25-under-25: Jaylen Brown at No. 11


There aren’t many areas in which Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown is elite, but in having no real weaknesses, he reaches an equally rare class of players.

In the current age of position-less, star-centric basketball, there may be no player type more coveted than a skilled, physically imposing wing who can create efficient offense for himself and others. Traditional point guards and other narrowly-defined perimeter players have largely given way to massive, omni-faceted creators like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Luka Doncic, who start or finish the vast majority of their teams’ possessions.

Such catalysts, however, are exceedingly rare, and knockoff versions offer significantly less value than the real thing — Harden and D’Angelo Russell are of a type, yet no one would mistake the latter’s production for the former’s.

That fact places greater importance on finding wings who do everything else — who scale into roles around ball-dominant stars without losing their value. Jaylen Brown, then, is as close to an ideal modern NBA player as one can be without crossing into superstar territory. The value in having that kind of player isn’t just in all he brings to the table but how little he takes off of it and how seamlessly his skills fit alongside other stars; it’s what allows the Boston Celtics to so easily accommodate Jayson Tatum’s rise to superstardom and integrate an established point guard like Kemba Walker from the jump. There aren’t many areas in which Brown is elite, but in having no real weaknesses, he reaches an equally rare class of players.

What is it, exactly, that Jaylen Brown does so well?

Brown has steadily sharpened his passing, ball-handling and decision-making over four seasons in the league, giving him a well-rounded game that finds opportunity in almost any situation. The Celtics went 20-3 last season when Brown reached the (admittedly arbitrary) threshold of 24 points, and Boston averaged 117.6 points per 100 possessions in those contests — nearly four points better than its regular-season mark.

That may be less of a testament to Brown’s own contributions than an indication of a supremely dialed-in offense. Where some stars control the flow of the game, Brown works within it. At his best, he slips into the space the other Celtic threats aren’t occupying. It could be a cut behind the defender distracted by Tatum’s deliberate isolations or a hard drive against a recovering man who sunk a step too far toward Walker’s drive. Other times, it’s as simple as stepping into open catch-and-shoot 3s or stretching a defense with the threat of a shot. Brown may not see multiple steps ahead of a defense, but can quickly spot its fault lines and attack with alarming ferocity.

He just wrapped up his best season to date, in which he posted career-high usage, true shooting and assist percentages. He shot a career-high 64 percent at the rim last season and ticked back over 38 percent from beyond the arc after dipping below 35 percent in 2018-19. He drilled 42 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples — a career-high — while also dialing up his share of unassisted buckets. Those marks may not augur a Tatum-like trajectory, but they almost guarantee Brown a floor of being a supremely useful complementary player who fits next to any kind of teammate. Unquestionably, Boston’s healthy offensive ecosystem and Brown’s role in it afford him the ability to play to his strengths; but those strengths would translate in any setting. There isn’t a title contender that couldn’t use Brown’s two-way energy and versatility or a lottery team that wouldn’t love to tie its future to an already productive 24-year-old with upside still to explore.

For all his utility on offense, it’s the other end of the floor where Brown truly distinguishes himself. Marcus Smart may be the stronger on-ball defender and Jayson Tatum a more impactful deterrent off the ball, but Brown’s versatility allows Boston’s dynamic, multidimensional unit to flourish. He can keep ball-handlers in front or bang with post players, and Brad Stevens moves him all around the floor to plug the most critical of holes. Just in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, you could just as easily have found Brown chasing Duncan Robinson around screens, corralling Goran Dragic at the point of attack, monitoring Jimmy Butler on the wing or absorbing blows from Bam Adebayo on the block.

Brown isn’t a perfect defender — he’ll still occasionally miss rotations when he isn’t defending at the point of attack, lose a relocating shooter along the arc or commit needless fouls while contesting — and the nature of his position prevents him from having the kind of total defensive impact that bigger anchors have around the rim (the Celtics’ defense was worse with Brown on the floor last season). He does, however, take on additional value in the postseason, where defensive versatility and scheme adaptability often outweigh more conventional and predictable traits. Playoff teams are constantly searching for vulnerabilities — a poor shooter to leave open, a weak defender to target, a scorer without reliable counters — and series often turn on finding and concealing those pressure points. Brown presents no such targets, making him just as valuable as other stars with more clearly defined strengths and more severe weaknesses.

Perhaps, on a less talented team, Brown’s flaws might be more damaging — his limitations as a playmaker would stall the offense and his defense might buckle a bit under a more primary role; the luxury of light usage is almost always kind to players like Brown. But part of his appeal is that he doesn’t need to shoulder a superstar’s load to have All-Star impact. There may be an upper limit to how valuable that sort of player can be, but Brown has yet to find it.

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