BOSTON — Many of his teammates had already changed and scurried out of the practice facility Tuesday afternoon when Jaylen Brown, fresh off his typically lengthy post-practice ball-handling and shooting work with player enhancement coach/video coordinator Tony Dobbins, trekked upstairs to the Celtics’ cardio bridge for a few minutes on the exercise bike.
The Celtics were scheduled for an afternoon flight to Toronto and, it being Christmas Eve, players and coaches had plenty of loose ends to tie up before the holiday. Brown, even as his play this season has spawned some All-Star buzz, was in no rush to leave the practice facility.
"I’m not really paying attention to [the All-Star buzz],” Brown said in an empty gym after his post-practice workout was finally complete. "It would be a blessing. It would be extremely dope to even be mentioned in the conversation. To be honest, I still think I can be a lot better. I think the best is yet to come for me this season.
“I’m just trying to get better, trying to continue to win games, be a team-first guy. But I definitely think the best is yet to come."
Twenty-four hours later, Brown put up 30 points on 10-of-13 shooting while leading Boston to a rare win on Canadian soil. His night included a 16-point third-quarter explosion in which he made all five of the shots he took.
That outburst included: A trio of 3-pointers, a 20-foot pull-up after twice putting Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on skates with crossovers, and, in the closing seconds of the frame, a double-spin move to set up a 16-foot fadeaway over an incredulous Patrick McCaw.
Brown was simply happy to win in Toronto, a place the Celtics had never won during his NBA career. But the 23-year (and 62-day)-old Brown also became the youngest Celtics player to score 30+ points in a Christmas game, breaking Bill Russell’s record (24 years, 316 days) that had stood for 61 years.
Brown is now averaging 20.2 points, 7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 steals over 33.6 minutes per game this season. The Celtics have three players averaging 20+ points per game with Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum the others.
Brown is playing like an All-Star this season given the advancements in his play.
Yes, Brown is scoring more and that’s the stat that most people’s eyes go to first, but the real strides have come with his ball-handling and playmaking, which have also allowed him to more aggressively attack the basket.
Yes, Brown is shooting 39.1 percent beyond the arc but it’s been his ability to finish 70.7 percent of all shots near the rim that has really helped his shooting percentage spike to 51.4 percent overall (up from 46.5 percent the last two seasons).
So what exactly makes Brown think the best is yet to come? And what exactly does he have up his sleeve next?
“I’m working on a lot of different stuff,” said a not-ready-to-reveal Brown. "And a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on for years is now being able to be shown in the games. And some of the stuff I’ve been working on will be able to be shown in the near future.”
As Brown would note, it’s not that he hasn’t been capable of some of what he’s doing now, the opportunity simply wasn’t always there. We saw these sort of flashes during the 2018 playoff run but last season left everybody on the roster struggled to adapt to their roles.
Brown hasn’t had any such issues this year. Even as Gordon Hayward returned from injury in Toronto, Brown feasted on open looks and available driving lanes.
Can Brown muscle his way into a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad? Some of that might hinge on just how many spots the Celtics can secure, though sitting second in the East with a. 750 winning percentage certainly helps their case for multiple bodies.
Still, if Kemba Walker is a slam dunk for a spot, can Boston get one or both of its young wings on in Brown and Tatum? Do those two risk splitting the coaches’ vote for a reserve spot?
The wildcard here might be fan balloting, which accounts for 50 percent of the vote towards starters. If fans help Kyrie Irving land a starting spot, even as he’s missed extended time, the glut of talent from teams at the top of the East will make it harder for Boston to get even two spots.
Just count up the deserving bodies in the conference. Start with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, and Pascal Siakam (depending on how much time he misses here). Then there’s guys like Bam Adebayo and Malcolm Brogdon who deserve spots.
Regardless of whether you classify Brown as a guard — as the NBA has in their interactive voting map — or, more appropriately, as a forward given the players he’s typically defended, it leaves him fighting for spots with the likes of Ben Simmons, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis, Spencer Dinwiddie, Tobias Harris, and Trae Young.
The case for Brown: He ranks in the 82nd percentile for usage at his position and is in the 89th percentage averaging 122.8 points per 100 possessions, according to stats-tracking website Cleaning The Glass. His assist percentage is still middling (58th percentile) but his percentage has spiked from years past (jumping from 7.5 percent last year to 11.8 percent this year).
Then there’s Brown’s defense. Even as he’s been tasked with defending both top wing scorers and a variety of 4s, he’s held opponents to 42.9 percent shooting, or 1.7 percent below those players’ season average. The on/off splits suggest Boston’s defense has been better without Brown on the court but some of that is the talent disparity in the minutes.
Brown seems to have the right approach. He’s not getting caught up in campaigning for a spot; he’s focused on improving his play and letting the results persuade the Eastern Conference coaches that vote for the reserves.
If the best is truly yet to come, he can give those coaches plenty to think before they vote next month.
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