During his game-high 25 minutes, Brown found himself guarding Carmelo Anthony, a nine-time All-Star (and fellow third overall draft pick) who led the league in scoring when Boston’s tantalizing youngster was only 15 years old.
“To be honest, I was like ‘Oh shit.’ That’s what was going through my head,” Brown told Bleacher Report on Tuesday. “It was like a movie. But I think that’s definitely the best scorer I’ve ever gone against, and I don’t even think he was trying. I really don’t.”
Anthony used Brown’s eagerness against him by unleashing a series of unreasonable pump fakes and rainbow jumpers. But the teenager’s mistakes weren’t only understandable, they worked to his long-term benefit.
As he does with most of his time on and off the court, Brown treated his first matchup against a future Hall of Famer as a learning experience.
“I think it did [accelerate my learning curve],” Brown said. “Learn how to guard somebody like that. Keep him off balance. It’s something I needed, just to be like, I wasn’t starstruck, but I was in awe a little bit…but I mean that’s all I needed. The next time we play them tomorrow it’ll be a different vibe.”
Anthony sat out Wednesday night’s rematch, but Brown’s physical appeal—identifiable even to those who don’t watch basketball but understand how human bodies are meant to move—was still on full display. He finished with a team-high 17 points—despite missing five of his game-high 10 free-throw attempts—and defended multiple positions, including the 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis.
“He can jump out the gym,” Terry Rozier said. “He’s very athletic, so he’s gonna see a lot of minutes this year, I feel, and once the game really slows down for him, it’s gonna be scary for a lot of people.”
Beyond Brown’s hysterics-inducing athleticism is a complementary thirst for knowledge that elevates his ceiling higher than most other 5-star prospects. He’s constantly soaking in tape, particularly of players who excel in areas he wants to improve.
“I watch D-Wade, just cutting. Just how he moves without the basketball,” Brown said. “I watch Draymond Green, about him using his leverage guarding fours and taking guys who’re not as mobile off the dribble. I mean, I can go on and on about people I watch.”
Combine all these positive qualities and it’s obvious why the Celtics are thrilled to toss such a unique ball of energy into a roster that already has its sights on the Conference Finals (at the very least). They’ve helped him fit into a strenuous situation—the top-three pick who has to fight for minutes on a team that’s already 2-3 players deep at every position.
“He works hard and he asks questions,” Avery Bradley said. “I appreciate him for that, being a young guy that has an open mind and wants to work hard, because that has to be your mindset coming in to a team like this, with good players like we have. He’s going to be a perfect piece for us.”
A ceaseless inclination to improve, mixed with a seven-foot wingspan that allows him to pounce multiple positions on both sides of the ball, makes Brown an ideal weapon in a league that prioritizes flexibility. He’s spent the preseason torturing close-out defenders, barreling downhill and making positive things happen once he arrives at the rim.
“I always get excited when he gets in the game because I just want to see what he can do, or what he’s going to do,” Al Horford said. “It seems like he’s always getting a highlight play, and I think that’s just a preview of what we’re going to see during the season.”
But Brown’s Q rating wasn’t always so high.
Analytical projections cast dark clouds over his head before he even stepped on an NBA floor. Some league observers were confused when Boston selected him over intriguing prospects like Dragan Bender, Jamal Murray and Kris Dunn.
Cuonzo Martin, Brown’s head coach at the University of California, is confident that the Marietta, Georgia, native’s relative struggles at the amateur level were less about skill and more about the questionable competition and detrimental style of play.
“Jaylen’s an unselfish player that does what’s best for the team, doing what he was taught as opposed to ‘let me force up a lot of shots and whatever happens happens,’” Martin told Bleacher Report.
“He tries to make the right play, whether the guys he’s playing with lack the talent to complete a play. For example, Jaylen makes a pass and—more on a high-school level—a guy’s not good enough to [finish the play]. Jaylen will make the right play, whether that guy can make the play or not.”
Brown echoes his coach’s thoughts.
“There’s a lot more spacing in the NBA. You can start right away and people are a lot better in the NBA, of course, so it makes you play better, almost in a sense, just because you have better people around you that they have to respect,” he said. “So, like, if I catch the ball in the post, nobody’s gonna really help that much, and if they do somebody’s open.”
