Tomase: From DNP-CD to burgeoning superstar, the Jaylen Brown story

John Tomase
April 18, 2018 - 12:06 am
Jaylen Brown

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

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Jaylen Brown stood at his locker in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena last May in a moment of big-picture disbelief.

"Two years ago, I was in high school," he marveled. "Now I'm playing in the Eastern Conference Finals."

There was a happy-to-be-here quality that made perfect sense. Just 20 years old on a veteran team that featured Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk, among others, Brown was a bonus guy -- as in, "Whatever he gives us is a bonus."

After taking a Game 5 DNP-CD against the Bulls in the first round, Brown provided some energy against the Wizards in round 2 before scoring a career-high 19 points in a blowout loss to the Cavaliers in the conference finals. At that moment, it was clear he had potential, though just how much remained unclear.

A year later, we're getting answers. And let's just say his ceiling looks like a vaulted 22-footer you might gaze at dreamily in a Newport mansion.

Far from happy to be here, Brown is playing like a stone-faced assassin. The 21-year-old was a monster in Tuesday's 120-106 Game 2 blowout of the Bucks, scoring a game-high 30 points and becoming the youngest player in team history to reach that total, besting Tommy Heinsohn, who was 22.

"I think Jaylen loves the moment," said head coach Brad Stevens. "He really appreciates the opportunity to compete on this stage at this level. We've seen him against the better teams in the league all year really be able to raise level in some of the biggest games. Obviously he's gaining more experience by the minute. He learned quite a lot last year and now he's one of our more experienced guys in this setting. He did a great job picking the right spots to attack."

The growth in Brown's game not only from last year to this year, but from the start of this year to the end, has been shocking. He arrived as the No. 3 overall pick with questions about polish. At Cal he scored on pure athleticism. In the NBA he'd need to refine virtually every aspect of his game.

On Tuesday, he showed how far he has come by scoring in virtually every way imaginable -- vicious dunks, cool step-backs, confident 3-pointers, floaters in the lane, and drives to the hole. He made 12 of 22 shots, including 5 of 12 3-pointers.

"I put a lot of work in, I put a lot of time in this summer and through the course of the year just improving offensively," Brown said. "Coming into the draft, (3-point shooting) was one of the biggest things people nitpicked me on, so that's one of the things I wanted to get better at. The trust issue, it starts with Brad. When Brad trusts me to shoot it, it gives you another level of confidence."

In a perfect world, Brown would've continued developing at a slower pace. But Gordon Hayward's season-opening broken leg pressed him into extended minutes.

"He stepped up to the challenge," said teammate Shane Larkin. "We lost our guy on the wing that was supposed to take us to the next level. Gordon coming in, you never knew what JB's role was going to be. But as soon as he went down, I think that first game he came out and had 25 points and he stepped up to the challenge early. All year he's grown each and every game, making passes, not just scoring the ball, but defensively, offensively, his understanding of what coach wants. I think he can be one of the best players in this league."

He's certainly one of its best athletes. On Tuesday, he threw down a ferocious left-handed dunk on former teammate Tyler Zeller after turning the corner in the lane. He screamed and flexed as he landed like the baddest man on the floor. In that moment, it was hard to argue.

"I've said it all year. He's a freak," Larkin said. "He just comes out of nowhere. Tonight's dunk was pretty good. But I remember the one early in the season, he went baseline, jumped off his right foot on (New York's Kristaps) Porzingis, switched it back from left to right, and then went right hand over the top. That's just God-given. He definitely works to get better at it, but that God-given ability to just be that much more athletic than everybody definitely helps him, and then when he shoots the ball like he does tonight, he's one of the toughest guys to defend in the league."

Realists know the Celtics can't possibly make the Finals. Not without Kyrie Irving and Hayward and maybe Marcus Smart. But watching Brown dominate the Bucks as he did on Tuesday, it's hard not to daydream. Just a little.

And at the very least, there's this -- now three years removed from high school, there's no telling how good he'll eventually be.

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