Cal’s Jaylen Brown will test the value NBA teams place on tools

Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

“This guy has all the tools.”

You hear it every year. Come NBA Draft night, references to wingspan from Jay Bilas have become so frequent they’ve turned into a drinking game on the internet, college kids everywhere hoping he’ll talk about the next long, explosive athlete to jump to the pros. We fetishize these athletes, particularly with the NBA in the midst of a spell where pace-and-space is everything.

Into this environment steps Jaylen Brown, California’s promising prospect on the wing. He was a consensus top-five recruit coming out of Wheeler High School in Marietta, GA due in large part to his natural gifts. Two summers ago, Draft Express’ Jonathan Givony described his game thusly following adidas Nations:

Physically gifted prospect with a great combination of toughness, athleticism and smarts. Not consistent with his offensive game yet, but shows the makings of a versatile skill-set, including the ability to create his own shot and punish defenses from the perimeter. After a strong summer is starting to get consideration for potentially being the #1 prospect in his high school class.

U&M’s Austin Peters recently compiled a Stock Up, Stock Down post reacting to the opening weekend of NCAA Tournament play. Within that post, he listed this blurb to describe Brown’s final game at Cal, the end point of his basketball journey to date:

He had seven turnovers and was plagued with foul trouble from the start of the game until the end. His last game as a Golden Bear will definitely leave a sour taste in his mouth, but his physical upside as a combo forward who can guard one through four will be too much for a team to pass up on based on one performance.

19 months seperate those observations, but common threads tie them together. Brown is thrust forward primarily for his physical tools, and rightfully so — he boasts excellent size at 6-6.5 with a 7-0 wingspan, giving him a standing reach of 8-9 from the wing. That’s an excellent base to build from no matter how you slice it, and checking in around 225 pounds, he already has a man’s body to work with.

He leverages that physicality on both ends of the court. On defense, he’s consistently in a ready stance whether on-ball or off-ball, and he uses his speed out of that stance to close out on shooters and keep players in front of him. Offensively, when Brown is at his best he simply bulldozes defenders on his way to the rim. If you watch his highlights from this early season matchup with the Richmond Spiders, you’ll see would-be stoppers bounce off him as he goes on a rampage of dunks and layups.

Watching performances like that, it’s easy to fall in love with Brown’s potential. Players who can get to the rim with ease are one of the most valuable commodities in basketball, both in their ability to get high-percentage looks for themselves and the vacuum they create which draws attention away from teammates. Most importantly, Brown’s free-throw rate is borderline elite, clocking in at 57.4 on 9.2 attempts per 40.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the college free-throw rates looked like for some of the NBA’s wings who excel at getting to the line (data via Sports Reference):

free throw rate jaylen brown

Brown has acquitted himself excellently on this front. There’s one glaring issue: It’s about the only front where he truly excels.

At the moment, Brown is more athlete than basketball player. That can be said of a lot of one-and-done guys showcasing the difficulty in transitioning from high school to college, but Brown’s case is particularly pronounced. He’s a poor shooter across multiple contexts; Brown forces the issue and frequently takes contested pull-ups in addition to being a below-average player in catch-and-shoot situations. The aformentioned free-throw prowess helps offset this a little, but his field-goal percentage at the rim (61.6) leaves a lot to be desired for a guy who isn’t knocking down many looks elsewhere.

Not having a “go-to” set of shots you can hit is problematic once your athleticism becomes less of a dividing point between you and the competition. If you want Brown to be a primary initiator on offense, he’d need to rein in his shot selection and become more of a threat from mid-range. If you prefer him to play off-ball to take advantage of his athleticism off screens and cuts, he has to improve from deep. Both are big asks at the moment — he shot 30.1 percent on 2-point jumpers and 29.4 percent from 3-point range, respectively.

Unlike in the case of Ben Simmons, Brown doesn’t have the skill set of creator/playmaker to fall back on if he can’t score at the next level. His box score numbers are underwhelming for a player who rarely faced opponents with the size and athleticism to deal with him.

High turnover numbers are sometimes a sign of a young player testing the limits of pass safety, but Brown’s 0.68 A/TO ratio underscore a problem that has plagued him for years. He is prone to forcing the issue far too often, in addition to his handle (specifically going left) being permanently under construction. Trustworthy draft models have suggested the translation of TOV% from NCAA to pros can be determined in large part by 3-point shooting (which we’ve already established is bad) and ORB%, a category where Brown struggled.

If Brown were being considered as a mid-late pick in the first round, a lot of these concerns would be shrugged off fairly easily. Rolling the dice on athleticism and hoping the guy can figure it out is a time-honored tradition for NBA execs. The thinking there is simple — you can teach a man to shoot or pick up other skills, but you can’t alter a player’s genetic structure. It’s easy to talk yourself into a future for Brown; when spacing opens up for him at the next level, he’ll be able to leverage his strengths in a way he couldn’t at Cal. A dearth of shooting put him behind the proverbial eight ball, and Ivan Rabb’s presence in the paint didn’t exactly clear space for him to operate.

But Brown is not being pushed forward as some late-first project some team can take a flier on. In play with one of the top-five selections in this June’s draft, Brown would likely be asked to take on a primary role for a rebuilding franchise, a role that he currently seems woefully unequipped for. The flashes are blinding, but they feel too distant from one another to be relied on consistently.

Gambles often define the draft process. GMs lose their jobs for crapping out on longshot bets, but they also cement legacies by having the courage — or arrogance — to roll the dice and hope their staff can maximize players with rough edges. Brown has a lot of those, and the timing of his selection in June will put a value on just how much NBA executives value an intriguing toolset.