike Woodson pulled Horford aside one day early on and gave him some advice; the kind that nearly a decade later still resonates with Horford who now plays for the Boston Celtics.
‘’’You defend and rebound, you’ll play,’’’ Horford, speaking to CSNNE.com, recalled from his conversation with Woodson (now a Los Angeles Clippers assistant). “That’s what I did and I got to play.”
Horford and other Celtics have been preaching a similar sermon to Jaylen Brown who seems to be taking their words to heart.
The Celtics come into Wednesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings riding a seven-game winning streak, with all seven wins coming about with Brown in the starting lineup at shooting guard.
His presence provides a level of defensive versatility with the starting group that has helped fuel Boston’s recent run of success.
This season, the Celtic’s defensive rating is 106.1 which ranks 19th in the league.
Since Brown was inserted into the starting lineup seven games ago, Boston’s defensive rating has improved to 102.5 which ranks 5th in the league during that span.
Of course Brown isn’t the sole reason why Boston’s defense has been better and the team has been winning more.
But there is no doubt that the 6-foot-7 rookie’s presence has been helpful.
That was on display during Boston’s 107-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers which included Brown being matched up against Clippers guard J.J. Redick who is one of the league’s best long-range shooters.
Brown showed the ability to be a good one-on-one defender, but also smart enough to funnel Redick to wherever his help was so that Redick had very few good looks at the rim.
Redick scored six points but did so on 2-for-9 shooting.
Horford was the primary defender to step out and contest Redick shots when Brown forced him to put the ball on the floor and shoot mid-range shots rather than 3's.
After the game, Horford had lots of praise for the job Brown did defensively.
“I was very proud of him because J.J. Redick is not an easy cover,” Horford told CSNNE.com. “He’s tough and not a lot of people can stay with him. He (Brown) did such a good job of following him, staying with him without fouling. I was very proud of him. He’s getting more and more confidence that he can play defense. And when he does that, the more opportunities he’s going to have to stay on the floor.”
But whether Brown starts or comes off the bench, the most important thing is how much playing time will he get when Avery Bradley (right Achilles) returns to the lineup.
Marcus Smart knows about this all too well.
Despite spending most of this season coming off the bench, Smart is one of just five Celtics who average more than 30 minutes played per game.
For his career with the Celtics, the third-year guard is averaging 28.1 minutes per game in large part because of his defense which allows Smart to be a potential difference-maker every time he steps on the court.
And like Horford, Smart has also seen growth in Brown’s game from a defensive standpoint.
“Jaylen’s an athletic, strong kid,” Smart told CSNNE.com. “He’s realizing on the defensive end, he can use that to his advantage and move guys to where he wants them to go.”
Smart, who came to Boston already with a defensive mindset, knows how unusual it is for players to come into the league looking to make their mark as a defender.
“It is uncommon,” Smart said. “He’s done a really good job of listening. He’s picking things up and he has a lot to learn, but he’s picking up things really well.”
And we’ll find out just how much Brown’s play as a fill-in for Bradley, will affect his minutes coming off the bench going forward.
For the season, Brown has averaged 15.0 minutes per game. But as a starter, that number climbs to 23.9.
Bradley’s minutes are likely to be shortened at first, but he’s averaging a team-high 34.9 minutes per game so you can expect him to still log a relatively heavy load as far as minutes played at some point.
But to Brown’s credit, he has done what all rookies who unexpectedly find themselves getting quality playing time – make it difficult to scale back his playing time going forward.