“The secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.” – Benjamin Disraeli
TORONTO – It was late in Jaylen Brown’s rookie season when then-Celtic Avery Bradley went down with an Achilles injury that would keep him out for almost two months.
Shortly after the injury Celtics coach Brad Stevens pulled Jaylen Brown off to the side and had a very succinct message that still resonates with the 21-year-old.
Stevens told Brown that he would be starting in place of the injured Bradley and was provided with some very specific instructions.
“What we really need you to do is be really good on the defensive end of the basketball [court] and hit shots,” Brown recalled Stevens telling him.
And so began Brown’s journey in earnest towards becoming a player who excels at both ends of the floor, a mission that now has him face-to-face with the blueprint for all promising two-way players in the NBA, Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard.
Boston (1-0) hits the road for the first time this season to face the Raptors on Friday night.
The goal of being an exceptional player at both ends of the floor is one that just about every player in the NBA would love to be known for.
But as we’ve seen, only a select few can have that moniker and have it be taken seriously.
Leonard, a two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, qualifies.
Brown isn’t quite there yet, but the third-year guard/forward has shown signs of trending in that direction.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
As a high school All-American, Brown didn’t have to think too much about defense. What he lacked in technique, his athleticism was more than able to cover up to where it did little if any harm to the team’s chances at success.
Being 6-foot-7, Brown said he mostly played against the opposing team’s big men. At the high school level, more times than not, that forced opponents into cross-matchups that Brown frequently took advantage of.
“I was guarding centers so that was easy,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston.” And I could rebound, push it up the floor. They had a hard time guarding me. That’s kind of how we played.”
But the good times in high school didn’t translate immediately when he got to Cal.
It was there that Brown realized there was more to being a talented player at both ends of the floor than desire.
“When I got to college, the defensive tools I needed I didn’t really have,” Brown said. “I struggled when I got to college at first.”
Just as the speed of the pro game is an adjustment, the same holds true when making the jump from high school to high-level college basketball.
And Brown admittedly had problems early on, especially when it came to defense.
“I never chased somebody off a pin-down,” he said. “I didn’t know how to veer; we just switched everything.”
Fortunately for him, he was coached by Cuonzo Martin, who pushed Brown to improve his overall game with a particular focus on becoming a better defender.
For Brown, Martin’s prodding to become better defensively was easy to buy into.
“The mindset was there, always,” Brown said. “The technique is what I really needed to work on. I didn’t have the techniques or the reps at a high level going against better talent. I had been playing against high school talent. It’s different when you get to college. It’s different when you get to the league. I didn’t have the defensive techniques. I didn’t have the repetitions. I didn’t have the experience guarding shooting guards, point guards, chasing them off screens, having the right footwork. All of that was new to me when I got to college. And when I got to the NBA I just took it to another step.”
And in his two-plus seasons with the Celtics, Brown’s growth as a two-way player is clear.
As much attention as Kyrie Irving gets as Boston’s best scorer [which he is] and Jayson Tatum being the next best thing offensively, it was Brown who averaged more points (14.5) per game than any other Celtic last season besides Irving.
And while Aron Baynes and Al Horford have been an exceptional 1-2 tandem defensively, one of the under-the-radar keys to Boston’s top-rated defense a year ago was Brown who on most nights found himself having to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer.
When it comes to attributes associated with most two-way standouts, Brown checks off quite a few boxes.
“Number one, offensively they [two-way players] can take advantage of a bigger, slower guy and expose a smaller person,” Stevens told NBC Sports Boston. “They can play off multiple actions. They can play off pick and rolls, they can play off dribble-handoffs, down screens, they can play in space. And defensively, they can guard a bunch of positions and not lose effectiveness. There’s a lot of guys who try to guard a lot of positions but lose great effectiveness. They can do so without fouling and they do it every night. As far as the elite of the elite two-way guys, I think everybody gives a great effort because if you don’t you’re in trouble in this league. But there are a few that really stand out.”
And Leonard stands out as arguably the best two-way player in the NBA.
