Overshadowed at times by the frustrating nature of the Boston Celtics' 2020-21 campaign, Jaylen Brown finished his ascent to All-Star status and showed no signs of letting his foot off the accelerator.
Forever attempting to expand his game, Brown averaged a career-best 24.7 points per game while producing the best shooting splits of his career (48.4 FG%, 39.7 3PT%, 76.4 FT%). His usage rate spiked to a career-high 29.7 and Brown responded to many of the challenges of a superstar-caliber workload.
Wrist surgery ended his season in early May but the decision to go under the knife was seemingly made with hopes that he’ll be ready around the start of the new season in mid-October, allowing the Celtics to navigate the new season without the perpetual injury woes that plagued the 2020-21 campaign.
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Brown is vital to whatever is ahead for the Celtics, not only with his play on the court but his voice off it -- which is why it’s time to table the, "Would you trade Brown for ..." conversations that improbably persist.
Yes, the Celtics have to at least consider every opportunity that arises whenever a superstar becomes available. But the constant thirst for a different star is somewhat baffling considering the trajectory of still-24-year-old Brown.
Remember, too, there is a pathway to adding a third star that doesn’t require splitting Brown and Jayson Tatum, and that should be the preferred path forward for Celtics fans.
What should be in focus now is figuring out how Brown and Tatum can make each other better. Now that each player’s star has risen, it’s time for Brown and Tatum to figure out how to more consistently make each other’s lives easier.
Brown and Tatum had a plus-3.2 net rating over 2,589 possessions together this season, per Cleaning the Glass data. That’s a solid mark but not nearly as glossy as you’d expect from an All-Star duo. A year earlier, that number was up at a sterling plus-9.9 net rating -- ranking in the 95th percentile among all two-man lineups -- over nearly an identical number of possessions. Even in the talent-cluttered 2018-19 campaign, the duo had a plus-4.5 net rating.
Supporting cast matters and the Celtics have to build a roster that can better maximize the talent of the Jays. But there’s a whole different level for that duo to go to with bringing the most out of each other.
Look at a team like the Clippers. For all their own woes, they’ve been able to squeeze every drop out of the combo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George whenever they are on the floor together. This season that tandem had a plus-18.1 net rating over 2,049 possessions. The Clippers had four different lineups with that duo that logged 100-plus possessions and each had a plus-17.3 net rating or higher.
Every move new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens makes moving forward -- from hiring the next coach to constructing the roster -- must be through the lens of what can make the Jays better and puts them in position to further maximize their talents.
It feels like nitpicking to lament areas that Brown must improve but he’d likely be the first to admit there are strides to make. Despite all the progress from his rookie season until now, he can further assert himself as an impact player in this league.
Maybe the area of greatest growth for Brown during the 2020-21 season, his assist rate doubled from his previous career average to 16.2 percent this season. That ranked in the 89th percentile among all wings, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s an already astounding vault for a player that struggled with the simplest of passes as a rookie but now generates quality look for teammates whenever he draws a crowd.
His assist-to-usage rate, though, is still painfully low and, if the Celtics are going to put the ball in the hands of Brown and Tatum more often, they both have to go to another level in creating for others. More shooting around them should help. A little bit more ball security will help Brown’s cause as well.
Brown has made steady progress at the stripe. But if he can shoot 49 percent on all long midrange jumpers (83rd percentile among wings) and 40 percent on all 3s (77th percentile for his position) then he can get that free throw percentage into the 80s. More importantly, he’s got to get to the stripe more often.
Despite the uptick in usage, his free throw attempts were flat from a year ago. Brown was only fouled on 9.6 percent of his shot attempts, continuing a steady decline from his rookie season when that number was at 14.2. Boston’s new coach needs to find ways to get Brown going downhill more often and benefit from his penchant for drawing contact.
The next step for Brown is simply playing with a more consistent focus and using his versatility to thrive as a defender. He can defend multiple positions, including bigger 4s. The NBA’s tracking data had him holding opponents to 2.2 percent below their expected field goal percentage.
A healthier Robert Williams protecting the rim could go a long way towards making Brown’s life easier but he simply has to embrace locking in on every possession and using his frame to more often disrupt opposing offenses. More activity on the glass could help a size-deprived Boston squad as well.
Editor's Note: We'll spotlight a different Celtics player every day by breaking down their 2020-21 campaign and what may lie ahead next season. Next up: Tristan Thompson.