By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON — When the Celtics selected Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, one of the primary things the organization preached about the rookie forward was patience with his play, particularly on the offensive end.
The 20-year-old had all the physical tools to eventual be a force in the NBA, but his jump shot at the college level was an issue (Brown shot 29.4 percent from 3-point range at California University). Danny Ainge looked past those struggles to emphasize that he saw a player with a correctable problem on draft night.
“[Jaylen] had two workouts with us and he showed us that he’s a much better shooter than that,” Ainge said in June. “He shot 38 percent, I think, in the high school leagues, with the same amount of shots the year before. There’s a lot of good shooters that have had bad shooting years and bad freshman years, particularly. We’re not too concerned about that. We feel like he has a chance to be a good shooter. But he wasn’t this year.”
Through the first three months of the 2016-17 regular season, Brown’s jumper remained a work in a progress. He hit just 29.8 percent of his attempts from downtown through January, a blemish on an otherwise encouraging rookie campaign. There were glimpses of his potential around the rim, but with his minutes limited in the rotation, the progress on his jump shot would probably have the wait. At least that’s what it seemed.
That began to change quickly though once Avery Bradley was sidelined for an extended stretch in February due to an Achilles injury. Brown was inserted into the starting five at shooting guard and he started to see significant minutes for the first time of his career. The 6-foot-7 swingman started to get more comfortable with his offense as his floor time soared and his numbers have understandably risen across the board in most statistical categories.
His biggest jump has come in an area that should be surprising to C’s fans: 3-point shooting.
Brown has shot a scorching hot 43.1 percent from 3-point range in 17 games since the start of February, besting the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Al Horford in that department for the past six weeks. The increased accuracy is encouraging not just for the sustained stretch Brown’s done it for, but since his shot volume has actually increased (2.6 attempts per game) during the streak. The rookie’s not just making more, he’s making more and that’s helped him average double-digit points (10.2 points) in just 24 minutes per game since Feb. 1.
The hot streak has caught the eye of both his teammates and the head coach.
“I think that he’s had some great spurts, there’s no question,” Brad Stevens said of Brown. “He’s played really well. He’s probably ahead of where I thought he’d be, but he’s going to have to keep doing it.”
“I think things are slowing down for him,” added Thomas, who is hitting 38 percent of his shots from downtown this season. “Earlier in the season, when he got his opportunity he was going so fast and kind of out of control. But now he’s slowing down. He’s very strong and athletic so once he gets a step on somebody, more than likely he’s going to score. He’s just letting the game come to him. He’s going to be special, man. He’s a really good player.”
A closer inspection of Brown’s shot chart shows the majority of Brown’s 3-point progression is coming from the corners. He is 16-of-33 (48.8 percent) for the year from those regions, including a game-winning corner trey on the road against the Pistons last month.
Brown is also showing strides on the right wing above the break, where he’s hit just above the league average of 35.5 percent in that area. Overall, the sustained improvement in February and March has helped him pull up his season average to 35.6 percent, which is just a few fractions of a percentage point below the league average. That’s a number that any Celtics fan has to be thrilled with, given the low expectations coming into the year.
Brown attributes his gains largely to adjusting to the speed of the NBA game.
“I’ve never played against guys as athletic or as good,” Brown said this week. “So I think that’s been the transition. I just got a little more comfortable.”
That’s an admission that doesn’t come as a surprise to any of his veteran teammates, who aren’t surprised Brown is finding his groove as his minutes load has increased.
“A lot of those guys that the game hasn’t slowed down for, it’s [because] they don’t get the chance,” Thomas explained. “Or when they do it’s two or three minutes here and there in a game. And that’s tough for a young guy. He’s getting valuable minutes on a playoff team and he’s taking advantage of it. So he’s learning each and every game. Not just in practice. He’s learning throughout the game.”
The early development of Brown’s shooting is not just beneficial to the C’s in the interim, but it could prove vital to Danny Ainge this offseason, if and when Brown’s name surfaces in trade talks for an All-Star player. The athletic wing has a long way to go to prove his shooting gains are more than just a flash in the pan, but his early signs of potential should give the Celtics — and potential other suitors — plenty to be intrigued about.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.