BOSTON -- One of the pain points for the Boston Celtics in signing Gordon Hayward this offseason was having to trade away Avery Bradley to generate the necessary cap space to pay Hayward his max contract. Bradley's departure left a void on Boston's roster, and when Hayward fractured his ankle on opening night, it was fair to wonder if the Celtics could possibly patch both of those holes.
Slotted in Bradley's starting 2-guard role, Brown has not only embraced the challenge of defending elite opposition, but has displayed strides in his own offensive game that has helped keep the Celtics atop the Eastern Conference for the past two months.
Returning from a one-game absence due to a sore Achilles' tendon, Brown scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting over 27 minutes in Boston's 117-92 triumph over the visiting Chicago Bulls on Saturday night at TD Garden.
Brown's return gave Boston a jolt at both ends of the court. Any concerns about the Achilles' tendon that kept Brown out against the New York Knicks were washed away in the second quarter when he stormed the baseline and hung in the air for a two-handed slam.
It's sometimes easy to forget that a season ago, Brown was riding the rookie roller coaster and was a mistake away from getting yanked by coach Brad Stevens. That still happens occasionally -- in fact, it happened late in Boston's loss to the Miami Heat earlier this week -- but Brown has cemented himself as an integral part of Boston's success, and that was reflected in how quickly Stevens went back to Brown that night.
Still, it's important to take a step back and recognize that even after Brown began to earn Stevens' full trust at the end of last season, he still played a limited postseason role. Brown logged just 12.6 minutes per game while coming off the bench throughout Boston's run to the Eastern Conference finals.
When the Celtics traded Bradley to Detroit, it put Brown in line to compete for a starting gig. Brown quickly won that spot and has started all 33 games he has played this season. He's averaging 31.3 minutes per game, trailing only Al Horford and Kyrie Irving on Boston's roster.
Brown was 19 when the Celtics drafted him No. 3 overall in 2016 but arrived with an NBA-ready body. He showed last season that he had the potential to be an impact defender, and the Celtics have routinely deployed him this season against All-Star-caliber opposition.
While the league's defensive data can be noisy, it's hard to ignore Brown's advanced numbers. According to the NBA, Brown is holding his opponents to 8.7 percent below their typical average. Players are shooting a mere 36.8 percent against Brown overall, and he utilizes his length and athleticism to disrupt.
Brown downplays his individual impact but acknowledges that he must be a defensive-first player.
"That's where I hang my hat. But I think it's a team effort, defensively," said Brown. "It's very hard to guard somebody one-on-one, so it's just everybody being engaged, defensively, and I just try to be one of those players."
Brown's more veteran teammates appreciate the way he accepts those defensive challenges.
"He definitely has a lot on him. We know, and this coaching staff knows, his ability," said Marcus Smart, maybe Boston's top individual perimeter defender. "And [Brown is] athletic enough to guard a lot of guys. So once he understands that and he takes that head-on, he'll be a better all-around player. And he's been doing a pretty good job so far."
Brown's offensive growth deserves recognition, as well. He worked on his 3-point shot and is shooting 41.5 percent beyond the arc. If it wasn't for Tatum shooting an absurd 49.1 percent, Brown's ranking second among Boston's regulars might be even more noticeable.
Brown has also displayed more aggression this season, often going hard at the basket and raising his free throw attempt rate. His 14.7 points per game rank second behind only Kyrie Irving (24.9) and essentially makes up for what Boston lost in point production with Bradley's departure.
Brown owns a net rating of plus-8.7 this season. Boston's offensive rating is a robust 108.4 when he's on the court (nearly a 3-point spike from the team's season average of 105.6). What's more, Boston's defensive rating is 99.7 when Brown is on the floor. To hammer home Brown's overall impact, he's one of only two players with a negative net rating when he's off the court (All-Star candidate Al Horford is the other).
There is still plenty of room for growth in Brown's game. Offensively, he can be sloppy with his ballhandling and sometimes loses the ball when he encounters traffic going at the basket. He could benefit from being able to run more in the pick-and-roll instead of relying on spot-up shooting and drives. Synergy data suggests he still struggles as a defender in spot-up situations.
But he's also 21 years old and just starting to scratch the surface of his potential. That he'll grow and develop alongside Tatum leaves Celtics fans swooning. And Stevens has admitted that part of the reason the Celtics drafted Tatum was that the two could push each other.
Tatum is so polished offensively that he'll likely always command a larger spotlight, but Brown is making his mark on the Celtics this season. Few expected him to be able to fill Bradley's void, but, in a lot of ways, he's doing that.