The guy in goggles lighting it up for the Los Angeles Lakers recently in Las Vegas Summer League, the one who might look familiar from the blur that was last season—that was Jabari Brown. On a team with a deep backcourt, the 22-year-old is trying to prove he can be more than an insurance policy.
After missing two games with a scratched cornea, the 6’5” shooting guard made up for lost time by making every shot in sight.
Brown led L.A. in scoring with 17 points per game in 30 minutes, noting, per Lakers.com: “I’m just trying to improve every game, just show that what I did at the end of the year wasn't a fluke.”
The “end of the year” was 19 games, including five starts, in which Brown averaged 11.9 points on an injury-ravaged squad that was well on its way to a 21-61 campaign.
Undrafted a year ago, Brown received a training camp invite from the Lakers, appearing in four preseason games before being cut. He wound up signing with the organization’s D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
That foot in the door played out with Brown becoming the D-League’s leading scorer at 24.4 points per game. And when the Lakers were bereft of options late in a train wreck of a season, they handed the rookie a 10-day tryout and then another one before ultimately signing him for the balance of the season on a multiyear deal.
Brown will have to sweat more steps going forward with a non-guaranteed salary of $845,059 for next season. The Lakers can also make a qualifying offer of $1,225,539 for 2016-17.
Lakers head coach Byron Scott didn’t go easy on the prospect during the closing weeks of the season, this for a team that was lottery bound.
“He surpassed a lot of the things I thought he couldn’t do,” Scott said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I put him in situations to see if he could and he’s able to do them. I’m very happy for him because obviously he’s put a lot of work into his game.”
Ahead of Brown in the rotation will be this year’s No. 2 draft pick, D’Angelo Russell, All-Rookie First Team selection Jordan Clarkson and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams.
Plus, there’s that other guy—Kobe Bryant with five championship rings. Bryant’s been a shooting guard his entire career but will likely slide over to the 3 for meaningful minutes this season.
Suffice to say, Brown has some challenges ahead. That’s nothing new for the Oakland native who shares a bond and some history with fellow backcourt overachiever Clarkson.
Brown transferred from Oregon to Missouri while Clarkson switched from Tulsa to Mizzou. Both redshirted a season and became roommates and friends. They propped each other up when doctors diagnosed each of their fathers with cancer. And on the court they were a high-scoring duo—Brown led the SEC at 19.9 points per game with Clarkson adding 17.5 from the lead guard position.
That they both landed with the Lakers is serendipitous, but Brown’s the one with the steeper hill to climb—not often the case when compared to a No. 46 overall pick. Putting the ball in the bucket has never been a problem, but his fellow guards are also known for their scoring abilities. Brown needs to show his worth on the other end of the court as well as other areas of his game.
Scott’s unceasing mantra throughout his first season in L.A. was stopping the ball. His tough-love words didn’t seem to have much effect, however—the team ranked 29th in defensive efficiency, per ESPN’s Hollinger statistics, and some of that was a product of the players on the roster.
Among the fundamental issues were the inability of guards to stay in front of their men, a failure by wings to help and recover, and a lack of protection at the rim from the bigs, most notably Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer, neither of whom are known for anything beyond mediocrity on the defensive end.
Brown doesn’t have superior length and may never truly excel at contesting shots. He’s also not a prolific rebounder—his 1.9 boards per game was lower than all other guards on the roster except Ronnie Price, and his per-36 rebounding total put him dead last on that list. But he does have physical strength, a shifty quickness and a willingness to learn.
The Lakers acquired Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers this summer, and the presence of an elite rim protector should help guys like Brown when it comes to more clear-cut positional defensive schemes (i.e., funneling dribble-drivers straight right into Hibbert’s box).
Another area of improvement that needs addressing is sharing the ball and making teammates better. Brown averaged just 2.1 assists during his 19 games with L.A. and only 1.3 as a Vegas Summer League baller. Bottom line: Brown needs to prove he's not just a scorer if he wants to stick with the Lakers.
But it’s Brown’s ability to catch and shoot that’s his obvious calling card in the NBA, including a nice stroke from long range. He connected on 37 percent of his downtown attempts during the regular season and 39 percent this summer.
Yes, it’s true that L.A. has a plethora of shot-happy players on the roster, from Williams to Nick “Swaggy P” Young. But Brown’s style is substance over flash—he’s got great mechanics and his accuracy from distance—which is of solid value for a team that severely lagged in three-point shooting last season.
There are things to work on and hurdles to overcome with fall training camp being the next step in an uncertain future.
But Jabari Brown can be more than a modest hedge bet for the Lakers next season. Now it’s on him to step up and deliver.