The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
How often is a young player so valuable that a team gives up a near-guaranteed Finals appearance to keep him on hand?
There really isn’t much precedence to go off of. To even qualify for the discussion, a team would already need to be a pseudo-contender while also having a young stud…the type that generally comes near the top of the lottery…where you pick when you’re bad. It’s easy to see why this is rare.
We saw this situation play out recently in Cleveland, when the Cavs (or, more accurately, LeBron) decided that No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins wasn’t worth playing the long game for. He was dealt for Kevin Love before he ever played a game.
A decade ago, Pau Gasol was traded for his chubby little brother, but he was part of a package that included multiple first round picks, and no one on either side could have imagined that 23-year-old Marc would turn into a multi-time All-Star. Even if the Lakers knew what he’d become, it’s a safe bet that they’d make the trade again.
Four years before that, L.A. was in the position of trying to get the young asset, and were rebuffed by the Dallas Mavericks. Even when the prize was Shaq — still arguably the most dominant player in the game at the time — Dirk Nowitzki was a price too high. It didn’t take a genius to make that call though; Dirk was already a three-time All-Star who’d made four All-NBA teams.
This past summer, the Boston Celtics had a far more difficult choice on their hands. As Zach Lowe extensively (and excellently) detailed back in June, the Celtics could have gotten themselves in the thick of the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes, and in doing so, all but sealed their fate as the Eastern Conference representative in the 2019 Finals.
We know how things played out. Toronto swooped in for Kawhi, turned themselves into a contender in the process, and now Boston will be left fighting it out with the Raptors, Sixers and maybe a surprise team or two for Eastern Conference supremacy. The Celtics should still be considered the favorites, but they’re nowhere near the slam dunk they would have been if Leonard was wearing green this season.
All because they wouldn’t give up one Jaylen Marselles Brown.
(No, we can’t be 100 percent certain that the Spurs would have preferred an offer of Brown and a signed-and-traded Marcus Smart, plus filler and picks, over DeMar DeRozan, especially given their obvious desire to remain as relevant as possible. That said, it’s not a given that DeRozan will be a better all-around player than Brown next season. When you throw in Smart and the fact that DeRozan makes five times as much as Brown, it’s a no-brainer)
So yes, it’s safe to say that the Boston Celtics are fairly high on the young man from Cal they took third overall in the draft two years ago behind Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. At this point, Brown is probably a slight favorite to wind up as the best player from his rookie class (I’m not counting Simmons here. Sorry Mr. Kardashian — you can’t have it both ways).
Ingram profiles as the more unique player, with a complete skill set that few at his size possess. The unknown of LeBron’s newest teammate is both his gift and his curse when it comes to ranking him in exercises like this.
Brown, on the other hand, seems like a known quantity. At just 21, it feels safe to pencil him in as an 18-point-per-game, two-way terror who can guard four positions and knock down open looks for the next decade. No one disputes what he can do (although there is some skepticism that his 39.5 percent shooting from deep last year will regress slightly). The issue is what he can’t.
As Lowe stated, even if there’s only a 10 percent difference between Brown in his prime and someone like Kawhi now (or perhaps in a few years, his own teammate Jayson Tatum), that 10 percent is huge. If Brown ends up being the second or third best Celtic during the Tatum era, how much he can close that gap could be the difference between raising banners and not.
From that perspective, it might seem a bit surprising that Brown ended up so high on this list. Players below him like Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and even Ingram himself could make an argument for someday being the best player on a championship roster. Brown simply doesn’t have that ceiling. His optimal outcome might be something akin to Shawn Marion, who was the third best (and maybe second most important) player on a championship Mavs team and several damn good Suns teams. That’s not insignificant.
More importantly for the immediate future (especially since these rankings are supposed to reflect the impact players will have on their teams for next season only), Brown has a great shot to league the best team in the league in minutes next year. Those minutes also figure to be quite productive.
Aside from his free throw shooting (an unsightly 64.4 percent), there are few glaring holes in Brown’s game. As Lowe details, while there’s room for improvement in several areas, there are also clear indications that Brown has it in him to reach new heights as both a ball-mover and ball-handler. He’s not the guy to bail you out with the shot clock running down, but he’s also not someone whose function is to stand in the corner and wait for a pass. Last season, 67.6 percent of Brown’s field goals were assisted, as opposed to players like Trevor Ariza (82.1) and Klay Thompson (82.6) — wings who typically come to mind when you mention the term “3-and-D.”
If nothing else, Brown has solidified himself as a player that the Celtics are going to hang onto unless a huge fish (like one currently swimming in the waters of New Orleans or Milwaukee) becomes available in the coming years. Until then, it’ll be fun to watch the development of a player who took a massive leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons.
Maybe by putting him down here at 10, we’re continuing to undersell just how much better he can get.