Making the Case; Jaylen Brown a 2020 NBA All-Star

By now, Celtics GM Danny Ainge has largely put the “doesn’t know how to draft” narrative to bed – for every James Young and Fab Melo, there’s a Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And it’s not just “Fire and Ice” – just this decade, Ainge drafted Avery Bradley in 2010, Marcus Smart in 2014, Terry Rozier in 2016, and Robert Williams in 2018, all of whom ended up in the starting lineup of a playoff-caliber Boston team at some point in their careers.

​​Despite the duds, Ainge has done a great job of stacking talent through the draft, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown being the most obvious examples of striking gold. As one of the top young tandems in the league next to Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid of the 76ers and Luka Doncic/Kristaps Porzingis of the Mavericks, Tatum and Brown are the only duo under the age of 25 in which both players are averaging over 20 points per game – which, in the scoring-centric All-Star game, has traditionally been a pretty good measurement of whether or not a given player will make the roster. With Kemba Walker and his 22.5 points per game/22.2 Player Efficiency Rating almost assuredly heading to Chicago as a Celtics representative at All-Star weekend already though, it’s going to be difficult for both Tatum and Brown to make the team, especially if Boston doesn’t own the best record in the Eastern Conference by the All-Star break. It’s not impossible, but while Tatum and Brown are most certainly deserving of a roster spot in the game, the reality of the situation is that Tatum will likely be awarded the honor while Brown might be edged out in favor of other elite guards.

Regardless, I feel as though it’s important to highlight the amazing season that Jaylen Brown has had thus far. I’m not the first to bring up his improved play, and I won’t be the last – but the fact that more people aren’t entirely convinced that Brown is an All-Star to this point in the season tells me that there still aren’t enough basketball fans paying attention to what’s bubbling in Boston. An argument can be made that statistically speaking – when accounting for both volume and efficiency, offense and defense, basic statistics and the advanced numbers – Brown might just be the Celtics’ best player 33 games into the 2019-20 season. 

I’m not going to make that argument, because I don’t necessarily agree with its premise just yet. But the offensive impacts of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are undeniably similar from a statistical standpoint – and if one or two of said players are a part of the All-Star game, I don’t see a scenario in which the third (which will likely be Brown) shouldn’t earn a spot as well. It starts with the scoring and efficiency.

Brown, who has played in 29 of the Celtics’ 33 games, is averaging 20.6 points per game on 52.1% shooting from the field, including 40.8% on three-point attempts (averaging 5.2 such attempts per game). Among players who are averaging at least 20 points per game, Brown ranks:

  • Third in shooting percentage from the field [52.1%, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo (55.6%) and DeMar DeRozan (52.4%)]
  • Second in three-point shooting percentage [40.8%, behind Bojan Bogdanovic (42.1%)]
  • 27th (out of 28) in field goal attempts per game (14.6 FGA)
  • 25th (out of 28) in free throw attempts per game (4.3 FTA)

The “averaging at least 20 points per game” conditional skews these numbers because it doesn’t account for the relative efficiency drop-offs that usually accompany higher scoring volume, but the bottom line is that the 20 PPG/52% FG/40% 3PT splits that Brown is putting up are elite scoring numbers for an NBA player. Brown could absolutely put up 25 points per contest if he saw the 19-20 field goal attempts and 6-7 free throw attempts that other leading scorers in the NBA average on a nightly basis, even when factoring in an efficiency drop-off. He just happens to rank third on his own team in shot attempts per game – to no fault of his own.

At 59.2%, Brown ranks 16th in the league in effective field goal percentage, a statistic that factors in three-point field goals counting for more points than two-point field goals. It’s usually a better indicator of a player’s overall efficiency as a scorer (from the field) because it accounts for the fact that a three-point field goal is more valuable than a two-point field goal. Of the 15 players ahead of Brown in eFG% this season, four average more than 15 points per game, while only nine average over 27 minutes per game – meaning that when factoring out some lower-usage, lower-scoring players, Brown is among the league leaders in offensive efficiency – unarguably a top 10 player in this regard so far this season. That’s rare to see from a player who often lines up at the shooting guard or small forward position, as many of the other players near the top of the eFG% category in the NBA are stretch-big men (Karl-Anthony TownsDavis Bertans) and traditional centers who’s low offensive production comes strictly in and around the paint (Rudy GobertClint Capela). Brown also ranks 19th in the league in true shooting percentage – which factors in free throws – at 62.4%, which, when accounting for relative minutes per game and scoring averages, again places Brown right around the top 10-15 players in the league in this category.

