Jaylen Brown

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Tomase: Paul George should be making Celtics fans feel better about Jaylen Brown, too

John Tomase
October 20, 2017 - 12:25 pm
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Paul George is the first name that springs to mind when we discuss Gordon Hayward, and for obvious reasons. The Thunder forward represents the best-case scenario when it comes to gruesome ankle injuries. He made two All-Star teams before shattering his leg in 2014 with Team USA, and he has made two All-Star teams since returning.

But for the purposes of the 2017-18 Celtics, the player we should be juxtaposing against George isn't Hayward. It's swingman Jaylen Brown.

Whatever you think of Brown's debut -- the stats community HATED him, the rest of us were intrigued by his energy and athleticism -- it's clear the Celtics believe they have something. He followed a career-high 25-point opener with 18 points and five rebounds before fouling out in a loss to Milwaukee.

Brown remains dazzlingly athletic, as he proved on his first bucket of the season, a thunderous right-handed dunk that had LeBron James ducking for cover. But he has also clearly matured across the board, from his bulked-up physique, to his body control in the open court, to the form on his jumper.

He only turns 21 next week, so expecting him to carry the load in Hayward's absence is unrealistic. But as we map out possible trajectories for his career, George emerges as a potential ceiling.

The two had remarkably similar rookie years, which may come as a surprise. At age 20 in 2011 after being selected 10th overall by the Pacers out of Fresno State, George averaged 7.8 points per game while shooting .297 on 3-pointers over 20.7 minutes a game.

The Pacers were middling, finishing 37-45 and firing old friend Jim O'Brien halfway through the season. Last year's Celtics on the other hand, won 53 games and earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, limiting Brown's opportunities.

He still averaged 6.6 points a game and shot .341 on 3-pointers over 17.2 minutes a game before emerging as a disruptor in the playoffs. His true shooting percentage (a measure of scoring efficiency using 3-point, 2-point, and free throw percentages) of .539 was virtually identical to George's .542.

George did not fully emerge until his third season, at age 22, when his scoring average jumped from 12.1 to 17.4 and he made his first All-Star team. To that point, he was known for his off-the-charts athleticism, which included soaring over 7-foot-2 teammate Roy Hibbert during the 2012 slam dunk contest.

He became a household name during the 2013 playoffs, when he battled the eventual champion Heat to a near draw in a seven-game series, his most memorable moment a monster dunk that earned a low-five from James after the latter drilled a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the other end of the floor.

James also pulled Brown aside to offer words of encouragement after the rookie's first start last November. To say Brown will follow a similar path as George may be the height of optimism, but it's not entirely unfounded.

He has relentlessly honed his jumper with assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry to the point where his smooth form now suggests a legitimate NBA stroke, as compared to the elbow-out, shortened follow-through of his college J.

George didn't enter the league as a great shooter, but he became one, peaking at .393 on 3-pointers last year. His free throw percentage also made the leap from a low of .762 as a rookie to a high of .898 in 2016.

Brown has a longer way to go in that regard -- he scored most of his points at Cal at the rim -- but he is taking the right steps. And like George, his defensive intensity means he'll have value even when he's not scoring, which he demonstrated during the surprising Game 3 victory over the Cavs in last year's conference finals.

He may not physically be ready for the early battles he has waged against James, who overpowered him down the stretch in the opener, or Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who fouled him out while scoring 37 a night later, but those experiences will serve him well in future seasons. (It's also worth noting that those assignments will soon be going to injured forward Marcus Morris, anyway).

In any event, it's clear that if the Celtics are to make anything of this Hayward-less season, Brown will have to step forward. George did so in year two before exploding at age 22 in year three. Maybe five years from now we'll look back on Brown's first two seasons as necessary steps before he could become a star, and George as a comp for more than just Hayward.

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