Celtics

Is Jaylen Brown on a Kawhi-like path to NBA stardom?

Is Jaylen Brown on a Kawhi-like path to NBA stardom?

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.

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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.

 

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

2020 NBA Restart: How would Celtics fare in playoff series vs. Heat?

Miami is always a tough opponent come playoff time, but the Boston Celtics have every reason to feel confident they would prevail if the two were to meet in the playoffs in Orlando. 

In their two regular season matchups, the Celtics won both by an average of 13.5 points. 

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Making the victories even more impressive was Boston playing without some top players, as Marcus Smart (illness) missed the Celtics’ 112-93 win at the TD Garden on Dec. 4 while Jayson Tatum (groin) and Enes Kanter (hip) were both sidelined for the rematch, a 109-101 Celtics win, in Miami on Jan. 28. 

In both wins, Jaylen Brown was the one player the Heat had no answer for containing. After dropping a season-high 31 points on Miami in the first matchup, Brown was just as dominant in the second meeting when he scored 25 points, only to be outshined by Gordon Hayward’s 29. 

For the Celtics, both wins came down to their ability to force Miami into the Jimmy Butler show while limiting the overall impact of those around him.

But the Heat team Boston could see in the playoffs will be better than the squad that the C's faced earlier in the season. Miami has been a notoriously bad three-point shooting team for years. But after the All-Star break, the Heat averaged 15.5 made threes per game, which was fifth-best in the league. And their 40.8 percent shooting on threes after the break was tops in the league. 

The Celtics' starting five has been strong all season, and will look to continue along that path if the two meet up in the playoffs.

For Miami to pull off the upset, look for the Heat’s bench to play a major role. Miami’s second unit averages 41.3 points per game which ranks seventh in the NBA. They would face a Boston squad that’s allowing a league-low 33.6 bench points per game. Part of that strong defense after the break has been Boston’s board work. After the break, they have a rebounding percentage of .510 which ranks ninth in the league, while the Heat’s .496 rebounding percentage ranks 20th. 

PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-HEAT PLAYOFF SERIES

A. Sherrod Blakely: Miami is a better team now than it was during either of Boston’s two regular season wins. But Jayson Tatum’s meteoric rise combined with a healthy Kemba Walker will be too much for the Jimmy Butler-led Heat.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

Chris Forsberg: The Heat look a little different than the team Boston toppled twice in the regular season and added veteran, playoff-tested experience in Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. While Jimmy Butler has a penchant for the big stage, he wasn’t able to get a loaded Philly roster out of the second round a year ago.

The task will be even more difficult here and Miami’s younger players will be challenged to maintain their regular-season production. If healthy, the Celtics have more pure talent overall and match up well against Miami’s small-ball ways.

Prediction: Celtics in 5 games

DJ Bean: We've seen Jimmy Butler's numbers drop in the postseason before, and while Bam Adebayo's a stud, they'd have the same problem virtually every team in the East will have: they just don't have the sheer number of stars Boston does. 

Prediction: Celtics in 5 or 6 games

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson writes heartfelt tribute to Celtics after landing Duke job

Kara Lawson was only on the Celtics' coaching staff for one season, but it was clearly a special experience both for her and the team.

On Sunday, C's head coach Brad Stevens and some of the Celtics players both congratulated Lawson on her new job as head coach of the women's basketball team at Duke and described how much of an impact she made in her limited time in Boston.

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Marcus Smart was effusive in his praise for the former Olympic gold medalist, saying, "she became more than just my shooting coach, she became a longtime friend and somebody I know I can talk to if I ever need advice.”

On Wednesday morning, it was Lawson's turn to express her appreciation for the Celtics in an emotional social media post, writing, "These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them."

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It’s been an emotional few days for me. And, while I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity in front of me at Duke University, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the team I’m leaving behind. These men have changed my life. I have loved my time with the Boston Celtics. Our players are authentic, intelligent, creative and passionate men. They motivated me every day to be my best for them. They surprised me last night by all wearing @DukeWBB T-shirts for an incredible show of support before I head to Durham. I cried. They would probably laugh and tell you I’ve cried a lot these last few days but I will tell you having relationships with players that move you to those kinds of emotions is the most meaningful pursuit one can have as a coach. I love them and I will miss them.

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Seeing the entire C's contingent decked out in Duke women's basketball shirts makes you realize the genuine affection and appreciation the players built for Lawson in such a short time — and it's no surprise that Jayson Tatum is front and center in the picture as Lawson heads to Durham.

Enes Kanter, always a consistent presence on social media, summed up the photo with a perfect one-word caption: FAMILY.

With Lawson leaving the Orlando bubble, the Celtics are replacing her on the traveling coaching staff with Brandon Bailey, who is also in his first season as a Celtics assistant.