Jaylen Brown wasn't doing a very good job of masking his frustration.
It was late in his rookie season and, while Brown doesn’t remember exactly why he was upset, it feels like a pretty safe bet to suggest that a defensive lapse led to a quick hook from coach Brad Stevens. Which left Brown stewing at the end of the Boston bench.
"My head was down or something,” said Brown. "I don’t think it was because I was sad or anything. But I wasn’t playing so I probably was a little bit disappointed.
Recalled former Celtics strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo: “Jaylen is kind of like moping around and he’s got that stoic look that he gives when you can tell he’s pissed and you can tell he’s frustrated. Just kind of shifting a lot sitting on the bench and you can just tell because he’s mad because he’s not interacting with his teammates."
In that moment, Doo’s phone chimed. Thousands of miles away in his Malibu bunker, Kevin Garnett was wondering what was up with the rookie’s body language.
"KG watches a lot of games, still a student of the game, still watches everything. He texts me and says, ‘Yo, man, what’s up Jaylen? What’s going on? What’s wrong with his body language? He looks terrible,’” said Doo. “That’s not all the words he used but that was the gist of it, in the kind words because I can’t really repeat exactly what he said.
"So I just texted him right back and I was like, ‘Yo, tough game. Brad pulled him and he’s struggling a little bit, he’s tired, it’s been a long year. But, yeah, he’s acting up right now.’ And (KG) was like, ‘Well, tell him I said this, and he started ripping off some things in my text ... “
"I said, ‘Kev, I gotta be honest, man, it would mean a lot more to him if you just give him the message.’ He’s like, ‘I ain’t calling, I’m not calling.’ So I told him, ‘Leave me a message like what you just texted me and I’ll just play it for him.’
" ... He left me a voicemail and was basically like, ‘Yo, B-Doo, man, tell Jaylen this is trash.' Going on and on about this or that. Then he was like, ‘Yo, tell him that you’re in the big-boy league, you've got to strap up some day. It doesn’t always go your way, but you've got to figure out this or that.’”
Inside an exercise room adjoining the Celtics locker room at TD Garden, Doo thrust his phone to Brown’s ear after the game and told him to listen.
"I can’t say all the words because there was a lot of curse words in it,” said Brown, his face lighting up while recalling Garnett’s unexpected pep talk. "It definitely was dope for somebody like him, who carried the Celtics tradition and protected the Celtics tradition while he was here, to reach out to me.
" ... I’ve respected him and his mentality for the game since forever. It was so encouraging and inspiring and influential for him to reach out to me and be like, ’No, this is what the Celtics are about.’ Like, ‘Pick your M-Fing head up, right now.'"
It was also a firm reminder to Brown to control what he could control. The No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft couldn’t necessarily dictate his playing time but he could change his attitude when things didn’t go the way he expected. He could force the issue by bringing more energy when he was on the court.
It was a reminder that if Brown wanted to be as good as he thought he could be, the path to stardom started with his attitude.
A GROWTH MINDSET
This weekend, Brown will trek to his native Atlanta to participate in his first All-Star Game as a coach-voted reserve. The honor is the culmination of five years of consistent growth and a relentless desire to improve regardless of the obstacles in front of him.
Brown has so routinely improved as an NBA player that it’s easy to forget just how raw he was arriving as a 19-year-old after one season at Cal. But rewind the tape to that rookie season -- the one that left him brooding on the bench -- and it is jarring just how much his game has evolved.
Start with his playmaking. In the infancy of his pro career, Brown struggled to deliver even the simplest of passes and didn’t see the floor well, especially in transition.
Which is maybe why the most eye-catching number in his advanced stat line this season is his assist percentage (the percentage of a team’s field goals a player assists on while on the court). He’s at 20.2 percent this season, which is more than double both his career-best mark of 9.7 from last year and 9.9 for his career.
Point out the spike in Brown’s assist rate and he shrugs. “My usage rate is up, right?” he fires back.
Indeed it is, jumping from a career-high 24.7 last year all the way up to 30.5 this year. But a bump in usage does not necessarily translate into someone’s assist rate doubling. In Orlando, fellow All-Star Nikola Vucevic’s usage rate made a similar leap to Brown this season -- jumping from 25.8 to 29.3 -- and his assist percentage bumped up just 1.7 percent to 21.2. The number pops this year because Brown is so much better -- and more confident -- at delivering the ball now.
