Before a November shootaround in Denver, Jaylen Brown was asked whether Kyrie Irving’s departure opened up more opportunities for him in the Celtics’ retooled offense.
“No comment,” he responded.
The honest truth is that it has. There has been no player who has benefited more from the Celtics’ more balanced offense than Brown, who despite being left off the All-Star Team, has been the most improved Celtic on a roster of players who have taken positive steps forward.
All can’t be attributed to Irving’s absence and Kemba Walker’s desire to share the scoring wealth with his teammates, but Brown is playing with a fearlessness and aggression that was spotty in his first three seasons.
He dropped a game-high 32 points on the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday with an array of dribble-drive moves that allowed him to get directly to the rim. And while Brown’s numbers across the board have improved — partially helped by playing nearly eight minutes per game more than last season — his ballhandling has been the most distinctive upgrade.
Coming out of Cal, Brown was considered a proverbial bull in a china shop, with not a lot of finesse to his drives. Brown challenged defenders to take charges or reach in for the steal. That wasn’t effective at the NBA level. Players who were equally as athletic sensed his weaker handle and simply ripped the ball away from him.
With the help of the Celtics’ assistant coach Tony Dobbins, Brown worked feverishly on his ballhandling daily. The results are evident. Brown attacks the basket more comfortably, and there are moments such as his eye-popping, head-shaking drive against Philadelphia’s Matisse Thybulle, whom he shook for an easy dunk.
Brown said he’s trying to improve his overall game. He realizes the book on him entering the NBA was that he was a freakishly athletic player without the refined skill set. But he has improved his shooting — midrange and 3-point — along with being more patient in attacking the basket.
“Just trying to get better out there,” he said. “I have been working on my game since I came into the league, continuing to put the time in and make sacrifices whatever it takes. I am going to continue to get better. That’s it, man. The proof is in the work. You just keep working and keep getting better. Keep raising my level.”
The All-Star snub was not a surprise. It would have been difficult for the Celtics to get three players on the 12-man team, with Walker being named a starter and with Jayson Tatum turning in some momentous games against quality opponents. But Brown will take it as a slight, as an opportunity to show those Eastern Conference coaches that he is indeed an All-Star as the Celtics approach the stretch run.
“He’s been really good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I said the other day, you know, we’ve talked all along, it’s more important all along to be playing like an all-star than to be named one. And nobody exemplifies that better. He’s done a great job. I think that he played really well the other night, but [Saturday] he was . . . he was really good. Very aggressive, very good at picking his spots. But he came out . . . even on that first possession you knew he was going to be, you know, ready to roll.”
The Celtics’ confidence in Brown was exemplified when they signed him to a four-year $115 million extension in the offseason, coming off what was a subpar season. That amount of money for a player who struggled at times drew questions, but Brown appears to be living up to that contract, pairing with Tatum to form one of the league’s emerging duos.
What has also opened up Brown’s game is his reliable midrange game. He has hit 51.9 percent of his shots between 10 and 16 feet, compared with 43.6 percent last season. It’s a byproduct of learning that all scoring doesn’t have to be at the rim. If opponents are going to give Brown that open midrange jumper, he has to be confident about taking it.
“Just taking what the defense gives me,” he said. “If it’s a good shot, it’s going down. I know the analytics say this and say that, but if I got a good look, I think the coaching staff is behind me for me to take it. I just try to take advantage.”
The goal, for Brown, is to show his best in the biggest spotlight, and that’s not necessarily the All-Star Game. A trip to Chicago with Walker and Tatum would have been nice, but Brown will accept the one-week respite and prepare for the stretch run, when the focus shifts to team accomplishments, not individual.
“Getting ready to head into the playoffs is what my mind is on,” he said. “All-Star Break, I’ll probably go on vacation, get my mind, get my body ready, get ready for the playoffs. Because that’s the stage that you want to be on. I think some people got it backwards. But I’m just going to continue to get better.”