Celtics

Celtics

Could Jaylen Brown be an All-Star?

It’s a question we got asked right around the time Luka Doncic was watching Brown throw down a hammer that capped the young Boston wing's 25-point, 11-rebound night and sealed the Celtics’ 116-106 triumph over the visiting Mavericks on Monday night.

The initial reaction is to scoff, maybe the same way that some reacted to Brown’s contract extension. But there’s at least a case to be made for consideration if Brown maintains his recent level of play during Gordon Hayward’s six-week absence.

Brown is now averaging 19.8 points over 31.4 minutes per game while shooting 53 percent from the floor. He’s averaging career bests with 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Most importantly, the eye test confirms a player who's drastically enhanced his play, from tighter ball-handling to better court vision to a relentless aggression in attacking the basket.

Maybe it’s an overreaction to two very loud games, but Brown boldly declared after returning from a three-game absence in Charlotte that he was eager to show everyone the strides he’s made this summer, and he’s doing it. He promptly put together two of the most impactful regular-season performances of his still-young career.

The Celtics own a net rating of plus-16.4 with Brown on the court this season, the third best number on the team behind only Daniel Theis (plus-18.6) and Jayson Tatum (plus-17.8). Boston’s turnover rate — on pace to rank among the best in league history if maintained — is never lower than when Brown is on the court (team-best 9.6 percent in his 188 minutes).

 

Brown offensive progression isn’t coming at the expense of his defense, either. He defended Kristaps Porzingis for nearly four minutes on Monday night and held him scoreless on three shot attempts. Brown is impacting the game positively at both ends and, should these bountiful stat lines become the norm in the absence of Hayward, it sure feels like he could state a case before the February exhibition.

If nothing else, Boston’s four-year, $107 million extension (if you include only likely incentives) sure looks good if Brown keeps playing at this level. But let’s stick with the All-Star theme to start this week’s Celtics Mailbag.

How many All-Stars does Boston get and who? — @CraigJoly

Coming into the season, we would have said that Boston, as likely the third best team in the East behind Philadelphia and Milwaukee, would land two All-Stars and our picks would have been Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. After Boston's fast start, it seemed fair to wonder if Gordon Hayward could muscle his way in as well, particularly if Boston remained near the top of the standings.

With both Hayward and Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton now sidelined, it could hinder their All-Star cases — especially Hayward, who stands to miss 19 games if he doesn't return until Christmas. That’s part of the reason we think it’s fair to wonder if Brown could garner some consideration. 

Let’s say the East starters end up as Walker, Kyrie Irving, Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid. Slam dunk reserves would include Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal, and Trae Young. Now you’re down to four spots with strong considerations for guys like Tatum, Kyle Lowry, Malcolm Brogdon, Zach LaVine, and Blake Griffin (if he stays healthy). 

It’s hard to see a path to Boston getting three All-Stars unless there are more injuries. The best chance for a third Celtics player might ultimately be an injury replacement in February. Brown can force that issue with six strong weeks of consistent two-way play in Hayward’s absence.

Who's the frontrunner for most improved on the Celtics so far this year? (Excluding Hayward, for now, since we've seen him play at this level back in Utah) — @niravbarman27

To me, it’s Brown in a landslide. Tatum is taking better shots, though they haven’t fallen yet as his 1-for-18 night on Monday spotlighted. Theis might be in the conversation, though some of his production spike is simply being healthier. Robert Williams has a lot of room to grow and unlimited potential, so he might make a charge at this title by season’s end. But Brown is doing things he never did a year ago already. Some of that is role, but a lot of it is the hard work he put in this summer improving as a ball-handler and a passer.

 

Do the Celtics really need another big? It seems like they are making it work with what they have given how well the smaller guys can use their footwork and strength to stay in front of the opposing bigs and how disruptive the C's defense is in passing lanes. — @jeffayc

It’s been en vogue since the departure of Al Horford and Aron Baynes to suggest Boston needs a sturdier frontcourt presence. Given the talent they are likely to see in the postseason, it’s understandable why that notion persists. I’m just not sure if there’s a rush to make that move. Let’s see what these bigs can do, who develops, and then maybe Boston can better gauge what’s available. The current bigs certainly haven’t held them back to this point.

How much longer until Boston's rebounding costs them a game? — @stfrncs

Certainly, if there’s one concern about this team in the big picture, it’s rebounding. I’m just not sure how long a team can rank 29th in the NBA in rebounding and it not become an issue. Now, the Celtics have been so good at both limiting and creating turnovers that it’s allowed them to survive being poor on the glass. Getting Enes Kanter back will help, too. But no matter how good the defense plays, those second-chance opportunities can be backbreakers. If the Celtics elect to stay small and ride the personnel they have, they will really have to take care of the ball and maximize their possessions.

