PORTLAND, Ore. — As Jaylen Brown jumped onto the field with the ball in his hands Friday night, two Celtics teammates rushed to set up screens for him.
Brown didn’t end up shooting the ball on that possession, but he’s entirely responsible. He is an All-Star. He could potentially make an All-NBA team. His team doesn’t direct their entire attack through him, but compared to most players he possesses an envious role. He plays big minutes. He shoots the ball more than 20 times per game. On many plays like this, the Celtics do what they can to free him up for a clean touch.
Brown hasn’t always had so much responsibility. Years ago, as a young lottery coach in successful teams, the reality of his role clashed with his own vision of it. Feeling he should have played more and should have been used differently, Brown could have let frustration consume him. He had a voice in his ear asking him to avoid this urge. Tell him the truth about his situation with the team. Reminding him that if he worked, his growth would eventually reveal itself.
These days, Brown calls himself Micah Shrewsberry’s biggest fan.
“Couldn’t be happier for another human being,” Brown said Friday morning after a Celtics shootout.
Hours before scoring 27 points as the Celtics beat the Portland Trail Blazers 126-112, Brown opened up about how Shrewsberry helped him through a rough start to his career. Now one of the fastest rising stars in the college coaching ranks after leading Penn State to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, Shrewsberry worked closely with Brown early in the wing’s career. Brown learned a lot from the former Celtics assistant coach as a player, but seems even more grateful now for how Shrewsberry guided him through some daunting stretches.
“It was tough getting on the court, gaining Brad’s (Stevens) trust,” Brown said. “But also (Shrewsberry) made me see it as just improving in general and developing your game. Don’t get discouraged because you’re not playing. Circumstances change in a year or two. So don’t waste a year complaining. Just working this year. We’ll go to the gym, we’ll get to work. But we’re also going to be great at what the coaching staff might want you to be great at.
Brown eventually transformed into one of the most dangerous wings in the NBA, as he showed again by making 12 of 23 shots against the Blazers. After a scorching Damian Lillard cut Boston’s 21-point lead to eight, Brown responded with a quick dunk, an assist to Al Horford and a drive-thru layup on the next three possessions. The Celtics, who have now won back-to-back games after a bad loss to Houston, closed out Portland with no further issues.
Earlier in his career, Brown could have been on the bench for such important moments. During these times, he said Shrewsberry helped him stay focused on the improvement process.
“Shrews, when he was in Boston, all you can ask anybody is, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “So I really appreciate him for that. He was letting me know what was going on internally: who didn’t believe (in Brown) or who did. And that made me work. And I appreciated that he let me know where I was in the organization, the totem, who thought what of me I can’t ask for anything more than someone who will just keep your money with you, stay honest with you, even if their peers didn’t want it or didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Like, I appreciated the shrews for that.
Although many No. 3 picks are awarded playing time based on their status, Brown entered an unusual situation with the Celtics already a playoff team. He needed time to deserve the role he has now. He played just 17.2 minutes per game as a rookie, experiencing ups and downs in a deep team that typically started Isaiah Thomas, Horford, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Amir Johnson while bringing in veterans Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Gerald Green and Jonas Jerebko. The bench. The playoffs exemplified the roller coaster nature of Brown’s campaign. After barely playing in a first-round series win over Chicago, he received substantial minutes defending LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Even after emerging as one of the most promising young wings in the NBA in his second season, Brown returned to a different team dynamic the following year. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both returned from injury. After the Celtics struggled early in the season, Stevens again sent Brown to the bench. During a shootout at the end of that season, Brown said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge approached him to congratulate him on how he handled a bumpy road. Even before that, Ainge told the striker that everything would be in place for him to show his full potential one day. Until then, Ainge said, Brown just had to keep working.
Shrewsberry delivered a similar message to Brown consistently. Although Shrewsberry is “laid back, easy-going and funny” most of the time, Brown said his trainer knows when to get “super serious.” At various points early in Brown’s career, Shrewsberry also explained to the youngster exactly why the Celtics weren’t playing him more or using him differently.
“He didn’t make me feel like I wasn’t working or trying to act like I wasn’t doing my job,” Brown said. “It was just politics. Like, right now, they’ve got other people ahead of you, rather than turning on me and acting like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to and that’s why you’re not playing. And I think you see that sometimes at all the different levels where these games, these mind games are being played. I don’t think Shrews has been playing with me.
“He was like, ‘Look, you’ve got extreme talent. I believe in you. Right now you are, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be forever. So just work. Let’s get better at what you want to improve, but also do the little things that will get you down. And just that dialogue – just like that – can be everyone for some people. was for me.”
Shrewsberry left the Celtics coaching staff in 2019 to take an assistant position at Purdue because he wanted to return to college play. Two years later, Penn State hired him as a head coach. He guided the Nittany Lions to a 14-17 record in his first season with three more wins than the previous campaign. In year two, Shrewsberry led Penn State to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in hopes of continuing the run Saturday against Texas. As the orchestrator of a rapid rebuild at a school that hasn’t always enjoyed basketball success, Shrewsberry received rumors about the possibility of landing another coaching job.
For now, at least, he’s still at Penn State. After a strong regular season, the school earned a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament by reaching the Big Ten Tournament Finals. Brown watched the Shrewsberry team open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday with a 76-59 win over Texas A&M. On the field, Brown saw what he called “a fun team to watch.” Jalen Picket, a point guard with plenty of return-to-the-go games, created much of the offense. Around him, the Nittany Lions drilled 13 3-point shots, including eight from 6-foot-5 sniper Andrew Funk.
“They played really well,” Brown said. “I can’t wait to see them play against Texas again. Keep that energy, that momentum going. Pickett played well, they shot the ball well.”
Before Shrewsberry started Penn State, he helped stabilize Brown when he needed support. According to Brown, Shrewsberry never misled him. Even when some conversations were uncomfortable, Shrewsberry shared the truth with his player. They discussed how Brown saw himself versus how the coaching staff saw him. About Brown’s role and responsibilities. About what the Celtics expected of him versus what he was capable of.
“Sometimes those things don’t always fit a young player or whatever, having a lot of talent,” Brown said. “Sometimes there’s politics, people fighting for their guys, and stuff like that. Who they want to have the ball in their hands, who they don’t. Sometimes I got the short end of the stick. But it made me who I am now. So I’m just grateful for this trip.
And grateful to the lovely assistant coach who played a part in it years ago.
(Photo of Jaylen Brown driving to the basket against the Trail Blazers: Soobum Im/USA Today)