It’s easy to dismiss Jaylen Brown as another phenomenal athlete too raw to get major minutes in the NBA who would have benefited from another year of college ball and is going to cost a team a lottery pick only to end up as a role player a la Harrison Barnes or Terrence Ross. After all, he can’t shoot, doesn’t do much off the ball and gets major tunnel vision.
Those critics are in for a rude awakening: Most 19-year-old forwards coming out after one year of college basketball struggle with these same issues. Not every other player, however, is sculpted in the model of a young Kawhi Leonard at San Diego State — defined by broad shoulders equipped with hulking arms.
“He has all the tools on both sides of the court: He can drive to the rim, he can score in the post, he can finish strong,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “I think the thing that separates him from a lot of guys, even at that level, is that he’s 6-foot-8, almost 230 pounds and can dribble the length of the floor in a matter of three seconds. That’s something only smaller guys are usually able to do. When you’re able to do that, the sky’s the limit as a basketball player.”
The first-team All-Pac-12 player selection and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year sits just a tier below the most coveted duo in this year’s draft. There’s been no clear consensus or majority at who’s going after that, and his name’s been gaining traction over some of the more talked-about prospects as the highest upside wing. This speaks volumes to his single NBA-ready attribute — his athleticism.
The long-term project
At the NBA pre-draft combine, Brown recorded measurements of 229 pounds and 6-foot-6.75 with shoes (and without the high-top). His wingspan, a quarter of an inch shy of seven feet, and body fat percentage of 5.05 were the second highest and lowest respectively among shooting guards and small forwards. The hype, athletically at least, is very real.
Brown has been blessed with a man’s body at just 19 years old. You can develop the mechanics for a better jumper and teach off-ball movement, but you can’t teach height. You can’t teach a hulking physique matched with mobility like Brown’s.
— Jaylen Brown ® (@FCHWPO) April 2, 2016
Make no mistake about it, however, Brown is most likely a longterm project. His shooting woes at Cal, 29.4 percent from three and 65.4 percent from the free-throw line, aren’t very encouraging and could very well be real. For every Leonard and Paul George, there are three times as many Chris Singeltons and Joe Alexanders who never figure it out.
Watch closely, and you can see a slight hitch in his shot — one that causes him to shoot on his way down on occasion. The timing of this hitch varies, disrupting the mechanics of his jumper.
Brown’s fleeting jump shot and shaky handles don’t do him any favors creating off-the-dribble for himself and others. He tries to bowl into traffic, which ends how you might expect for a player with questionable handles and passing ability attacking a converging defense.
Brown hunches low to the ground with a live dribble — sometimes close to a 90-degree angle — trying to shield the ball from swiping hands. He barrels into defenders when he takes it to the rim, getting called for charges on more than one occasion. He routinely misses open teammates scrambling to protect the ball from defenders. His handles often don’t cut it in college, and they certainly won’t do so in the NBA against more disciplined and better-scouted teams.
Despite these flaws in his game, there’s good reason to be optimistic about Brown’s future. Outside of Ingram, Simmons and possibly Dragan Bender, the future lottery pick has a higher upside than anyone in the draft.
Flex for ‘em
When his game is working, Brown bulldozes over the defense for close shots. Defenders bounce off of him, creating separation that opens up more lanes for another shot at getting to the rim or taking a swing at his in-progress jumper. He’s best in the open court when he can capitalize on unsuspecting defenses and untimely cross-matches. There’s hope that he can be a quality wing player, one that can make the next play off of the drive-and-kick and keep the chains moving. He also has all the tools and instincts to be an all-class defender when he learns the ins-and-outs of NBA defenses.
Brown’s combination of strength and speed warrants optimism for his NBA prospects. When he ducks his head and picks up steam downhill, there’s little a backpedaling defender can do except call for help or hope he picks up a charge.
