Jaylen Brown Explains It All

Abe Beame takes a look at the false dichotomy between the Boston Celtics rising star's on-court and off-court personalities.
By    September 3, 2020

Art by Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice

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Abe Beame had a dream he lit up Larry Bird one-on-one.

Boredom is a relative term. Today, we can have tens of thousands of hours of mediocre unseen content on any number of streaming platforms, (to say nothing of the infinite forms of stimuli beyond watchable content our culture affords us), and still credibly think of ourselves bored. The author David Foster Wallace’s final novel was to be a sprawling interrogation of boredom and the potential for enlightenment that exists in the ability to internalize and accept its purgatory-like state of being. And the task proved so daunting he hung himself, leaving the novel unfinished. But I kind of see what Wallace was aiming for, because the same potential for zen transcendence exists in Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown and his personal brand of sisyphean efficiency porn.

When I was a kid, being a “Boring Basketball Player” had a few different iterations. There were proto roll men like Oliver Miller, who finished repetitively with their size. Or post robots like Mike Sweetney. Or, the most boring player in the history of professional basketball, my point guard of 10 years, Charlie Ward, whose idea of bringing the ball up and distributing had more in common with a conveyor belt than a human being capable of performing creativity with a ball and making decisions. 

People call James Harden boring because he’s a lightning rod. His bizarre, twitchy, physically preposterous style is anything but, even as it adheres to a variable formula. People never call Jaylen Brown boring, because people outside of Boston rarely think about Jaylen Brown at all. My guy Mook Morris, for example, is really just Kenyon Martin with range, but no one would ever call him boring because he does random shit like bonk defenders on the head with the ball, and try to casually rupture the future of the league’s achilles tendon. But neither of these players, the electrifying Harden, or the deceptively boring, but personally colorful Mook, can compare to the banality of Jaylen Brown. A “Jaylen Brown Type Beat” would be a ticking metronome. Jaylen Brown’s favorite comedian is Joe Pera.

Throughout the 90’s, he wrote a series of sketches for Saturday Night Live. Here’s one of his best.

That being said, if I were to go back to the late 90s and tell Charlie Ward I was about to pair him with a 6’7 wing who could guard five positions, playmake, shoot close to 40% from 3, and do it all stoically off ball, his eyes would pop out of his head. The point being, if you don’t enjoy watching Jaylen Brown play, the problem is you, and your loss of capacity for wonder. The difference is in how Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have elected to utilize their wildly overqualified floor stretcher. 

There’s an old NBA bar argument used to evaluate greatness that goes something like: if you had 5 of player X vs. 5 of player Y, who would win? The Celtics are embarking on a project to discover the answer to that question. In this case, player X is an evolutionary Rashard Lewis, and the Celtics are attempting to generate an ocean of interchangeable, multi faceted wings in his image. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when Senator Palpatine wanted to generate an army of perfect soldiers to do his bidding in a universal coup, he cloned Jaylen Brown millions of times. In 2016, the Celtics were torn between drafting Brown with their third pick, or ironically, Jamal Murray, one of the flashiest and most unique scorers we’ve seen. Here’s some footage of Danny Ainge in his pre-draft interview with Jaylen:

When we discuss modern offense in the NBA, we tend to focus on its protagonists: the pace, the penetrate and kick wizards, the off bounce snipers, the shifty guards that drive the car, or the rolling hammer big men who are setting screens to finish at the rim, or jumping out to display once incomprehensible range beyond the arc. We rarely focus on the art of the spacer, the wing shooters that create the stage for the primary 2 man ballet of modern offense, who are so often reduced to an acceptable or unacceptable 3 point percentage.

And there’s a good reason for this. It’s a thankless job. If you focus on Brown, eternally off ball, dutifully jogging to his designated resting place on the weak side while Kemba jab steps and daggers, or Jayson Tatum unleashes a staggering vocabulary of graceful feints with the rock, there’s not much to see. It’s a lot of standing around and waiting for a play to break, or break down in a way he can effect change. But Jaylen Brown is arguably the greatest iteration this side of Klay Thomas of the modern, proto 3&D wing. When he has a good night, something happening with increasing frequency, it’s at the mercy of circumstance. His father is the 2009 Michael Lewis profile of Shane Battier and his mother is Newton’s Third Law.

He’s the release valve, the patient spectre stalking the perimeter of the Celtics offense. He keeps defenses honest, putting his teammates over, always at the geographically perfect spot, the inverse across the court from the ball handler. Brown keeps his passing lanes intact, adjusting position as the play develops and his man drifts. And when the pass eventually comes, he’s always ready to shoot, make the extra pass, or credibly drive and kick to respark the offense. This doesn’t sound like much, but to a beleaguered Knicks fan it’s pure alchemy.

