Jaylen Brown and the thinking man’s game

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images /

You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, sitting there seeking peace with a resistance band held taut around his calves and buds planted firmly in his ears, but Jaylen Brown has a problem. He is young and vigorous and a great basketball player on a team that has found surprising success. But there are times when it is hard for him to focus, other times it’s even worse when he focuses on one thing and loses sight of his main goal. It is a problem no one sees and many might find hard to believe, but it exists nonetheless.

“Thinking and then overthinking. I really think that’s my biggest dilemma.” mutters Brown before a recent game against the Orlando Magic. “I can analyze things almost too much, sometimes. And that’s not just in basketball, but life in general.”

It is a game thought about in almost purely physical terms. Statistics provide a structure for measuring performances. The battles we all remember are of a player outdoing an overmatched opponent, an embarrassing dunk over outstretched arms. The bending of time and space for a chasedown block no one expected.

Still, many players wage a mental conflict that can’t be measured, only fought in quiet meditation, the outcome of which may never be considered, much less remembered in terms of having been won or lost.

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Brown is in his second year with Boston after being drafted third overall in the 2016 NBA Draft. He has fought this private war for years before ever donning Celtic green, long before being thrust into the starting spotlight to help carry the load that was expected to fall on Gordon Hayward’s shoulders. As a junior in high school, Brown felt such immense pressure after a loss in the Georgia state championship game that he began to feel physically ill. The loss was devastating and Brown, assuming the responsibility of being his team’s star player, defined himself by it. Here was an elite athlete that excelled among his peers both on and off the court, was highly recruited and seemingly well-adjusted. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Brown was convinced that he was a failure at just 17 years old.

He needed help and sought it from Graham Betchart, a mental skills coach that helps athletes see beyond the hidden obstacles that can seem insurmountable. Over the years, the duo would work together to overcome the issues that hardly anyone knew existed. Visualization techniques, meditation, even music — some of which was written by Brown himself — are just some of the skills the young man from Marietta, Georgia has had to develop aside from the ones he shows off in front of thousands on Boston’s parquet floor.

What he seeks now, away from the bright lights, is mindfulness, to “just be in the present.” He explains the process, if not exactly robotically, in a somewhat detached manner as if delivered from somewhere none of us are quite privy to. Which is, perhaps, how it should be.

“I always say [it’s like] being nowhere and being now and here at the same time,” explains Brown of his pursuit. “Being locked in at the task at hand and not worrying about what’s going on in the past or the future, just concerning yourself with what you can do at the moment. That’s tough to do. A lot of people can talk about it but not a lot can actually do it. Master it. Controlling my thoughts.”

His task this season has changed dramatically over the past few weeks. Boston’s championship hopes were slim before the start of the season and seemed to be all but dashed following Hayward’s injury just minutes into the Celtics’ first game of the year. After losing their first two games, Brown and his teammates reeled off 14-straight victories — including an impressive comeback against the Warriors, of which Brown played an enormous part — and Boston is atop the Eastern Conference standings.

Brown was expected to be a role player, to provide more consistent defense than the glimpses he showed his rookie year and maybe a little offense outside of Boston’s veteran core of All-Stars. Instead, he has accepted the added responsibilities admirably, despite the overthinking that has led to anxiety in the past. Brown is ensconced in the starting lineup and playing about 32 minutes a game, he has more than doubled his scoring total from last year (at 14.7 up from 6.6 points per game), and is a crucial component of a defensive machine that has worn out every opponent in its path thus far.

The Celtics have handled the loss of Hayward with a by-committee approach. Head coach Brad Stevens has carefully created a stable environment that Brown describes as “being put in a position to show what I can do.” On his expanded role, he simply says that he’s “just trying to step up and fill the void.”

If this seems like a sacrifice of the individual for the sake of group success, it’s because it probably is. When asked of Brown’s growth, Stevens tempered the notion by saying, “I’m not really a ‘Where are they?’ relative to expectations.” Instead, he sees the formation of a unit that has simply done their job well. “They have come together as far as they pull for each other and they’re really trying to do what we [as a team] are trying to do. And I think [the young players] are benefitting from some of our veterans and their ability to not only show them the way, but also talk during the game. I think our communication is really good.”

The Celtics continue to find harmony without Hayward or last season’s unquestioned leader, Isaiah Thomas, and with Kyrie Irving still adjusting to his new team. Brown can find comfort in being just another thoughtful worker in Boston’s prosperous collective.

The stability of Boston’s locker room (made concrete by their success), has certainly proved that Brown’s quest for mindfulness has paid off. Rather than overextending himself by doing too much, he plays his role — defend multiple positions, stretch the floor — even if it is a larger one than expected.

But there’s also an interesting duality in Brown’s overactive cognitive process. There is a side to him that devours information with an incredible hunger, from reading books to world travel, playing chess to learning multiple languages. He reportedly dreams of someday leading the NBA Players Association and casually accepts nominations for the U.S. Senate. His intelligence was once considered a “polarizing subject” among NBA front offices but is rather more indicative of a player that refuses to be defined by any singular label.

Brown also possesses a supreme, and perhaps surprising, level of confidence as he flatly states that he’s never doubted himself throughout his NBA tenure.  He credits his dedication and that of the coaching staff for helping him reach this point. His social media accounts incorporate the handle “FCHWPO” — Faith, Consistency, Hard Work Pay Off” — and it’s clear how much value he places in the chisel that has helped form him out of unsculpted granite. He describes his attention to detail as a key component of his improved defense and quotes an adage from Stevens, “Small hinges swing big doors,” as to the reason why.

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When asked if there were any individual achievements he was looking to reach this season, what isn’t surprising was that his answer — to return to the Eastern Conference Finals and go even further — is a goal that he’ll share with his team.

Brown is undoubtedly a player with a limited (yet effective) role but he embodies an odd, fascinating juxtaposition of both the mental and corporeal. How do you strike a balance between the physical and the mental, to get unstuck from the split-second eternity of knowing what to do next or simply allowing your well-trained body to impulsively react? Boston’s success is a shared one but Brown’s ability to continue finding that harmony will likely have an impact on the Celtics’ future. All Brown has to do is keep finding peace by staying in the present.