Jaylen Brown should be one of the most popular Celtics right now. Consider all that he has going for him, and all that he has achieved already:
He’s 22 years old, the former No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and he has justified it by emerging as a core player on a winning team.
He bounded forward last season, merely his second in the NBA, providing highlights such as a 22-point performance in a November win over the Warriors, not to mention eight games of 20 or more points in the postseason.
Brown is intelligent, hard-working, jumps so high he can almost high-five the championship banners, and yet obviously has even more improvement in his future once he further tightens up his ballhandling, learns to finish with more finesse, and sees the periphery of the court better under pressure.
With further improvement, I’d suggest the sky is the limit, but then he’s already been pretty adept at navigating the sky.
Not this season, though, and not so far. Brown has struggled to navigate just about everything this year, in particular an altered role brought on by the return to health of Kyrie Irving and especially Gordon Hayward. Figuratively and literally — he missed three games after landing on his tailbone while trying to swat a shot against the Mavericks on Nov. 24 — he has come crashing down.
The Celtics won the three games he missed, starting what would be an eight-game winning streak. While he had some encouraging moments after returning — he shot a combined 15 for 21 in a 28-point win over the Knicks and a 56-point throttling of the Bulls — inconsistency still plagues him, and he has been abysmal in the last two games. In 43 total minutes against the Hawks and Pistons, he combined to shoot 3 of 16, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range. He had as many fouls in the two games (6) as points, with more turnovers (5) than assists (4).
Perhaps some of that can be attributed to rust — he sat out the preceding game with the Wizards on Dec. 12 — but that requires some generosity in evaluation. The truth is it’s not much worse than he has played all season. Brown is averaging 1.5 assists and 1.5 turnovers per game while shooting 40.9 percent from the field, 28 percent from 3, and 66.7 percent from the line. That’s quite a comedown from his encouraging sophomore season, when he shot .465/.395/.644.
It’s easy to attribute his issues to the change in role, but his role really hadn’t changed much before the poor performances began. With Irving and Hayward back and Marcus Morris have an outstanding season, he’s not getting as many scoring opportunities as he did a year ago, but he’s playing just 3 fewer minutes per game. For some reason he had issues clicking with Hayward, who was shoehorned back into a starting role before he was ready, but Brown remained in the starting lineup until he got hurt in the Dallas loss.
When he was sidelined, Marcus Smart got the start at shooting guard, and he has seized it. Along with Morris, who is starting over Hayward, he brought a tenacity to the lineup that the Celtics were missing. They have won 8 of 9 and the offense has been the best in the league since the change, and Irving in particular has been effusive about what Smart brings to the starting five. Brown, who started all 70 games he played last season, is now basically the seventh man.
That can’t be easy for him, but he’s saying all the right things. “So here’s my reality,’’ he told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullen for a story on his struggles that ran earlier this week, “I’m an NBA player on the Boston Celtics, a team that has a chance to compete for the NBA championship. Nothing else really matters.’’
It’s an encouraging sentiment, one that suggests his priorities are in the right order. But it will truly be reassuring only when that apparently selfless mindset transfers into success on the court.
Last year, Brown became the youngest Celtics player ever to score 30 points in a playoff game for a team that depended on him during its run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now he’s playing on a more talented roster, and his own talent is struggling to shine through. Brown has too much going for him not to soar again.
But until he does, he remains the chief enigma on Celtics team that is now succeeding in spite of him or without him more than it does because of him.