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Chad Finn

Celtics fans booed Jaylen Brown on draft night. There’s no excuse for not knowing how special he is now

What Jaylen Brown accomplishes off the court is probably more impressive than what he can do on it.
What Jaylen Brown accomplishes off the court is probably more impressive than what he can do on it.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Though much has happened in Celtics history since then, it wasn’t terribly long ago.

You remember. So be honest, and I will too.

Whom did you want Danny Ainge to take with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft?

There was much debate. The consensus on that draft was that there were two potential superstars to be had — Louisiana State’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram — with a half-dozen promising question marks in contention to go third.

Simmons, who does just about everything on the court other than hitting shots outside of 15 feet, went first to the 76ers. The Lakers took Ingram, who has Kevin Durant’s build, roughly 75 percent of his skill set, and Sam Perkins’s perma-sleepy countenance.

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That put Ainge on the clock. And we all had our opinions.

Many, perhaps a majority, wanted Kris Dunn, a scoring guard who had blossomed at Providence. The second-most-popular candidate, at least in my recollection, was Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, an old-for-college dead-eye shooter. Jamal Murray, a Kentucky one-and-done, had his fans. So too did Dragan Bender, an allegedly skilled 7-footer who was just 18 at the time.

I’ll bet at least one of you wanted Washington’s Marquese Chriss. Perhaps you are related to him?

Me, I wavered among Dunn, Bender, and Murray, eventually settling on Dunn.

Ainge appeased none of us, taking Jaylen Brown, an athletic but raw 19-year-old who had shot 43 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from 3-point range as a freshman for a Cal team that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.

It did feel like a reach. The day after the draft, the Washington Post ran a story with the headline “Celtics selected one potential bust after another at 2016 NBA draft.” (They were right about No. 16 pick Guerschon Yabusele, at least.)

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Jaylen Brown was all smiles the night he was drafted by the Celtics.
Jaylen Brown was all smiles the night he was drafted by the Celtics.Frank Franklin II

The story cited ESPN writer Kevin Pelton’s draft model, which rates prospects based on their projected wins above replacement during their first five NBA seasons. His model put Brown 101st among all draft-eligible prospects.

For Celtics fans, it also felt like a disappointment on a larger scale considering there were rumors on draft night that Ainge would wheel the pick for an established star such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George.

Fans — perhaps you among them — booed the pick when it was announced at a party for season ticket-holders. Owner Wyc Grousbeck, who before the draft had promised “fireworks,” was booed when he addressed fans about the pick. “Fourteen years [as an owner], that’s probably the worst [reaction] I’ve gotten,” Grousbeck said at the time. "But I’ll view this as people really care.”

Ainge said booing is the fans’ prerogative, and that passion is part of what he loves about Boston. But he wished it had been aimed his way rather than at the player.

“The only thing that I don’t like about that is that it’s a reflection of Jaylen instead of a reflection of me,’’ said Ainge. “ ‘We don’t like your choice.’ That’s OK to boo me. But, ‘Give [him] a chance,’ would be the only thing I would say.

"Like, let’s see. Let’s wait a year, then boo me. Let’s not boo the kid when his name is announced. As far as criticism in my position, I expect it, I’m used to it, and I don’t think [the media] can offend me. You can try, but I don’t think it’ll work.”

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Four years later, it’s clear that fans who booed the pick — and those of us who wanted Dragan Freaking Bender — had no idea what they were getting, on the court and especially off.

There’s no excuse for not knowing how special Jaylen Brown is now.

The basketball reasons have been obvious for a while. Save for some brief hints of stagnation while playing with ball-dominant Kyrie Irving, Brown has constantly improved during his four seasons as a Celtic. (He also stood his ground with Irving, who liked to blame the young players for all of the team’s failings.)

Jaylen Brown has emerged as an impressive presence, both on and off the court.
Jaylen Brown has emerged as an impressive presence, both on and off the court.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

This season, with a new $115 million extension, Brown took a huge leap forward, improving his shooting, tightening up his ball handling, and playing with relentlessness on defense.

He’s everything a Celtic is supposed to be, a cornerstone of the present and future. Off the court, he may be even more impressive, a young man intent on being a leader at a time when genuine leadership is desperately needed in so many areas of our lives.

As tensions escalated in the aftermath of George Floyd’s brutal and unjust death at the hands of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, Brown drove 15 hours last weekend, from Boston to his native Georgia, to lead a peaceful protest in Atlanta. Celtics cap on his head and megaphone in hand, Brown and fellow NBA player Malcolm Brogdon led a peaceful march through the city. It was a bold gesture, and completely unsurprising.

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"Jaylen’s greatest impact, as good as he is at basketball, won’t be in basketball,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens a few days later. "He’s a special guy, he’s a special leader. He’s smart but he has courage.

"He’s got a lot of great stuff to him, and I think we recognized that when we drafted him, but I think that he has been even more unbelievable every day, every year. I’ve always personally really enjoyed listening to him and talking to him about things outside of basketball.

"He told me he was going down there on Thursday and, obviously, I certainly am not surprised by him taking a leadership role. That’s who he is.”

Stevens’s support is no surprise, but in a way it is a reminder of some of the absurd reasons for skepticism about Brown coming into the league. ESPN’s “The Undefeated” ran an insightful piece on Brown before the draft, calling him the most interesting prospect in the class for reasons beyond his skills. In that story, an unnamed assistant general manager said that Brown’s “high level of intelligence and inquisitive nature could intimidate some general managers and coaches.”

I suppose this speaks well of Ainge and Stevens for recognizing this as an actual strength, but man, what a bunch of frauds those coaches and GMs must be who fear inquisitiveness and intelligence in young players.

There are two quotes from Brown in those days that told us who he was and should have at least intrigued Celtics fans about his potential — and not just on the court.

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One was from his call with reporters on draft night:

“I’m overly confident,” he said. “I believe in myself 100 percent. I believe in my game and I believe in my work ethic. I don’t believe anybody works as hard as me, especially not in this draft class. I’m going to go out and show what I can do. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’ll take time. You’ll see.”

Jaylen Brown was averaging 20.4 points per game when the season was put on hold.
Jaylen Brown was averaging 20.4 points per game when the season was put on hold.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

The other was in “The Undefeated” feature:

“I am who I am. Take it or leave it. I’m not going to change my values and change my approach because someone feels uncomfortable. I am not going to be disrespectful or step on any toes. But I am going to be me.”

The Celtics got the Jaylen Brown pick so right that night four years ago, and in ways maybe even they didn’t anticipate. Ainge’s plea to give him a chance should have been unnecessary, even before we knew what Brown was all about. But somewhere along the way, he made all of us wise to a greater truth.

He's the kind of person that deserves cheers, no matter what he happens to be doing on the parquet.

Jaylen Brown is just what you want a Celtic to be. He’s what you want your son to be. I’m enjoying watching what he accomplishes as a basketball player. I can’t wait to witness all he achieves away from it.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.