Are the Celtics winning with smoke and mirrors, or is this team success sustainable for a deep run into June 2020? Love the chemistry and hustle. — @eagle_raw

To go back to the big issue: I think it’s fair to be skeptical if the Celtics could deploy, say, Marcus Smart on Giannis and/or Joel Embiid for an entire seven-game playoff series and have the sort of success they’ve had early in the year. Then again, we shouldn’t rule anything out with Smart, who really deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration if he keeps gleefully defending players as much as a foot taller. I think we need a longer glimpse of this team at closer to full strength — or at least with Kanter and the bigs healthy -- to determine if Boston definitively needs an upgrade at that spot. Maybe this team can survive with development alone but, at least for nine games, they’ve been remarkably steady. 

LIGHTNING ROUND!

So glad you brought the mailbag back! What one or two things have been biggest factor in the Celtics start and do you think it is sustainable? — @jshollander

Strength of schedule (sixth easiest schedule in the league, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index) certainly helps. Boston is projected with the third-easiest schedule overall thanks to the weaker East. I don’t know if a top-10 defense is sustainable, so it puts even more pressure on Boston’s offense to maximize possessions, find the hot hand, and keep producing at a really high level (Boston is now second in offensive rating behind only the Mavs team they beat on Monday). 

 

How do you think Tatum moves on from going 1-for-18 last night, both for himself and with teammates? He was getting visibly frustrated in the fourth quarter when the rest of the offense wasn’t giving him crunch-time opportunities. Any cause for concern? — @evantarrh

Any frustration he had was seemingly with himself. I like that he remained aggressive, even when his shots didn’t fall. And, even better, he didn’t run out of the locker room. He laughed off his misses then went to the practice facility to get up shots. These eyes remain more encouraged by the type of shots that Tatum is taking than discouraged by the fact that they haven’t fallen as much as usual this season.

At the beginning of the season, I thought the Celtics might try and trade Brown for a big man. After his early play and contract extension, I hope that’s no longer an option. Follow-up, do you see Danny Ainge pursuing a center? If so, what scenario do you find likely? — @schmidtwerd

Brown’s extension ensures there’s little chance the team would move him, especially not when he’s playing the way he has. I certainly think Ainge and Co. will examine ways to upgrade at the big-man spot but, again, I don’t think there’s any rush to do something until their lack of proven size becomes a consistent issue.

Aron Baynes makes basically $400K more a year than Kanter. We couldn’t have found a way to keep Baynes? — @ErosStudios

The Celtics needed to shed salary in advance of July 1 to ensure they’d have a max-salary slot to sign Walker. There might have been some thornier paths to shedding that space without moving Baynes but remember, too, that the Phoenix deal netted Boston a 2020 first-round pick from Milwaukee (top-7 protected this season). Projected as a late first, it could still be a handy asset if there’s in-season maneuvering. It’s easy to second guess watching what Baynes is doing in Phoenix, but Boston took the path-of-least-resistance to clear space and start the process of wooing Walker. Kanter was later signed with the room midlevel as the team crept back above the cap.

Does Javonte Green's rise make Semi Ojeleye expendable? — @bubbleblabber

I think they’ll need all hands on deck during this Hayward-less stretch but certainly Ojeleye has to show more than he has if he’s going to get the minutes that someone like Green has wrestled away. Ojeleye in his last four appearances: 0 points, 1 shot, 1 rebound, 0 assist, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 1 turnover, 3 fouls, -8 in 19 minutes. Yes, short stints can be tough, but he’s gotta do more in his floor time.

 

Will the Celtics be giving Robert Williams more play time?? — @EvansOnSports

And let’s combine this with … 

Time Lord athletically is our best big. What is stopping him from being in the starting lineup as the 5, besides sometimes being lost on the court. — @WTPgreenie

Consistency, particularly on the defensive end, will unlock ALL the doors to playing time for Williams. While playoffs could change things based on matchup, we could see Wiliams as the starting center late in the regular season.

Do you think the Celtics need to add a veteran rim-running big man or do you think Robert Williams will be improved enough by the end of the regular season to fill they void in the postseason? — @HansDancin

We are particularly bullish on Williams and the San Antonio game was a nice glimpse of what could be. We’ll end this week with a tease: More on Time Lord — and his importance to Boston moving forward -- in Wednesday’s column.

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