It seems only yesterday (because 2020 taught us the passing of time is merely an illusion) that the Boston Celtics were attempting to upset LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on the shoulders of two youngsters named Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both injured, the young Celtics pushed the Cavs to the brink of a seven-game series.
Three years have passed since that 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, still looked back upon as the moment Tatum announced to the world he was the next big thing with Brown as his running mate. Now, in the opening days of the 2020-21 season, the Celtics are back in the same place. Hayward is gone, taking a big check from Charlotte to go play with the Hornets. Kemba Walker, brought in to replace Irving, is out for at least a month with knee issues. Tatum and Brown are yet again the foundation of the team, responsible for setting the tone defensively and producing just about everything offensively.
We all know Tatum can do that. His stock has skyrocketed since he dunked on LeBron as a rookie. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams in only his third season. He's Boston's centerpiece, the sun around which all other pieces will orbit. With no Walker or Hayward around, his offensive role wasn't changing as much as the expectations were.
Brown is a different story. He proved he had the talent to be Tatum's No. 2 once they were paired together, but even as his game has progressed, his role has mainly been limited to spot-up shooting and sprinting around picks to attack the rim on set plays. Boston can't afford to keep him there in the early goings of this season. The Celtics need him to take the final step that many high-level role players struggle to take: making plays for others while finishing plays for himself. It's what sets apart good players from great players.
It appears that Brown is entirely ready for that challenge. He's been outstanding to start the season. The former No. 3 overall pick set a new career high last night against Memphis with 42 points on 15-of-21 shooting, including hitting seven three-pointers. It upped his season averages to 28 points per game with an effective shooting percentage of 62. That's not just star-level stuff. It's superstar level.
What makes it all the more impressive is that Brown has never been used this much on offense in his career. This is all new for him. He has a usage percentage of 30.5 so far this season, a huge jump from the 24.7 percent he notched last year, which was in turn a jump from the 22.1 percent number in 2018, so on and so forth. To put that number into context, only 13 players in the whole NBA last season surpassed a usage percentage greater than 30.5. He's touching the ball and running the offense as often as Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker did last year.
Nobody was sure Brown could do that effectively. He came into the league with elite athleticism even for an NBA player, but rough around the edges in pretty much every other area. His work on his shooting touch has paid off and earned him a reputation of one of the more dangerous corner three shooters in the league. Last year saw a greatly improved handle from Brown, whose first three years in the league were littered with absurd feats of athleticism ruined by a clumsy dribble into traffic. This was the year he had to put it together, because if he didn't, the Celtics' championship hopes were down the drain.
Early returns suggest Brown knows that and is very ready for this challenge. It's the final leap he has to take as a player. It's unreasonable to expect him to post these kind of numbers all season, especially when Walker eventually comes back. But if he can score more than 20 points per game on an efficient shooting percentage while being able to run the offense without Tatum or Walker on the floor? The Celtics are suddenly much more dangerous.
The next month is Brown's time to shine, to put it simply. And five games into the season, shine he has.