Jaylen Brown knows the math. A shot from behind the 3-point line is worth more than one from inside of it. A shot closer to the basket is more likely to go in than one farther away. Free throws are, well, free, making them the easiest shots of them all.
“Obviously threes and layups are shots that we want to take that are good for our team,” Brown said recently during a Zoom press conference. But he did add one caveat: “If I get an open midrange shot, I feel like that’s good for our team too.”
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This season, Brown has weaponized this approach. Not only is he taking nearly twice as many midrange shots as he did last year, but, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, he has also drilled 56.8 percent of them, with the majority off the dribble. For context, Kevin Durant, one of the best midrange off-the-dribble shooters of all time, has never shot better than 55.1 percent on these sorts of looks over the course of a full season.
Brown, 24, was a near-All-Star last year, but so far this season, he’s played at a level that would make him a sure thing for that honor — and put him in the conversation for Most Improved Player and an All-NBA Team. He’s still smothering opposing scorers and has doubled his assist rate, but his biggest jump has come as a scorer. He’s racked up 27.1 points per game, good for seventh in the league — a massive spike from the 20.3 he averaged last season and more than double his 2018-19 output.
The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward (their fourth-leading scorer last season) to free agency, Kemba Walker (their second-leading scorer) for the first 11 games of the year to a knee injury and Jayson Tatum (their leading scorer) for five games to COVID-19. And yet they’re still 10-7 and hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference standings. They can thank Brown’s stellar play — and particularly his hot midrange shooting.
“His biggest improvement and where they really developed, off the dribble he’s really tough,” said Sixers head coach Doc Rivers, who has faced Brown and the Celtics twice already this season, during a Zoom press conference last week.
The Celtics already had one of the league’s top scorers in Tatum. Brown’s emergence means they now boast two offensive studs and — given how young, versatile and committed to defense both players are, and that both are signed for multiple seasons — one of the league’s premier pairings.
Of course, any time a player makes a leap, the question becomes one of sustainability. And if you peek under the hood of Brown’s performance, what jumps out is not just how effective he’s been from midrange, but also how often he’s taken those shots and how unlikely it seems that he can maintain his current efficiency.
Brown is getting to the rim less frequently: 29 percent of his shots have come from around the rim this season, compared with 36 percent last season, according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s taking a smaller share of threes, too. The only shot he’s taking more frequently is the dreaded long midrange jumper, which has accounted for 19 percent of his looks — basically double his mark from last season.
Some of this is to be expected as a result of the Celtics riding Brown, whose usage rate of nearly 30 percent — an uptick of 6.5 percentage points from last season — is one of the league’s higher numbers. This has required Brown to create more looks for himself as opposed to relying on setups from teammates,1 which can force a player to be less selective. But that Brown is fattening up on the type of shots that have been proven to be most difficult (pull-ups), and from the area on the floor considered least efficient (midrange), is a red flag. The fact that, over a full season, he’s never shot greater than 44 percent from that area of the floor doesn’t bode well for his future outlook, either. Also, look over the top midrange shooters from previous seasons, and you’ll see a list of the game’s top free-throw shooters — players who routinely convert more than 85 percent of those looks. Brown, on the other hand, is shooting 77 percent from the line this season and is a career 69 percent shooter from the charity stripe.
So does this all mean that Brown’s entire breakout has been a mirage and that we should be expecting a crash? Not exactly.
For one, Brown’s entire offensive game has improved. He’s tightened his handle and grown adept at veering around corners while probing and manipulating defense. “You can tell the game’s slowing down for him,” said Micah Shrewsberry, a former Celtics assistant who spent three seasons coaching Brown before taking an associate head coach job with the Purdue men’s team in 2019. “He’s seeing things differently.”
In Brown’s time on the court this season, 18.8 percent of his teammates’ baskets have come off his setups. Not only is that nearly double his mark from last season (9.6 percent) but it also ranks in the 89th percentile among all wings, according to Cleaning the Glass.
That his turnover rate has dropped2 is a testament to increased comfort in quarterbacking the offense. Brown has also finished 6 percent more of his shots at the rim and, perhaps most importantly, has become one of the league’s premier long-range snipers. Last season, he shot 38.2 percent from deep. This season, he’s drilling 44.1 percent of his triples, all while launching six per game.
It’s also important to remember that not every team subscribes to a Daryl Morey-esque absolutism when it comes to midrange shots. The Celtics finished with the league’s fourth-best offense last season and 10th-best the season before. Yet in those seasons, and despite being as analytically inclined as any NBA team, they finished 15th and seventh, respectively, in the share of shots taken from deep midrange (shots taken between 14 and 28 feet out).
“Every defense is trying to take away layups and threes,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said during a recent Zoom press conference. “So, when your best players get an opportunity to pull up into a rhythm pull-up, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. … As long as you don’t decide to shoot them every time down the floor, then those are things that we feel good about.”
In other words: It’s one thing to dance with the ball for three seconds on an isolation and then hoist up a step-back from just inside the arch. It’s another to curl around a screen, see a big man dropping into the paint and decide to rise for an uncontested jumper from the elbow. There’s a difference between putting pressure on a defense and bailing it out.
Brown understands this, and the Celtics are mostly comfortable with how he’s getting his shots. The key going forward will be for Brown to slowly tweak his approach. Turning downhill a bit more frequently on pick and rolls and leveraging his improved rim-finishing and free-throw shooting would be a good place to start. The Celtics would also love to see him move some of his shots out behind the 3-point line and get closer to around 10 deep attempts per game. Some of this will come naturally with Walker and Tatum now back in the fold, which should give Brown more opportunities to dart off screens for catch-and-shoot threes, a shot that he’s converting a scorching 46.5 percent of the time.
But even if Brown does see his midrange shooting numbers plummet, there’s no reason to believe he can’t hover in the high 40s or even around 50 percent. He’s a big wing at 6-foot-6, with a high release, and he’s a good leaper. As Stevens said, “He’s able to lift up and jump up over guys and not be affected by some of those challenges.” The midrange shot might not be in vogue, but it’s not dead either. Players like Kawhi Leonard — whose trajectory to superstardom Brown is beginning to emulate — and teams like the Golden State Warriors3 have proved how valuable a weapon that shot can be, especially come playoff time when games slow down and defenses key in. Brown would have to float around 54 percent to match the league’s current average effective field-goal percentage, but that also doesn’t take into account trips down the floor where the equation is either a Brown pull-up or a wasted possession.
And anyway, focusing on an upcoming regression would be missing the point, which was summarized by Rivers last week:
“Great in-between game, great all the way to the basket, great threes,” he said of Brown. “When you have all of those things, you’re one of the better offensive players in this league. And he is.”
NBA Advanced Stats contributed research.