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As his game evolves, Jaylen Brown happy to pass along scoring opportunities

Jaylen Brown led all players in points and assists during the Celtics' home win over Orlando on Friday.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

With Jayson Tatum out because of COVID-19 protocols and Kemba Walker still sidelined as he strengthens his left knee, Jaylen Brown’s scoring figured to be essential in Friday’s game against the Magic. Of course, the Magic knew this, too, and they constantly sent multiple defenders in his direction.

Earlier in his career Brown might have felt a responsibility to push through the extra attention and try to score in any manner possible. But he’s more patient now, and he also understands that hunting shots is not always the most efficient route.

So there he was on Friday night, with a considerably undermanned supporting cast around him, tying his career high with eight assists in Boston’s 124-97 romp at TD Garden. Brown would have been in position to set his career high rather easily, but the score was so lopsided that he watched most of the fourth quarter from the bench and played just 25 minutes.

Brown’s ascension this season is one of the primary reasons the Celtics have surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, despite the absence of Walker and the departure of Gordon Hayward. He entered Saturday night as the NBA’s ninth-leading scorer, averaging 25.8 points per game on 53.7 percent shooting.


But his evolution as a distributor has been just about as impressive as his startlingly efficient scoring binges.

“It’s certainly gotten a lot better, just his reads and everything else,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently. “He’s just really improved, worked hard to improve. Got a lot on his plate. He wants to have a lot on his plate, and that’s good.”

Brown, now in his fifth season, is averaging a career-high 3.9 assists per game, second on the team only to starting point guard Marcus Smart. He has a 19.9 assist percentage — the percentage of Boston’s field goals he assisted on while on the court — and has never finished a season above 10 percent. Lastly, he has a 1.39 assist-to-turnover ratio, a considerable improvement from his previous career high of 1.01.


Brown, 24, has seen the progress, but he is hardly satisfied.

“A lot of room for growth,” he said after Friday’s game, in which he also scored a game-high 21 points. “The biggest room in the world, to be honest. So for me, I don’t let others dictate who I am or what I can be. I just continue to try to be the best version of myself as possible. Every year I try to get better, but at the same time, I’ve gotten more and more opportunities. So I think that’s the biggest difference, just opportunity.”

Against the Magic, Brown quickly made it clear that he would be a willing distributor whenever the Magic shaded too far in his direction. On the game’s first play, he drove into the teeth of the defense, drew multiple defenders, and kicked a pass out to Jeff Teague for an open 3-pointer at the right arc.

Brown’s first five assists against Orlando resulted in 3-pointers, and the degree of difficulty increased as the game progressed.

Later in the first quarter, he spun on his defender on the right baseline and drove to the hoop. When he jumped, he was left with a tough angle, his body essentially behind the basket.

In past seasons, when his athleticism was more advanced than his vision, he probably would have felt he had little choice but to try an acrobatic attempt under the rim and hopefully draw contact. In this case, he leapt and whipped a pass to Smart, who calmly drained a 3-pointer from the left arc.


Near the end of the first quarter, Brown received a kick out from Payton Pritchard at the left arc. As Brown’s defender charged toward him, he was left with a good chance to attack the closeout and make something happen in the paint. But Semi Ojeleye was wide open in the left corner, and it was an easy choice to whip the ball to the red-hot shooter.

But the most impressive assist of Friday’s collection came midway through the second quarter. Brown curled off a screen, received a pass on the right wing, and took one dribble before rising for what would have been a tough 10-footer, because he never really had his balance and was unable to properly square up to the hoop.

Still, he has been absolutely explosive in midrange situations this year, and the Magic were aware of that. All five Orlando defenders were looking at him, and three were within arm’s length. Rather than force up the shot from the imperfect angle, though, Brown spun in midair and whipped a pass to Smart at the top of the key. The 3-pointer went in, and Brown’s evolution continued.

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.