​Brown’s scoring has been great, and the other parts of his game have improved tremendously as well, starting with his rebounding. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game, which ranks third among guards, trailing only Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, and Russell Westbrook. He’s established him as an elite rebounder from the shooting guard position, and is second only to Enes Kanter among Boston’s rebounding leaders. His playmaking numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s shown some passing brilliance on multiple occasions so far through 29 games. His 2.4 assists per game are, like his rebounding and scoring, a career high as well.

Brown’s defense has taken yet another step as well – his 1.5 defensive win shares (the estimated number of wins added by a given player’s defense) ranks 26th in the league, anchoring the Celtics top-five defense alongside Jayson Tatum (10th in defensive win shares). His 1.1 steals per game aren’t bad either – nothing crazy, but a career high and a trend in a positive direction. The statistics are great, and prove that Brown has been one of the better players in the Eastern Conference over the course of the first three months of the season. Yet, the question remains – who gets snubbed so that Brown can nab a roster spot?

Kemba Walker and Trae Young will likely get the starting guard spots, while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Pascal Siakam will make up the starting frontcourt. That leaves 7 available roster slots open for:

  • Jimmy Butler (20.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 6.6 APG, 42.9% FG, 27.0% 3PT)
  • Bradley Beal (27.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 6.6 APG, 43.5% FG, 31.5% 3PT)
  • Zach Lavine (23.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 42.7% FG, 39.8% 3PT)
  • Ben Simmons* (14.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, 56.6% FG)
  • Kyle Lowry (20.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 7.4 APG, 41.4% FG, 36.1% 3PT)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie (22.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 6.3 APG, 42.9% FG, 30.1% 3PT)
  • Jayson Tatum (21.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 42.6% FG, 36.5% 3PT)
  • Bam Adebayo* (15.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 4.5 APG 58.0% FG)
  • Domantas Sabonis (17.8 PPG, 13.1 RPG, 4.1 APG, 51.9% FG, 26.3% 3PT)

 ​*Three-point percentages omitted for players with less than 10 attempts during 2019-20 season

​Jimmy Butler, leading Miami to the fourth-best record in the league despite largely unimpressive efficiency from the field, is a shoe-in. Tatum, who has been one of the league’s best defenders while leading Boston’s offensive charge, and Simmons, whose relatively un-All-Star-like scoring punch is boosted by fantastic playmaking, are safe bets as well. Beal, at almost 28 points per game, Sabonis, who is in the top five league-wide in rebounding and acts as the Pacers’ primary scoring option, and Adebayo, who is in the top five league-wide in Defensive Win Shares while boasting a great offensive impact, aren’t guarantees, but they certainly deserve spots. That leaves one available position for Lowry, Lavine, Dinwiddie, and Brown.

Between those four remaining players, Brown is the most deserving. Not that the other three players on that short list aren’t having All Star-caliber seasons – Lavine (23.8 PPG) and Dinwiddie (22.9 PPG) have dragged their respective teams within the Eastern Conference playoff race essentially by themselves, while Lowry has had another solid season at the helm of the Raptors. And yet, despite the statistics said players have put on display to this point in the season, they haven’t performed nearly as efficiently or had the overall team success that Brown has had over a third of the way into the season.

Dinwiddie has been phenomenal since Kyrie Irving went down with an injury. His scoring and passing have been a godsend to the Nets, with his play being the only reason Brooklyn has a spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Unfortunately, he’s not the greatest defender, and his scoring efficiency, both from the field and from behind the three-point line, is underwhelming. Lavine’s defensive numbers are on par with Brown’s, but he’s not as good of a rebounder, nor does he score anywhere near as efficiently as Brown despite averaging three additional points per game. Lowry is a great all-around impact player, but his statistics, when factoring in scoring efficiency and volume, playmaking, rebounding and defense, are probably the weakest of the bunch.

I think much of the Celtics’ fanbase still doesn’t really realize what they’re watching every time they turn on a game and watch Jaylen Brown slice up a defense for an easy 22 points and 8 rebounds. In nearly every one of those games, he almost always takes a back seat to either Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, or Gordon Hayward. The absurd level of efficiency (52.1% FG/40.8% 3PT/59.4% eFG/62.4% TS from a third option offensively) that Brown has shown off is a massive reason that the Celtics own the league’s third-best record – he’s the best third option in basketball right now.

The battle for the final few spots of the Eastern Conference All-Star roster is a tight race, as it is every year, and an argument could be made in favor of any of the players I listed above. But the efficiency and consistency to which Jaylen Brown scores, defends, and rebounds, relative to others at his position, puts his name above the rest. Plus, his flashy style of play was made for the event. His poster-dunk list is in the dozens at this point (half of which seem to be on Antetokounmpo), and watching him compete with the best of the best alongside Jayson Tatum would be the greatest start to the decade that a Celtics fan could ask for.

​All statistics obtained from
Photo: Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

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