PHILADELPHIA — As music blared and some players sipped beers in the Celtics’ locker room after their win over the 76ers on Saturday night, forward Jae Crowder noticed rookie Jaylen Brown finishing an interview session.
Brown recently turned 20 years old, and he was not sipping a beer. And the Celtics have relentlessly reminded him of his youth and his status and his learning curve. It is tough love, in part because he is a rookie and in part because they see his potential.
In this moment, Crowder offered some praise for Brown, who’d showed off his athleticism by smothering 76ers guard Gerald Henderson’s layup attempt when the Celtics were clinging to a 4-point lead with less than six minutes left.
“JB with the big block!” Crowder yelled for all to hear, before following up with a playful but real truth. “Because he was lost on D!”
Such has been life for Brown, the No. 3 overall pick from last June’s draft who has completed one quarter of his rookie year. His flashes of brilliance have been sandwiched between missed assignments and hard realities that he is not in college anymore.
It is true that he should have stayed with Henderson on that play, but it is also true that few players could have recovered and devoured a shot so suddenly.
“A smooth sea doesn’t make a skilled sailor, so you know there are going to be rough patches,” Brown said. “You know there are going to be times when things don’t go your way, but you’re almost prepared for that. So I was prepared for everything I’m dealing with now. It’s just about getting better and being a good teammate.”
Brown’s playing time has decreased significantly since the start of the season, mostly because the Celtics are finally healthy. He averaged 15.2 minutes per game over the first 12 games but has received just 7.8 minutes per game over the last eight.
In the Celtics’ 107-106 win Saturday, Brown received his heaviest workload since this team has been whole, tallying 4 points, two rebounds, an assist, and a block in 15 minutes.
“I thought Jaylen played pretty well,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He was very active. Even when he got beat on a couple of plays, he stayed in the play and made some aggressive recoveries, so we need him to continue to grow.”
Brown understands that he must continue to grow. When asked what specific part of his game he hopes to improve this season, he paused and rolled off a list: His energy, shooting, dribbling, playmaking, individual and team defense, and his ability to be a good teammate.
Brown said that when he entered games at the start of the season, he was primarily focused on not making mistakes. Then he realized he did not get this far by tiptoeing around a basketball court.
“Now that I’m getting more comfortable I’m just like, ‘Go out there and play basketball, bring energy,’ ” Brown said. “Just come out and do what you’re supposed to do. A lot of times you try to tell yourself not to mess up, and it’s counterproductive. It’s kind of like so hard not to do the wrong thing.”
Although Brown has made a respectable 32 percent of his 3-pointers, he has struggled overall as a jump shooter, making just 14 of 49 attempts (28.6 percent). He said that during practices he is shooting the ball better than ever, but that has yet to carry over into games. He does not believe his struggles are related to form; he said he must improve his focus.
“I’m just trying to stay locked in and engaged,” he said. “It’s just about getting in the game and showing it. I’m pretty sure I’ll get hot one of these days.”
He understands there is no substitute for game action. He also understands that as long as the Celtics are healthy, his opportunities could come in short bursts.
On Saturday, Brown got an extended chance with an unusual lineup to start the fourth quarter. He was grouped with Marcus Smart, Al Horford, Jonas Jerebko, and Jae Crowder. Smart is the only guard in that unit, and even he plays a significant amount of forward. But those five players quickly unfurled an 8-0 run. Stevens said the group could be seen again this season.
Brown has noticed that many opponents have similar schemes, and during the flow of a game he can now identify certain patterns about what to expect next.
“I’m at the point where I’m just trusting myself,” Brown said. “I’m not hesitating. I’m just trying to play as much as I can. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake. But at the end of the day I just have to play, and that’s how you grow.”