BOSTON – It’s time for Jaylen Brown to move into the front seat. It’s a spot he’s been primed for, groomed for, and one it feels like he’s been yearning for ever since he was the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
But he was always conscious of the hierarchy in front of him, and dutifully filling roles even when he knew he’d outsized them, as he buckled himself into the backseat of Celtics teams running hot on the trail of a conference finals, or running off the rails under the wilting arm of misguided leadership.
But no more.
No more subverting his opinions and his capabilities the way he did out of respect for veterans Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas his rookie season. No more letting his swagger and potential fly in the run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals the next year, only to be stuffed back into a box last season as he bit his tongue at nearly every turn amid the spectacularly failed Kyrie Irving Experiment. No more drifting to the corner as an ill-suited, spot-up 3-point shooter while teammates dribbled down the shot clock and sabotaged the rhythm of the offensive unit.
Brown may not take over Boston’s offense this year. But, if the first three preseason games are any indication, he is ready to put his true stamp on it in his fourth NBA season.
“As I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten better,” he said following Sunday’s 118-72 exhibition wipeout of the Cleveland Cavaliers where he was a plus-30 in 15 minutes. “Definitely, the situation has changed. Every year I’ve been here I’ve been in a different role. Since I’ve been in a Celtics uniform, every role has changed.
“I am excited about my role this year. We’ll see how things play out. I’m excited. I’m always looking ahead, being positive, and making the best of whatever situation I’m in.”
While anything the Celtics have done against the types of units the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers rolled out in the past two preseason games has to be taken with a grain of salt, Brown has added as much spice as anyone not named Tacko Fall to the last two games with his ability to attack the basket with both hands, finish amid contact, and generally look like someone who is no longer going to let anyone stand in his way of being the Jaylen Brown he knows he can be heading into restricted free agency next summer.
“His energy is always going to find the ball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on Sunday. “He’s going to figure out ways – even when his number is not called – to get in the box score. He flies to the rim. He get drives. He gets transition points. He gets put-backs. He does all that stuff.”
Stevens was, perhaps, as hard as anyone on Brown in his first three NBA seasons as he challenged him to be a defensive-first player. The coach indicated on Sunday that defensive range could be one of the major keys to success for the undersized Celtics this season.
“We need him to guard bigger guys and he’s proven that he can do that over time,” Stevens said. “There are some matchups that can be a challenge at that spot. But he can be a guy in that spot – guarding the (power forward). He can be a guy that we throw on a point guard in a game, and we put on a (power forward) in a game.”
Confidence has never been an issue for Brown. It has been when to flash that swagger, and when to stay subdued, that has seemed to cause him hesitation. What has become clear over the past three years, however, is that Brown needs that juice to be at his best. With the persona of Thomas in the room, at times it felt like there was no room for Brown to flex his personality. With the persona of Irving in the room, it felt like anything Brown asserted would – and ultimately did – simply give Irving more of an excuse to burn his way out of town on his way to Brooklyn.
But now it is Brown’s time. Kemba Walker is the affable leader, Gordon Hayward is the understated max free agent, Jayson Tatum is the silent budding star and Marcus Smart is the guy whose effort and heart lifts his contributions beyond the sum of his myriad talents. But Brown is potentially the complete package of defense, finishing ability, shooting and star power that this team will need to make a long run in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
When Brown has been in that role before – like he was in the 2018 playoffs – he excelled. Now in his fourth year, it is his time to seize the season more than flash in the moment.
Tacko Fall may be the talk of the Boston preseason, but Jaylen Brown’s play has been the most promising sign yet that the C’s can contend in the East.
This Celtics’ fortunes this season may ultimately rest on whether that leap is real.