“Jaylen is probably the fastest on our team with the basketball, going in a straight line, so I made the adjustment with Tyrone (inbounding) and letting Jaylen go with it,” Martin said. “If he’s coming at you full speed, it’s hard to really get in front of him unless you foul him. You have to make a decision and he’s going full speed.”
“When it’s all said and done, he’ll write his own ticket and go down as one of the best to ever play the game.” — Cuonzo Martin, Cal head coach.
The type of spacing that leaves lanes open enough for these kinds of plays was limited on the Cal team. With defenders crowding the lane, Brown regularly went from a live dribble beyond the arc into a three or four dribble post up. Cannonballing into defenders like this got him plenty of charges, but also got him plenty of calls. He was third in the Pac-12 with 6.38 free throws per game.
Brown will probably not have free reign to dismiss the offense and go straight into a post up on whichever team he lands on, but it’s a useful skill to have as a perimeter player in a league that continues to downsize. He also only posted up so often because Martin suffocated the spacing by starting Brown with three non-threats from the perimeter — Wallace, Ivan Rabb and Kameron Rooks — with the only shooter as Jabari Bird. Unsurprisingly, Cal fared much better on the offensive end, pairing Brown with Rabb in the frontcourt surrounded by Wallace, Bird and Mathews, a 41.6 percent three-point shooter this past season.
Brown forces teams to choose between downsizing, too, or risk putting a power forward on him. Oregon went with the former, only for Brown to bullrush the rim for the basket plus the foul.
“Jaylen’s so aggressive going to the rim,” Bird said. “Teams have to suck in and try to stop him, or he’s probably going to get a dunk or a layup. When guys collapse and try to stop him, he makes it easier for guys like me and Jordan — the shooters. We’re shooting it like nobody’s out there guarding us. When Jaylen’s driving to the rim like that, it makes our team a lot better.”
Brown’s potential to competently guard power forwards while maintaining the glass could possibly be his greatest asset: the subsequent ability to unlock smaller lineups.
“(Defending power forwards) is fine,” Brown said. “I have no problem with it. Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m willing to do it. All I have to do is keep my hands high and use my positioning and my footwork to stay in front of guys. It’s something I’ve been working on since I got to Cal, because I wasn’t used to guarding people a lot bigger and stronger than me. I try to just use my leverage, my footwork, my hands and keep from reaching. I work on that a lot, and it’s translated.”
He also provides sneaky good defense as a weakside defender. He has good intuition rotating when the defense collapses and has recorded more than one LeBron James-esque chasedown block.
Despite his many NBA-ready skills, it’s too easy to imagine Brown’s gifts minimized in a slow, stagnant offense considering his limitations shooting and moving off the ball. Most NBA rookies aren’t able to contribute on either side of the court, but the potential remains for Brown to play an impactful role as a complementary player in his first year.
A very shallow position
For all of his limitations and shortcomings, it’s important to note that the skills Brown has yet to develop are the most commonly taught over time. Nobody thought Marreese Speights or Serge Ibaka would regularly be shooting three-pointers at a respectable clip, but here we are seven games with the Warriors later.
“[Defending power forwards is] something I’ve been working on since I got to Cal, because I wasn’t used to guarding people a lot bigger and stronger than me. I try to just use my leverage, my footwork, my hands and keep from reaching. I work on that a lot, and it’s translated.” — Jaylen Brown
It’s also vital to note that Brown’s primary position is the most shallow in the league at the moment — small forward.
In a league where Jae Crowder was supposedly the deciding factor in the Celtics’ refusal to deal for Blake Griffin, competent small forwards who can reliably play defense and spot-up for three-pointers are at a premium. DeMarre Carroll, a career journeyman, signed a $60 million deal last offseason after averaging barely more than 11 points per game, hitting the occasional three-pointer and providing steady defense on the perimeter. If that is the going rate for a 3-and-D wing, Brown’s floor is higher than projected.
Brown will most likely contribute very little to an NBA team next season. But whichever team selects him can expect to see a huge return on its investment a couple years down the line.
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho