<
>

While Celtics show patience, Jaylen Brown races ahead

When the Chicago Bulls visit TD Garden on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), there will be Boston Celtics fans that look out at Jimmy Butler and lament what could have been.

Twice in the past nine months, the Celtics and Bulls have chatted about the availability of the 27-year-old All-Star. And when draft night and the trade deadline passed without Boston making a big-splash move -- for Butler or otherwise -- many Celtics fan lamented the team's inability to add the sort of impact player that might have delivered Boston to the next level of contender status.

What's often overlooked, particularly as the Celtics jockey for a top seed in the Eastern Conference, is what remains because of the patience that Boston's front office has demonstrated in pursuit of more talent. As Jaylen Brown makes encouraging strides, Celtics fans ought to wonder if the 20-year-old rookie might eventually emerge as a key piece on Boston's next title-contending team.

If a Butler deal had gone down, Brown wouldn't be here (and, if you roll the clock back further to the Justise Winslow pursuit in 2015, Brooklyn's 2016 pick could have been moved then, too). Last June, rumors persisted that the Bulls were intrigued by Boston's No. 3 pick with the goal of adding point guard Kris Dunn. No deal materialized and the Celtics elected to execute their pick. The selection of Brown was met with groans and when Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck addressed the crowd at the team's draft party at TD Garden, Brown's name was booed.

But Brown started winning over fans almost immediately with both his personality and the flashes of athleticism shown at summer league. Now he's a key rotation player on a Boston team with lofty postseason aspirations and while there's certainly a long road of development that Brown must still travel, his advancement should tide over Boston fans until the quest for more talent begins anew after May's draft lottery.

In the nine games since the All-Star break, Brown is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 55.7 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc (the best shooting percentages among non-bigs in Boston's rotation players in that span). He's chipped in 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 0.7 steals over 24.3 minutes per game in those games.

"I’m not sure I would have thought that [Brown] would be where he is right now, just because I thought that he had a lot of things that he really would have to improve on to be able to add value to winning at this level," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And he’s proven that he can pick things up on the fly and that he can play at a high level. I know there’s going to be ups and downs with anybody -- and certainly with a 20-year-old -- but he’s got a chance to be pretty darn good."

Stevens is extremely measured in his praise, particularly of younger players. For him to deliver such plaudits speaks volumes about the way Brown has been able to ascend to a key role in a short time.

Despite the encouraging uptick in post All-Star production, Brown's play hasn't necessarily translated to team success. The Celtics own a net rating of minus-6.4 points per 100 possessions during Brown's floor time in those nine games and that net rating jumps to plus-2.9 when he's off the floor. Only fellow bench-mobber Marcus Smart has worse on/off splits among regulars and Boston is 4-5 overall in those games.

Brown has done a heck of a job muscling his way on to the national NBA radar since the All-Star break. It started in Detroit where Brown's late-game 3-pointer (while being fouled) helped Boston escape with a 104-98 triumph. Last Sunday against the Lakers, Brown brought a little Showtime back to Los Angeles. On Wednesday night, Brown was the subject of some finger-pointing from two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry before Boston locked down the Warriors in the fourth quarter.

Brown elevated to starting shooting guard before the All-Star break while Avery Bradley was out with an Achilles strain and went 9-1 as a starter before a sore hip sidelined him for three games. Stevens has noted how simply having to defend some of the league's top swingmen has forced Brown to improve as a defender.

Bradley, an All-Defense first-teamer last season, has been effusive in his praise of Brown even since returning. After Brown's highlight-reel session against the Lakers, Bradley proclaimed, "Jaylen’s improving every single game. He’s going to be a special player."

When Brown stays with his man, he's excellent at using his size and strength to make things difficult. Synergy Sports' defensive data has Brown allowing 0.83 points per play and ranking in the 80th percentile among all NBA players. The league's player-tracking data suggests that Brown holds opponents to 41.3 percent shooting, which is 3.5 percent below those players' season average. It's prudent to remember that neither metric can quite measure the instances where Brown loses his man or blows an assignment that might have led to a basket with another teammate nearby.

Bradley said Brown cannot get complacent with the strides he's made. Stevens is as hard on Brown as anyone on the team, often getting on him about defensive miscues from the sideline.

Offensively, Brown must continue to improve his free throw shooting (67.5 percent), especially because he's one of the few Celtics players with an ability to consistently get to the line with the way he attacks the basket.

Considering the rather underwhelming nature of this year's draft class, Brown almost certainly deserves more buzz for what he's doing for a playoff-bound team. Even with the Celtics healthier, Stevens continues to lean on Brown for key second-unit minutes as Boston eyes the Cavaliers at the top of the East and tries to fend off the Wizards' push for the No. 2 seed.

Patience isn't easy in the NBA, especially when Boston fans are eager to further expedite this team's return to being a title contender. The downside to not adding more proven talent is the inconsistencies the Celtics demonstrated on their most recent road trip, including fumbling away a game in Phoenix and responding to Wednesday's win over the Warriors by getting steamrolled by a sub-.500 Nuggets squad.

As the Cavaliers and Warriors stumble a bit, it's fair for fans to wonder what might have been possible if the Celtics had made a big-splash move. It didn't happen, and the Celtics are banking that by not overpaying for another star, they'll be able to both groom young talent and pursue another star this summer.

The Celtics are hoping their patience will be rewarded, though it might help calm the masses if Brown continues to jump on his own accelerator.