On defense he is similarly unimpeachable. He is dogged, fleet footed and uses his athleticism without taking bait or committing unforced errors. Like the aforementioned Battier, he has a sense where you may want to go on the floor, or how a play is unfolding three seconds ahead, and is great at ruining your plans. As the Celtics switch at lightning pace Brown is ever present, putting out fires, making life miserable through highly disciplined tenacity. There is no team in the NBA that isn’t looking for a player exactly like him. In many ways, Jaylen Brown may be the future of the NBA. The way the game will be played flows through him, and the best version of the way basketball players think and speak, what they increasingly mean to us, flows through him.

It may surprise you to learn that as non-descript as he is on court, Brown has an outsized footprint in the broader cultural landscape. He’s the youngest ever Vice President of the NBA Players Association, he’s been interviewed on CNN, has been the subject of a massive Jackie Macmullen profile, and is a regular headline generator in national media when it comes to how players feel about world events from out of the bubble. At some point, it would be fair to wonder why the 23 year old third option on the third or fourth best team in the east in the NBA is worthy of all this attention. The answer is, as unspectacular as his sturdy game can appear to a layperson on the court, he’s anything but off of it. Brown stands out as one of the most thoughtful and politically precocious players in a media trained, astonishingly polished class of emergent young players.

Jaylen is from Marietta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, but he doesn’t carry himself with the outsized, bizarro brashness of his city. He doesn’t even speak with its common accent. He doesn’t eat red meat and was a teenage vegetarian. He coheres to that Zoomer nightmare we olds have of this entire generation of kids that didn’t drink or fuck in college, they just stayed in their dorm rooms reading Marx and posting. You get the sense he lives in a sparse, affordable flat in a tasteful suburb of Boston during the season, taking most of his earnings and keeping them in a mutual fund that sticks to Fortune 500 institutions and yields modest quarterly dividends he immediately reinvests.

But the dichotomy between Brown, the player, and Jaylen, the personality, is false. What you can see in his game, particularly when he’s struggled, like last year when there were too many cooks in the kitchen, is that Brown is someone who lives in his head to a fault. He doesn’t have the muscle memory necessary for greatness, at least yet. He’s aloof, introverted, and sensitive. In the aforementioned Jackie Mac profile, there’s an anecdote about Marcus Smart going at his neck after a bad game, urging him to get whatever shit he had off his chest, to get mad and express himself. Brown stared back, mute and far away. 

There was one moment in the bubble I thought Brown came off as less than studied and thoughtful. It was his now famous quote that he doesn’t want to have to have answers to the complex questions social justice reform demands because he’s 23. The magnetic Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton was assassinated by the FBI when he was 19. Former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael rode in Freedom Rides at 20 and coined the phrase “Black Power” at the age of 25. Muhammad Ali conciensciously objected to being drafted into the Vietnam War at 24. The modern history of this country is a legacy of forcing unimaginable responsibility on young Black men and women before it would be expected from anyone else. If the stakes seem off, comparing Stokely or Ali’s thoughts, words and deeds to Jaylen’s, you’re not paying attention.

The radical protest/organizing “movement” has become fragmented and atomized in this country to the point of incoherence. The needs of the many have become a dense and inscrutable hive of competing needs of the many groups of fews, with little hope for an emergent voice. When you find the occasional Sean King or DeRay McKissen, they are discredited and criticized for any number of reasons ranging from corruption to impotent, collusive incrementalism from both sides of their theoretical political spectrums before they can amass any real negotiating power on behalf of the people they presume to represent.

What is beginning to emerge is the sense that because of their wealth, their accomplishments, and their platform, professional athletes, particularly men and women basketball players, may just be the perfect vessel for leadership in confusing times. There is a long, long way to go before they themselves recognize their power and its potential and its limitations, but merely refusing to attend a round one playoff game preempted the president in the headlines on the night of his address to the Republican National Convention and the country.

The Celtics are currently up 2-0 in their conference semifinal series. In the Raptors, the Celtics find a kind of perfect mirror image, their strengths matched step for step, only their opponent is more experienced, deeper, and probably tougher. They have beaten them thus far off their unconscious shooting performances on the wings, from their Brown, and incredibly, their mad, brilliant goon Marcus Smart. For them to pull off the upset, they’ll need Brown to continue his steady ascent. Regardless of his play, it is safe to assume he will.

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