Chris Forsberg

Jaylen Brown's elite defensive numbers could change his reputation

The Celtics star is answering his own challenge on the defensive end.

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Before the start of the 2023-24 season, Jaylen Brown delivered a challenge to Boston’s starting five. He wanted every player on the team to earn votes for the All-Defense squad and make that side of the ball a priority again.

But, individually, he took the challenge further. Despite his All-NBA status, Brown knew he was viewed as an offense-first player, someone who’s primary talent was scoring the basketball. He yearned for the rest of the league to take note of his potential on the defensive end.

“Somebody like me, I have the ability to [defend],” said Brown. "And, at times in my career, just because we've had great defenders throughout my career, sometimes my responsibility on that end has been more on offense. 

“But to challenge myself more throughout the year is important, because in the playoffs, I take on certain roles and responsibilities, no problem. But even challenging yourself throughout the year to to push yourself in that regard, because that's the side of the ball that we don't appreciate as much.

"We emphasize and glorify the offensive side but the defense can really affect and really add to winning. So really taking it serious, really locking in, really pushing the teammates around you, trying to be the best you can be.”

Nearing the midway point of the season, Brown ranks fifth in the NBA while holding opponents to 40.5 percent shooting overall. Among the 299 players who have appeared in at least 20 games, Brown sits seventh in field goal differential, holding his opponents to 6.8 percent below expected output.

Zoom in on the 147 players who defend 10+ shots per game and Brown ranks No. 1 in opponent field goal percentage and second behind only Joel Embiid (-7.3) in differential.

Just look at some of the rest of his company at the top of that leaderboard

Brown lingers among a who’s who of All-Defense-caliber big men, players who thrive at denying opponents near the basket. 

For guards and wings, there’s some shot luck involved in their numbers. But Brown has had most of his success this season defending players inside of the arc, including holding opponents to 8.4 percent below expected output on all 2-point shots. The closer to the basket those players get, the worse their shooting output gets.

A look at Brown’s defensive dashboard, per NBA tracking

It felt like the Celtics tapped into Brown’s full defensive potential during last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals when they dispatched him to blanket 76ers guard James Harden early in that series.

Brown took on the challenge of defending at the point of attack and, more often than not, diminished Harden’s overall impact on the rest of the series.

This year, the Celtics continue to tap into Brown’s potential when he’s not just covering shooters on the wing. When Brown is defending primary ballhandlers, he’s most engaged and able to use his size and athleticism to bother smaller guards.

On Saturday night in Indy, Brown held the Pacers to 0-for-8 shooting, per NBA tracking. That included three stops while defending Tyrese Haliburton. 

Last week, the Celtics dispatched fellow All-NBA wing Jayson Tatum to cover Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the closing minutes of a loss in Oklahoma City. The Celtics have a similar luxury in Brown and can throw him at the likes of Haliburton, limiting the amount of turns and energy expended by All-Defense backcourt of Derrick White and Jrue Holiday.

Brown’s numbers are trending up. Over his last 10 games, he’s holding his opponents to 10.5 percent below expected output — a rather absurd number for someone defending 10+ shot attempts per game. Opponent struggles beyond the 3-point arc have certainly aided those marks.

A closer look at Brown’s defense over his last 10 games:

Brown undoubtedly benefits from having so much defensive talent around him. Everyone on the roster is aided by having Kristaps Porzingis as a safety net on the back line and 37-year-old Al Horford has been a block machine in his minutes off the bench.

The versatility of White and Holiday allows Boston to dispatch Brown against guards without fear of opponents trying to create mismatches. When Brown is at the point of attack, he seems that much more engaged. Gone are the days when an opposing shooter might catch Brown napping on a backdoor cut with Brown caught ball-watching.

That Brown has taken on the challenge of being a better individual defender has helped Boston’s defense occasionally display shades of the 2021-22 team that advanced to the NBA Finals. Boston, on the heels of holding Indy to a season-low output on Saturday night, now sits second in the NBA with a 109.9 defensive rating. 

There’s a long way to go to be the team that led the NBA at 106.2 during that 2022 season. But Brown and Co. seem committed on the defensive end. Sometimes Boston’s offense is so red hot that the defense downshifts a bit.

But Boston needs to know it can tap into that full defensive potential, particularly when the playoffs roll around. Still, there’s an honest-to-goodness chance that, if they keep up this recent level of play, all five starters could truly earn All-Defense consideration.

Just like Brown had hoped.

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