CLEVELAND — After tallying 30 points, 12 assists, and 7 rebounds in an effort that is really only ho-hum when he does it, Cavaliers forward LeBron James took a moment to consider the Celtics’ future after defeating them Thursday.
“Boston definitely is enjoying all the picks that they’re getting from the Nets the last few years,” James said.
Specifically, James was referring to Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown, who was drafted third overall last June with a draft choice that originally belonged to Brooklyn.
With Jae Crowder sidelined with a sprained ankle, Brown drew his first pro start, as well as the most daunting task in the NBA: defending James at one end while trying to score on him at the other.
Although Brown’s performance was not flawless, it was quite encouraging for the Celtics. He had 19 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists, and made 8 of 16 field goal attempts. No, he did not stop James in the 128-122 loss, but he did not get overpowered by him and he did not look out of place.
When the Celtics faced the Knicks during the preseason last month, Brown was matched up against Carmelo Anthony for part of the game. Afterward, Brown’s awe was apparent, as he gushed about what the opportunity had meant. After facing James — an even bigger star than Anthony — he was more matter-of-fact.
“At the end of the day I’m a competitor, and I think I’m more competitive than a lot of people in this league,” Brown said. “I had a focus. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t star struck or anything. I came out and had a job to do and tried to do it to the best of my ability.”
On one play in the first half, Brown even drove along the right baseline on James and threw down a two-handed dunk.
James took notice of the rookie. After the game, he pulled Brown aside and told him that he had played well. James echoed that sentiment during his postgame media interview.
“I think he’s a really good talent, and that’s why he was drafted so high,” James said. “He’s a strong kid. You can see he knows how to play the game.”
For Brown, the fact that opponents know what he does best will present a challenge. He was just a 29.4 percent 3-point shooter as a freshman at Cal, and the defense at that level is worse and the 3-point shot is shorter.
Over the first five games of this season, opponents have dared Brown to hoist 3-pointers instead of defending him more snugly and risking his strong drives.
Brown has a solid shooting stroke, so his development is more a matter of repetition, comfort, and knowledge than fixing a major flaw in his mechanics. He has been working extensively with Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry.
“I don’t think he’s ever been a high-volume 3-point shooter,” Shrewsberry said. “But early on in his career, those are the shots he’s going to get, because teams aren’t going to close out on him as hard.”
Brown missed his only 3-point attempt during Boston’s first three games, but he has gone 4 of 8 from long range in the last two. Brown lives a short drive from the Celtics’ training facility in Waltham, and he said he has sometimes returned there in the middle of the night to work on his shooting.
(When Shrewsberry heard Brown reveal this to reporters Thursday he bristled, because in addition to preaching the importance of practice and a strong work ethic, the Celtics also place great value on sleep.)
Regardless, Brown said he is becoming more comfortable with his jump shot and his defensive capabilities have always been apparent.
“You never expect a guy to make 50 percent of his threes every day,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But I think at the end of the day if he can bring that same tenacity and that same focus, especially defensively, he can just keep getting better and that’s what you want. So I thought [the Cavaliers game] was step in the right direction for sure.”