The shooting display Wednesday at TD Garden was a testament to the effort Jaylen Brown has vigorously exhibited to improve and refine his offensive game over the past few years.
Those who remember Brown during the 2016 draft process recall a freakishly athletic but raw offensive player. He was a bull on the floor at California, using his force to attack the basket but lacking the finesse to pull up for a jumper or glide in the air around his defender.
His shooting stroke was flawed but it was apparent that Brown understood his weaknesses and immediately began to improve them. And his career-high 42 points in Wednesday’s 126-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies was a brilliant display of shooting, one of those nights when the basket is as big as a kiddie pool and Jaylen is just tossing the ball in with ease.
The expectations on Brown have increased over the past few years, since he has shown signs of being an All-Star player, an above average offensive player as well as a plus defender. There are times that Brown can do anything he wants on the floor. In Tuesday’s win over the Pacers he blitzed Justin Holiday for a steal and a critical late bucket with his defense.
A night later, he drained seven 3-pointers as well as an array of mid-range jumpers and soaring layups, amassing those 42 in just 29 minutes. That’s a superstar line from a player who is teetering close to that status in his fifth NBA season.
Teammate Jayson Tatum has received accolades, tabbed as one of the NBA’s rising stars because of his ability to score in different facets, to take over a game with his offensive prowess. Brown has been considered just a step behind, perhaps a byproduct of getting by in his younger days on his athleticism.
But as Brown watched older contemporaries such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, players to whom he’s been physically compared, and how they became stars not only because of physical skills but their mental approach and improvement of their games away from the rim, he became obsessed with offensive ascension.
After this performance, he is averaging 28 points per game through the Celtics’ first five contests, and his 3-point percentage soared to 44.0. Those are numbers that elite players compile and it’s a responsibility that Brown relishes. After the disappointing end of last season in the NBA bubble, Brown said he has come into this new season motivated to take that next major step.
The Celtics didn’t get the best out of Brown last year because they didn’t give Brown a chance to be his best on several occasions. He was often used as a last offensive resort who could bail his team out with fourth-quarter heroics. This season he is being more assertive in the early going, refusing to ease into the game but instead taking advantage of his opportunities.
“I’m definitely trying to accept the challenge,” Brown said. “I’m excited about this year in general. I think we have a great group. We have a lot to learn. I have a lot to learn but I think we’re all embracing that challenge. Personally for me being able to be in a new and different role with more responsibility, I love and I want to handle that with great responsibility and try to be the best leader I could possibly be.”
So there are going to be nights like this when Brown flourishes and Tatum takes a back seat, chills and watches his buddy drop buckets.
“He was on fire and the guys had to keep feeding him,” Tatum said. “We’ve been playing together for four years now and just getting more and more of a feel for each other out on the court. It’s only going to continue to get better.
“I think he’s becoming a better shooter each and every year. His confidence continues to grow and he’s just gotten better.”
Celtics faithful shouldn’t expect career highs consistently from Brown but they should expect a marked improvement from last year, a player who should be named to the Eastern Conference All-Star Team in the first season of his $107 million contract extension.
With Gordon Hayward gone, Kemba Walker hurt and the Celtics still trying to define roles and get newcomers comfortable, the pressure is on Brown and Tatum to flourish every night. It doesn’t necessarily have to be 42-point nights. It could be the key steal like Tuesday against Indiana or a hot fourth quarter to lift the team on an off night.
And it’s reassuring that coach Brad Stevens’s best players are his hardest working players, and that’s the case with Brown, who quietly developed into a Top 20 player without the fanfare and lofty expectations.
“I just think he works hard at everything,” Stevens said. “He’s a good player. His finishing has improved so much since college, his shooting was probably not as highly thought of as it should have been coming out of the draft. It certainly has gotten a lot of better. He’s worked hard to improve. He’s got a lot on his plate. He loves to have a lot on his plate and that’s good.”