Jaylen Brown seems to live his life slightly off-axis. Nine players on the basketball court, bodies perpendicular to the floor. And then there is one more, with a slight bend at the waist, torso at 76 degrees, out-racing his man to the other end of the floor and somehow appearing to do it in a partial crouch. The visual effect is that Brown always looks like he’s loading up for something, building kinetic energy for some half-corked launch.
Listen to Brown talk for a bit — he’s one of the most intelligent and self-aware young players in the league, in ways that are anything but templatic — and you could convince yourself he’s operating on a different plane than everyone else, metaphysically. Watch him run, and you can make the same internal argument, geometrically.
You can see it all in how his game manifests as well. He was a college power forward who has become an NBA shooting guard. He is an above-average athlete but raw strength and power are often the defining features of how he implements those physical tools. He seems to relish pushing smaller players down into the post. For his career, he has more than three times as many rebounds as assists.
Altogether, there is a certain incongruity to Brown as a basketball player — how he moves, how he thinks, how high he hikes his shorts. He is a player apart.
Mickael Pietrus is an exemplar of a certain type of wing from the mid-2000s, from a time when shooting was not an essential skill and there was a certain utility in just not really being bad at anything. Pietrus was a decent spot-up shooter but never a scheme-changer. His long athletic frame let him be a defensive irritant, though falling well short of being a stopper. His handle was serviceable for straight-line drives, attacking closeouts or exploding through seams in a misshapen defense. The yams — in transition, off baseline cuts or at the end of those AB line-segment drives — could raise an eyebrow but the total package was something much more utilitarian.
Jaylen Brown’s arc of development could be frozen in time, hit with a dose of liquid nitrogen, and we’d probably have a reasonable Pietrus facsimile on our hands. But Brown is still just 22 years old, celebrating his 23rd birthday a week or so into the 2019-20 season. The height of his ceiling is open for debate but only the most pessimistic observers would argue that he’s likely to stagnate as a reliable ditch-digger.
The question then, is what comes next?
A developmental path that leads him toward building on his strengths, specifically his actual strength, would be about maximizing his potential as a complementary player. Sharing the court with Jayson Tatum has meant that Brown has had to explore the full depth of his defensive versatility, particularly moving up the positional spectrum.
There is a more than plausible timeline where Brown is leapfrogged in primacy on this Celtics’ roster but settles comfortably into a niche the primary defender for the bigger wings and a hunter of mismatches on offense. In form and function, it’s not that different from the role he plays now. Simply defined, capped, more and intentional, and more scaffolded by the rest of this young roster growing into themselves.
I imagine it is a late-stage Rudy Gay — a blessed athlete who finally fit but not trying to do everything, who found comfort in constraint, who recognized the advantage his size and strength has at his position, who finally understood that the value of being pretty good at everything is unlocked by good decision-making.
If, however, Brown develops by adding to his game and filling in weaknesses, ball-handling and creation are the obvious places to start. He finished just 5.9 percent of his possessions as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll last season, about the same as notable spot-up threats like Tony Snell and Mike Scott. Just 6.1 percent of his drives last season created an assist, about the same as Kyle Korver or Rodney Hood.
Necessity is the mother of invention and Brown has never had to concoct unique strings of high-level dribble moves, or had to figure out how changing speeds and subtlety could create space and move defenders. The immensity of his explosiveness has mostly washed out the need for meticulous craft. If that piece could be applied, through magic or, sigh, hard work and endless repetition I imagine the end result would be something like peak Michael Finley.
Finley was older than Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki when that trio assembled in Dallas and so his sun set much faster than theirs. History has mostly overlooked his role on those teams but he was as instrumental as anyone in dragging that franchise out of the basement and helping raise their ceiling to championship contention. Maybe it was the weight of the Mavericks, of being the veteran(ish) leader on that team, but he played with hunched shoulders, like Brown, running, driving and defending in a half-crouch, just looking for an opportunity to explode.
From 1997-2002, Finley averaged 21.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists, shooting 45.5 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent on 3-pointers. He wasn’t the creator that Nash was, but he was a more-than-capable Plan B. He wasn’t the brilliant individual scorer an ascendent Dirk was, but he was a more-than-capable Plan B. And, he wasn’t just a creature of skill — Finley was a physical force, a former dunk contest competitor who would happily do work on the offensive glass, or get rough with a smaller defender in the post. If Pietrus represented the median value of a kind-of-do-a-bit-of-everything wing from that era, then Finley was in the 90th percentile.
The difference between peak-Finley and present-Jaylen is not insignificant. But, if Brown is going to be a star, a 1B to both Jaylen Tatum and Kemba Walker or whoever else the Celtics wrangle in, this is the end game. This is what a marriage of athleticism and skill could look like for Brown, transcending the linear, the parallel, the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions — a scorer, and a creator, and a defender, a dunker, and a basketball player.