Brown’s spike in assist percentage is also directly related to his improved court vision. As a rookie, he operated with blinders. He would charge into traffic with no plan and limited ability to spot shooters or cutters. It led to a staggering number of bad turnovers, including a high number of offensive fouls.
Brown now probes with confidence. He’ll dance into a thicket of defenders and know he can dump the ball over the top to a big man. He attacks the paint with an intent to spray the ball out to shooters.
Even when he keeps the ball, he’s a different player. Early in his career, Brown's handles were often too weak to get where he wanted to go and strong NBA defenders simply pried the ball out of his hands.
Hours of dribbling drills with assistant coach Tony Dobbins has aided Brown’s development. Each year, Brown seems to identify a weakness and make marked improvement.
This season, Brown is playing a lot more north-south basketball and bulls his way towards the rim with confidence. He had a nasty habit of trying to turn every aggressive drive into a poster dunk early in his career. Now he’s content to bank home an easy layup after tip-toeing through traffic.
Just look at the difference from Rookie Jaylen vs. All-Star Jaylen on these drives. He used to lower his shoulder and cross his fingers for whistles. Now he gets the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year in the air with a shoulder fake and beats him to the rim for a layup.
Brown is averaging a career-best 24.8 points per game this season while shooting 49.8 percent from the floor and 38.9 percent from 3-point range. There was a stretch at the start of the season where it felt like he might never miss a mid-range jumper again.
Free-throw percentage, once a glaring weakness in his game while shooting sub-70 percent in each of his first three seasons, has spiked to 78.1 percent this year. Hesitate after a technical foul and Brown will strut right to the stripe and take that shot. That’s the sort of confidence he’s playing with now.
Former NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins, an Atlanta legend who has gotten to know the Georgia native better in recent years, knows that while loud dunks often end up in the highlights, it’s the progress in other areas that morphed Brown into an All-Star.
“Now people are starting to see that this guy is a complete basketball player,” said Wilkins. “His game has grown now, he’s more mature now. You’ve seen the growth already and it’s going to do nothing but get better and better.”
THE KG EFFECT
When Doo watches games now, he doesn’t just focus on Brown’s improvements on the court. He often watches Brown’s demeanor in the huddles. The 24-year-old has come a long way from the kid that was pouting at the end of the bench as a rookie.
"It’s his confidence and his leadership to me. I watch him interact with his teammates. That’s what I watch," said Doo. "I watch the games but I watch all those interactions. I watch the side bench stuff. To me, watching him take the lead, create the handshakes … how much he puts back into the team, where as before I’d see him just kind of isolate himself.
"I know that he’s confident in himself and his team. And knowing Brad, how positive he is, how he’s probably said to Jaylen behind the scenes, ‘You and Jayson, you’re the future, right? We need you to lead.' Jaylen doesn’t take that stuff lightly. Once somebody believes in Jaylen, I believe Jaylen then knows he can step forward and do what he wants to do and is able to do."
Doo said the voicemail from KG wasn’t necessarily a light-switch moment for Brown. But it clearly resonated with him at a time he needed a little tough love and inspiration.
“(KG) was really good about just giving him advice in a non- ‘Hey, man, I’m giving you advice’ way. In an aggressive but loving way like, ‘Hey, man, we’re all in the league, we’ve all been here, you ain’t no different than anybody else. You’re trying to make yourself different but you ain’t,’” said Doo.
"That’s kind of the gist of everything. I know Jaylen really appreciated it. At the end (KG) was more like, ‘Also, you got talent, man. You’re going to be somewhere, so keep pushing.’ It obviously meant a lot.”
Brown put in a lot of time and effort to elevate his game to an All-Star level. But a little bit of KG inspiration helped at the start of that journey.
"As a rookie, it gave me so much pride about myself,” said Brown. "Like, yeah, I could follow, too. This is one of the people that has done something that I’m trying to do here …
"Ever since then it's kind of given me a barometer about what it is about being a Celtic and the culture and how deep the blood is here.”