LOS ANGELES — As one former Boston Celtics star now based in Brooklyn liked to protest, comparison is a thief of joy. But, in sports, it’s simply part of the game. We yearn to identify players with similar body types and/or skillsets, and try to glean what we can about the possible career trajectories.
With all the necessary asterisks — including that no two players are exactly the same and that development is far from linear — we’ve found ourselves fascinated with trying to gauge the future potential of Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown. And the name we invariably fall back to is Kawhi Leonard.
This is unfair for many reasons, not the least of which is that Leonard might just be the best player in basketball. To suggest that Brown should reach that same level because of early-career production is not the goal here. We’ll allow the reader to determine the appropriate level of optimism to derive from the comparisons made.
What drove us here is something Brad Stevens noted during the playoffs last year. With Brown and teammate Jayson Tatum under a harsh season-long spotlight given the perceived struggles to build off the success of the 2018 playoffs — something we know now was largely a factor of the Celtics’ roster makeup including that guy who doesn’t like comparisons — Stevens implored reporters to examine the success that Boston’s two young wings were having at such a young age and compare that to established stars at similar stages of their career.
So it sent us scrambling to compare Tatum to scorers like Kobe Bryant, and Brown to wings like Leonard. What we found is that Boston’s young players were indeed producing at levels comparable to age-similar players that would eventually blossom into some of the league’s top players.
Again, that’s not to suggest that we can make any firm conclusions on either player’s ceiling. Plenty of players enter the league and put up quality numbers but never make strides forwards. Situation matters, too, and some players get stunted because of injury or otherwise. Just ask Brown and Tatum about last season.
Comparing Brown and Leonard during their age 22 seasons — both players’ third year in the league — showed similar base offensive production, but Brown did lag behind in areas like shooting efficiency, rebounding, and assists. But those are all areas that Brown has made great strides in at the start of 2019-20 season, so in advance of Wednesday’s Celtics-Clippers showdown, we decided to compare the data from age 23 seasons.
What you find is that Brown is on pace to rival Leonard’s stat line in nearly every aspect except some defensive areas like steals and blocks where Leonard’s game will likely always be more advanced. A glimpse via Basketball Reference.
Leonard is a much more impactful defender with his freakishly large hands and wingspan. What this exercise aims to hammer home, though, is the advancements Brown made this offseason have shuffled his offensive numbers closer to Leonard’s production at similar stages of their career.
Brown is operating with more offensive aggression this season, attacking the basket relentlessly and taking quality 3-point looks. Entering Wednesday’s games, he’s averaging career bests in field goal (49.7) and free throw (74.4) percentages. His 3-point percentage (39 percent) is near his career-best mark (39.5) of two seasons ago.
A year ago, Brown averaged a mere 5.1 drives per game and he settled for the perimeter shots that came his way. This year, he’s averaging 10.1 drives per game. That has helped his free-throw attempts increase by more than an attempt per game, and he’s parlayed that into more confidence at the stripe.
What’s more, Brown looks far more comfortable finishing with either hand at the basket, unleashing an array of left-handed finishes early in the year. That he’s getting himself to the rim stems from his increased ball-handling work with assistant coach Tony Dobbins. Brown said he’s made ball-handling a daily chore with a goal of being able to better create opportunities for himself and others.
Brown's playmaking has spiked because of that confidence and better court awareness. Brown is averaging a career-best 2.3 assists per game. His usage rate has spiked to 24.2 percent, but his turnover percentage has dipped from double digits to a mere 8.7 percent this season.
Maybe the most staggering increase has come on the glass, but some of that is simply a factor of Boston’s undersized lineups requiring the team’s wings to rebound more aggressively. Still, Brown is grabbing 17.2 percent of all available defensive boards and 9.9 percent of boards overall. Only Gordon Hayward has better marks among non bigs.
The strides that Brown has made should garner him some All-Star consideration. Muscling onto the team will be more difficult though, because teammates Kemba Walker and Tatum are going to get heavy consideration as well. Leonard, it should be noted, didn’t make his first All-Star squad until his age 24 season (he already had a championship ring at that point).
The big question with Brown and his ceiling is simply whether he can elevate his defensive play the same way that he’s made offensive strides. The NBA’s defensive tracking data has Brown limiting opponents to 38.8 percent shooting this year, or 6.5 percent below their season averages. Even as he plays more at the 4-spot, Brown is holding opponents to 43.5 percent shooting inside of 10 feet, or 12.3 percent below average.
Brown has routinely defended bigger players this season, including Pascal Siakam over 5:35 of matchup time (Siakam put up 12 points but on 5-of-12 shooting with a turnover in their matchups). Brown’s other two most common matchups this season: Julius Randle (2-3 FG, 4 points) and Kristaps Porzingis (0-3 FG, 0 points). He’s also logged ample time on the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, and Draymond Green. Which is to say that the Celtics aren’t afraid to put him on tough matchups.
Brown might never generate steals or blocks the way Leonard does, but he isn’t afraid to take on those matchups. It used to be that teammates would point out his defensive lapses but Brown has been far more consistent this season. There are still strides to make on that side of the ball.
But the advancements that Brown displayed already this season suggests that it’s not unfair to dream big on his ceiling. It’s why the Celtics delivered a four-year extension that could be worth up to $115 million.
Is he the next Kawhi? There might not be another Kawhi any time soon. But Brown certainly has the potential to be a key piece in whether the Celtics ever claim a title of their own in the near future.
Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Clippers, which tips off Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.