Both he and Brown have a similar build (both are 6-7) in addition to spending their time in college often matched up with defending bigger players, which raised some concerns as to how effective either would be in the NBA defensively.
Leonard silenced those critics years ago and Brown seems to be heading down a similar track now.
TWO-WAY PLAYER TRAITS
One of the strengths of this Celtics team is the versatility they have at a multitude of positions which allows them to switch defensively more than most teams.
As important as it is for Brown to continue evolving as a two-way standout for the Celtics, the same holds true for the team’s other wing players, who will be counted on to make plays at both ends of the floor as well.
“Being able to play with great intensity without fouling is a huge deal,” Stevens said. “Being able to know where your spots are on offense and pick your spots, is a huge deal. Doing it every night is a huge deal. All of that stuff matters.
Stevens added, “It’s just … it’s tough for anybody. And the best of the best have to continue to do it every night to continue being the best of the best, right?. That’s the other thing about being a great two-way player. You’re not that because someone said you were a month ago. You have to do it consistently; you see that across all sports. Everybody gets great reputations but you have to keep doing it. You can only be a star if you’re playing like one.”
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse understands the value of having talented, two-way players.
And their development more times than not lies in how well or woeful their game evolving offensively.
“Most two-way guys start out as good defensive players,” Nurse said. “They’ve got the makeup inside, body, they play hard, etc.”
With the way the NBA has evolved into being more of a position-less league, the importance of having players impact the game at both ends of the floor becomes even more vital to a team’s success.
“It’s important,” Nurse said. “I think it really becomes important in the playoffs. The playoffs are such a focused lens on each player. If you’re a guy that can’t shoot the three a lot, you’re gonna be having the ball a lot in the playoffs, know what I mean? Teams are going to scheme and if you’re a guy that can’t guard, then you’re going to be guarding a lot. That’s the way it goes. It’s really important, the really good teams have a lot of really good two-way guys.”
‘MENTAL APPROACH’ OF BROWN ON ANOTHER LEVEL
And make no mistake about it.
Brown has had his sights on being one of the NBA’s elite players before he entered the league as the third overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Before he played a single game at Cal, Brown’s focus towards improvement stood out.
“He can handle the ball, he can shoot the ball, he gets to the rim, he posts up, he plays inside, he plays outside,” Martin, his coach at Cal, told the Mercury News. “More than anything, with all that talent, his mental approach is at a high level.”
Since being in the NBA, his game has improved in all phases of play.
And his true impact as a two-way player can be reflected in a multitude of ways, among them how the team fares when he’s on the floor.
Last season, the Celtics were +4.9 when Brown was on the floor, which was the highest plus/minus of any Boston player.
BROWN CONTINUES TO LEARN, ADD TO THIS GAME
Brown said his improvement as a two-way player involves fine-tuning the techniques he works on with the coaching staff in addition to recognizing other elite two-way players and taking parts of what they do and incorporate it into his game.
“Absolutely. I watch the best defenders, perimeter defenders, and add stuff from that to my game for sure,” Brown said.
The same holds true for Danny Green, who has spent the past seven seasons (2011-2018) playing with Leonard in San Antonio and now in Toronto.
“He’s never sped up,” Green said Leonard. “He’s always at his own pace, taking his time. Using his body more, using contact, using pump-fakes, just being patient. For myself, I’m always moving 100 miles per hour, trying to slow down and try to take some of that into my game. And understand that you don’t have to move that fast in order to be effective, to get where you need to go.
Green added, “he’s more gifted than me physically; a little more body and taller and can shoot over people. He gets to his spot, you’re not going to block his shot so, in that aspect I might have to move a little faster because I can get my shot blocked and I’m not bigger as everybody else. Just taking your time and getting to certain places with purpose and not just try and get there as fast as possible.”
Indeed, the value in pace as a two-way player comes down to patience; something Brown is learning about first-hand as he continues to ascend into being one of the league’s more promising two-way talents.
“Just having a great technique, great mindset, great effort on the defensive side of the basketball is what this team is going to need,” Brown said. “Hopefully I can be the one to spark it and it be contagious for everybody.”
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