Year in review: Cal men’s basketball alumnus Jaylen Brown

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The Boston Celtics are slated to become the Eastern Conference’s latest dynasty with LeBron James taking his talents to the West Coast. A big reason for that is Cal men’s basketball alumnus and budding star Jaylen Brown.

Brown put together an enticing rookie campaign in 2016-17, not only flashing his elite-level athleticism, but emerging as a competent 3-point shooter.

At 20, Brown played a role in the Celtics clinching the No. 1 seed and an Eastern Conference finals appearance, netting All-Rookie 2nd Team honors in the process.

Brown was destined for a promotion to the starting lineup after making only 20 starts as a rookie, and the departures of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder in summer 2017 guaranteed his inevitable transition.

With the acquisition of Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 overall pick and All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to complement Brown and another All-Star in Al Horford, Boston emerged as the heavy front-runner to dethrone James.

That is, until five minutes into the season, when Hayward suffered one of the most grotesque injuries in NBA history.

Boston’s plan for the 2017-18 season evaporated before the conclusion of the season’s first quarter of basketball, but from the ashes rose Brown.

After suffering back-to-back losses to begin the season, Boston rattled off 16 straight victories, thanks in no small part to Brown.

During a streak that featured victories against seven playoff teams, Brown averaged 15.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, scoring 20-plus points five times.

Against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Brown scored a team-high 22 points and recorded the highlight of the night: a “Did that really just happen?” block of a Kevin Durant jump shot.

Brown’s play leveled off after the end of Boston’s streak, but the sophomore guard continued to put up solid numbers, earning a spot during the Rising Stars game after being snubbed as a rookie. Starting in the Rising Stars game is no small feat, but Brown was close to adding another milestone in just his sophomore year.

When John Wall suffered an injury, Brown’s name was among the possible injury replacements. Despite an endorsement of Brown from Draymond Green, Commissioner Adam Silver selected Andre Drummond as Wall’s injury replacement for the Eastern Conference All-Stars.

Brown may have been slighted for the All-Star Game, but in the ensuing Rising Stars game, he turned the Staples Center into his personal playground.

Representing Team USA, Brown showed off every weapon in his tool belt. He threw down a pair of left-handed between-the-leg jams. He pulled up from deep in transition. He even pulled off this combination of dribbles on Jamal Murray, a combination of moves that inspired shades of Irving.

via Gfycat

A year after being left off Team USA, Brown poured in a game-high 35 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. If Team USA hadn’t been blown out by 31 to Team World, Brown most likely would have been the game’s MVP.

Brown’s stellar play from the Rising Stars game spilled into the second half of the season, but the NBA collectively held its breath as he lay motionless on the floor of the Target Center.

On a nationally televised game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brown lost his grip of the rim after a dunk and awkwardly landed on his neck.

The immediate aftermath felt eerily similar to that of Hayward’s fall. Fans, players and announcers looked on in shock as Brown toiled on the hardwood, the fear of the injury’s severity manifesting with every passing second.

After two minutes that lasted two centuries, Brown, justifiably dazed and confused, came to his feet and walked off the court under his own power. While TNT’s announcers assumed the worst right after the fall, Brown managed to avoid any structural damage and only sustained a concussion.

The fall sidelined Brown for six games, but he returned two weeks later to the day without a hint of rust. He returned to a Celtics team that had taken yet another hit; in the game after Brown’s fall, Irving suffered a knee injury and would be lost for the season, once again calling on Brown to shoulder more of the offensive load.

In his final nine games of the regular season, Brown played some of his finest basketball to date, averaging 17.2 points per game on a white-hot 57.1 percent from three for an injury-riddled Celtics team.

Brown ended his sophomore season with career highs in all five major statistical categories, field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and player efficiency rating, or PER.

The Celtics’ 55 wins set them up for a first-round meeting with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, a tough matchup considering that Boston was without Marcus Smart for the first couple games in addition to Hayward and Irving.

Boston and Milwaukee traded blows, but the Celtics prevailed in seven games as Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier provided enough fireworks to outgun Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Excluding game seven — in which Brown suffered a hamstring injury and exited early — Brown averaged 20.5 points per game while shooting 40.5 percent from deep.

With 30 and 34 points in games two and four, respectively, Brown became the first player age 21 or under to record multiple 30-point games in a series since Derrick Rose.

After its defeat of Milwaukee, the stage was set for Boston to clash with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers.

To say Boston was the underdog of that series is an understatement. Philadelphia was coming off a gentleman’s sweep of the Miami Heat, while Milwaukee had just pushed Boston to seven. The 76ers possessed two of the league’s best young talents in Embiid and Simmons, along with premier role players in J.J. Redick, Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

Of ESPN’s 21 basketball experts, only three selected the Celtics, and the three experts who did select them predicted that series would go to seven games.

Boston handled business in five games.

Brown sat out game one with the aforementioned hamstring injury, but he returned for game two and the rest of the series. In his four games against Philadelphia, Brown averaged 15.3 points per game, including 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting in a series-clinching game five.

Boston’s upset of Philadelphia set the stage for a rematch against none other than James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown and LeBron were plenty familiar with one another; heading into the series, the two had previously met seven times in the regular season and the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, a series in which LeBron emerged victorious.

Much to the tune of Boston’s series against Milwaukee, both teams traded home victories. The Celtics took games one, two and five in Boston while the Cavaliers responded with wins in games three, four and six in Cleveland, setting up a winner-take-all game seven at TD Garden.

In six of the most high-stakes games of his career up to that point, Brown had responded with the poise of a seasoned veteran. As the series made its way back to Boston for the finale, Brown was averaging 20.8 points per game with four 20-plus-point contests to his name. In Boston’s game six loss, Brown poured in 27 on 11-of-18 shooting.

But in game seven, with a chance to finally dethrone the King, Brown went cold. Brown, who shot 41 percent from deep in the playoffs leading up to game seven, went 3 of 12 from deep. His nine misses were the most he’s clanked in a single game, regular season or playoffs.

Brown and the Celtics may have fallen one game short of the franchise’s first finals appearance since 2010, but the season as a whole was a monumental step in the right direction.

The Celtics didn’t have Hayward for all but five minutes and managed to nab the second-most wins in the Eastern Conference and make the most of a bad situation. They didn’t have Hayward or Irving and came within a couple buckets of emerging as the conference’s newest kings.

With Hayward and Irving slated to come back next season and LeBron heading to the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston is the early favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals.

Brown will return as Boston’s starting shooting guard, and he’ll likely see an increased role in his third season, even with the return of Hayward.

As a rising third-year player who will turn 22 in October, Brown is on pace to develop into an All-Star, especially when stacked against similar contemporaries.

The two most apt comparisons for Brown are Jimmy Butler and Paul George, a pair of shooting guard/small forward hybrids with relatively similar frames.

Brown doesn’t stack up to Butler and George’s second-year totals blow-for-blow, but the numbers are encouraging. The Celtic had the lowest PER and value over replacement player, or VORP, in his second season among those players, but he does lead the pack in points per game and 3-point percentage.

More enticing is how Brown stacked up in the playoffs. Brown, Butler and George all had the opportunity to taste the postseason as second-year players, and of that group, Brown once again led the pack in scoring.

This isn’t to say Brown is the clear-cut favorite to emerge as the best when it’s all said and done. His defense, by Defensive Box Plus Minus, is the worst of the bunch, his free-throw shooting is subpar, and he needs to continue to develop as a playmaker.

Brown’s weaknesses can’t be ignored, but considering the improvements he has already made, the signs point to Brown continuing to grow into a potential franchise player.

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos