Though Boston Celtics fans know how good Jaylen Brown is, he is still very underrated in many respects. Let’s examine some of the many improvements he made during the truncated 2019-20 season.
What’s the point of a data dive without advanced analytics? Am I right Boston Celtics fans, or am I wrong?
I think I’m right.
In this hyper-efficient world, we love to find the diamond in the rough — the bang for the buck contract that gives a team starter-level minutes. The undrafted players who may be undervalued but advanced metrics reveal them to have standout qualities.
It’s Moneyball but for basketball.
Sometimes using advanced metrics works to tell a holistic story and sometimes it doesn’t. In Jaylen Brown‘s case, they don’t, but that’s okay. He is extremely undervalued by specific advanced metrics, and the evidence is obvious.
The fourth-year wing for the Boston Celtics is a chess player and it shows in his approach to the game. In transition, he is a move or two ahead.
While his passing game still needs improvement, he seems to read the open court exceptionally well with the ball in his hands. While there is still plenty of upside left on Brown’s growth chart, at such a young age, he’s already mastered the versatility needed to be an elite two-way player.
His defensive improvements were notable, and the advanced metrics from defensive PIPM, real plus/minus, RAPTOR, and win shares all favored Tatum. The on/off metrics loved him, and he is even in the hunt for an All-Defensive Second-Team nod this year.
Defensive RAPTOR even favored notable defensive liability, Lou Williams over Brown, a real head-scratcher with the current parameters of this specific metric.
Defense is always tricky to quantify because of the many variables and divergent philosophies, but sometimes one needs to measure defense based on load. Who was Tatum guarding on a nightly basis compared to Brown? After a quick deep dive into this subject, Brown’s defensive versatility stands out when compared to Tatum’s.
Although Tatum ranks statistically higher than Brown in many defensive categories, Brown gets tasked with defending both better players and also a wider range of players on the positional spectrum. One night he’s chasing Duncan Robinson or Buddy Hield off pindown screens, and the next night he may be tasked with guarding Kevin Love in the post.
To make things consistent in the following chart, Tatum and Brown both played during these games. Each matchup came from two games worth of playing time. It’s important to note that the Celtics best on-ball defender, Marcus Smart, was present for all but one game against the Dallas Mavericks.
(shot chart data via stats.nba.com and visualization via open-source program BallR from Todd Schneider)
Compared to Tatum, Brown’s defensive versatility is apparent. Nuanced metrics such as Greg Steele’s Matchup-Based Defense, back up this claim.
Brown has the second-highest defensive load on the Cs after Marcus Smart and ranks in the top 10 percent of the league in this measurement. Again this doesn’t mean Brown had the best defensive statistics on a nightly basis, but on-paper metrics may suffer because he was assigned to guard the best or second-best player on any given team.
Take this quick clip against the Toronto Raptors this season, a clip highlighted by Ben Taylor’s breakdown on Jaylen Brown. First, Brown is matched up against the top offensive threat on the Raptors, Pascal Siakam. Brown successfully walls off the deadly signature Siakam spin move, denies the shot, and then Tatum does an excellent job of anticipating the pass and hopping into the passing lane, but Brown did the majority of work on defense during this possession and on paper will get much less credit than Tatum.
Again, this is just one example, but it demonstrates some of the shortcomings of measuring defense in the modern NBA. Brown created the circumstances to lead to the steal because of his on-ball skills. Defensive impact, especially at the wing position, there are so many intangibles that it’s difficult to quantify it into numbers.
Everything in basketball is contextual, but it’s almost as if we should give Brown half of the steal-credit on this possession for his stellar anticipation.
Defensively, we know that Brown is already elite, perhaps one notch below the Kawhi Leonard‘s, Jimmy Butler’s, and Paul George’s of the league, but let’s give him some more credit, given his sizable defensive load.
Moving to the other side of the floor, where Brown took another huge step forward.
While the 2017-18 season saw Victor Olidpio as the deserving recipient for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, Brown’s name was certainly in the mix as a runner up.
Brown took a similar jump forward this season.
Last week, fellow Hardwood Houdini writer Andrew Hughes noted the stark similarities between Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram‘s improvements this season. While Ingram’s jump in shooting efficiency — both from the line and from beyond the arc — was a borderline historic improvement, Brown has also made very notable improvements this season.
Brown increased his volume and accuracy from the free-throw line and from beyond the arc. Given his minutes increase, he improved his free-throw percentage by +7.8 percent (shot 73.6 percent from the line) and got to the line +59 percent compared to last season.
He improved his three-point to an above league average 38.1 percent on 5.6 attempts per game, up from 3.7 last season.
From the corner, Brown is even better. He shot an impressive 46.9 percent from both corners, which ranks 17th among those who took over 40 attempts from these zones. He is also more of a threat in the midrange and at the rim, with increased gravity rankings per Bbal Index. These are very positive signs despite the truncated season.
Brown grades out exceptionally well in other facets of the game. As mentioned in the same Thinking Basketball video, Taylor noted how his improved handle translates to an increased level of confidence, especially in the shot creation department.
Taylor also noted Brown’s impressive ability to hit spot-up jump shots, especially from beyond the arc. The shot creation and three-point gravity combination make him one of the most offensively versatile young talents the league has to offer.
His one-on-one creation ability, finishing at the rim, and even his post-up game are all well above league average, according to BBal Index. Aside from his offseason improvements, Kyrie Irving’s departure from the Boston Celtics and a more free-flowing system got Brown higher quality looks.
Brown’s increased efficiency has been largely overlooked in the wake of Tatum’s advanced defensive metric spike and post All-Star break scoring explosion.
Brown maintained a level of defensive consistency while his increased offensive efficiency and creation improved significantly this season. If he continues his shooting efficiency, he is one more six point-scoring bump away from entering into the Paul George comparison conversation.
Brown’s All-Star snub, is perhaps more political than anything. It was Jimmy Butler’s increased assist rate and leadership ability on an overachieving Miami Heat team which probably gave Butler the edge over Brown. Positional and team diversification at the point guard and center spot in all likelihood gave players such as Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Lowry another inherent advantage over Brown.
Still, one could argue that he was deserving of an All-Star spot this season.
Simply put, we don’t know what Jaylen Brown would achieve if he were on the Charlotte Hornets or New York Knicks, but frankly, it’s irrelevant even to discuss. That said, Brown has never been the number one scoring option in a very crowded Celtics backcourt and frontcourt.
But if Brown has five more identical seasons to this past year, it would demonstrate his sacrifice in pursuit of winning. Remember, this was a player who passed up on the opportunity to participate in the dunk contest during his rookie season because he wanted to “focus all my energy on being ready to help my team.”
Again, another level of maturity we Celtics fans can sometimes take for granted.
Jaylen Brown is more than just a talented basketball player. I’ve always appreciated his level of disclosure on subjects outside of sports. After listening to him speak at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year about athlete-driven ventures, this talk deserves its own breakdown.
But for now, enjoy what the rising star will bring and has already brought to the table for the Boston Celtics, both on and off the court.