The elephant in the room remains his shot: Brown made only 29.4 percent of his threes (34.5 percent in 18 conference games) and 65.4 percent of his free throws as a freshman, concerning numbers that can lower any wing’s offensive impact.
“He shot 29 percent from three for us here at Cal, but he was a better three-point shooter, in my opinion, than what his percentage said,” Martin said. “He was probably a better pull-up shooter than what his percentage said. In the college game, the way the defense plays, it’s kind of packed in. It’s tough for a guy to make moves all the time, at the level he’s capable of making them at. At [the NBA], with the spacing, now he can drive the ball. He’s quick, first step, he’s a strong guy. And I think it bodes well for his future.”
For some, the NBA preseason can be nothing more than a promising entry point that ultimately fails to result in anything consequential. That’s hardly the case here, even though Brown makes his fair share of mistakes.
He botches pick-and-roll coverages, particularly when playing up as a power forward. And once his name pops up on opposing scouting reports, defenders will stop closing out so hard on his jumper. In a microscopic sample size, Brown is shooting 27.8 percent behind the three-point line so far. But he’s nowhere close to showing concern and is prepared for defensive adjustments.
“[I’m] as confident as anybody can be [in my shot],” Brown said. “If I’m open I shoot it. I think they will [give a cushion] until you hit two. Then once somebody hits two they’re gonna close out, even if the percentages don’t say they’re over 40 or whatever. Nobody wants to—there’s certain periods and certain times on the floor—nobody wants to give up a three, and you don’t want to be the one that’s giving one up, so you’ve got to play defense. You gotta play honest.
“[Other teams] have a lot of people to account for in the scouting report, so maybe I just slide right by and nobody really pays any attention to me. But I’m just playing basketball at the end of the day. If they start closing short, I’m gonna start making that shot.”
In the grand scheme, Brown’s ability to knock down outside shots is significant. But there’s plenty of time for him to improve, and he already knows how to positively impact games in so many other ways. The overall takeaways from his preseason performance are nothing but positive. He isn’t bashful and already looks like he belongs.
Brown's short-term contributions for a team with big dreams may be larger than anyone expected—much like Justise Winslow on the Miami Heat. More importantly, his development will make Boston’s rosy future look even more promising. (The Celtics may have another body to throw at LeBron James who can seamlessly switch onto Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.)
“I don’t think he’s built to be a role guy for 15 years. I think he has the skill, the ability and the gift to be a star player at some point,” Martin said.
“I would say, at this stage—and again, it’s just hard because you don’t want to put stuff out there and say ‘OK, he’s that’—but one of the greatest to ever play the game is Dominique Wilkins. ... A lot of resemblances there, the athleticism, the way they attack the rim, and, again, Dominique went on to become one of the greatest to ever play the game, so I don’t want to put that level of pressure on him, but he’s in a ballpark with that type of talent.”
Brown’s flashed glimpses of becoming the two-way centerpiece needed to win it all. In the meantime, the Celtics have to think they can compete for a championship sooner rather than later—Brown’s positive preseason is rapidly climbing the list of reasons why.
Near the end of the first half of Wednesday night's loss against the New York Knicks, Marcus Smart sprained his left ankle on a drive to the basket. Early indications are that the injury could sideline him for a couple of weeks, meaning Boston will be without its Sixth Man on opening night.
So as far as long-term repercussions go, this isn't a big deal. But it may open up minutes for whoever isn't waived by Monday's 5 p.m. deadline—be it R.J. Hunter, Demetrius Jackson, James Young or Gerald Green—shining an even brighter light on the value of that final roster spot.
Meanwhile, according to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, Kelly Olynyk isn't expected to return until the middle of November. The 7-foot three-point shooter has been sidelined by shoulder surgery since the end of last season.
Should Jerebko start?
It appears Boston's opening night starting lineup is already set in stone: Isaiah Thomas, Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson and Horford. It's an effective group that's shown positive growth throughout the preseason.
But against certain matchups, the 6'10" Jonas Jerebko may be a better option at power forward.
It would allow the Celtics to open the game with five capable three-point shooters while adding a bit more versatility to their defense. It'd also bump Johnson to the bench as a backup center, ensuring the team has at least one rim protector on the floor at all times.
There are certainly ways Brad Stevens can stagger his rotation so Johnson or Horford is always on the floor even if they both start—even more once Olynyk is back in the rotation—but Jerebko's playmaking would be a helpful boost to Boston's offense from the opening tip.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.