Team USA coach Gregg Popovich was heaping praise on Jaylen Brown following the Americans’ quarterfinal win over Brazil Monday when he said something that made our ears perk up.
“He's unselfish and will find other people,” Popovich told reporters in China.
Brown has heard plenty of compliments during his young NBA career but rarely has his ability to create for others been spotlighted. That the praise came from a championship coach whose teams have thrived in large part because of unselfish offenses makes the comment all that more noteworthy.
Remember, Brown is a player who has averaged a mere 1.3 assists per game through three NBA seasons. His 7.5 assist percentage last year ranked him in the 28th percentile among fellow wings, according to stat-tracking website Cleaning the Glass. His assist-to-usage ratio, as logged by Cleaning the Glass, ranked in the 5th percentile.
But Popovich’s praise was not unwarranted. Brown handed out four assists — one shy of his NBA career high — over 26 minutes in Team USA’s win over Brazil. Brown had totaled a mere three assists in the Americans’ first four games.
It was the final dish that really spotlighted Brown’s potential maturation. Late in the fourth quarter, Brown burst into the paint from the top of the key and, when a Brazil defender stepped up to impede the path to the rim, Brown calmly shuffled the ball to Khris Middleton on the baseline for an uncontested layup.
The sequence came just a short while after Brown had rumbled unfettered to the rim for a loud dunk. But instead of trying to force the issue on the second drive, he made the right play for easy points (all while avoiding an offensive foul).
Brown routinely made good decisions throughout Monday’s game. After a steal in the third quarter, he streaked in on a 2-on-1 before shuffling to Derrick White for a layup. When big-man help came to prevent a drive later in the frame, Brown flicked the ball to Myles Turner in the paint for a little bunny. In the fourth quarter, Brown grabbed a rebound and pushed the ball hard up the court before delivering a little jump pass to Harrison Barnes for a dunk.
In the three games since Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum injured his ankle against Turkey, Brown has been spectacular. He had a game-high 20 points against Japan, put up 8 points and 9 rebounds against Greece, and filled up his stat line against Brazil by adding 11 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals to those 4 assists.
Dare we suggest that’s a Kawhi-like impact on the box score. For all his obvious abilities to score the ball, particularly with those highlight-caliber dunks, Brown is most valuable to the Celtics when he can positively impact the game in multiple ways.
Popovich, with his penchant for small-ball lineups given Team USA’s undersized roster, has often utilized Brown at the 4 spot. It’s allowed Brown to use his strength and versatility to his advantage.
“[Brown is] a strong player. For his size and strength, he moves well,” Popovich told reporters after USA’s win over Brazil. "He can really penetrate. He can catch and pull, or get to the rim … He works on defense. He’s just kind of an all-around player. “He’s stepped in and given us good minutes on both ends of the floor for sure.”
Kemba Walker was asked by reporters about Brown’s recent surge and added, "He’s been playing well. Really aggressive and we need him, especially at that 4 position. I think it’s kind of new for him. He just brings so many advantages at that position. He’s been playing well, and we need him to keep it up.”
Despite the changes for the Celtics this offseason, getting everyone to share the ball and create for each other will be a priority for new-look Boston. An unselfish Brown, with his ability to collapse defenses on the drive, puts a lot of pressure on opponents given the weapons that the Celtics can trot out this season.
Selfishly, the Celtics would like to see more of creator Brown.
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