Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Jaylen Brown’s journey from booed Celtics draft pick to franchise star culminates with 2024 NBA Finals win

The doubt started before Jaylen Brown had even put on a Boston Celtics jersey. Fans inside TD Garden booed when the selection was announced during a watch party for the 2016 NBA Draft. They then showered owner Wyc Grousbeck with the same reaction when he came out to explain the decision. 

Brown was undeterred. “I’m going to go to war for this city,” he said that night. So, too, was Grousbeck. “We’re very happy to build with a piece — and maybe an important piece — Jaylen Brown,” Grousbeck said. “We feel that he’s got the physique and the competitive drive, and the motor, and the skills, and really important the character and the intelligence… looking forward to having him in Celtics green, and think it’s the right move for our team at this time and in the future.”

Over the past eight years, Brown has worked tirelessly to prove Grousbeck right and everyone else wrong. To show that he was the right pick, that he is an All-Star and All-NBA caliber player, that he did deserve the richest contract in NBA history, and now, finally, that can bring the Celtics a championship. 

Brown completed his journey in style on Monday night with 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists in the Celtics’ 106-88 Game 5 win over the Dallas Mavericks to win the 2024 NBA Finals and give the storied franchise its long-awaited 18th title. That Brown was named Finals MVP after averaging 20.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5 assists in the series only made the night that much sweeter. 

For much of Brown’s career, every accomplishment was met with further questions, every step forward with a setback. 

The trend started early. With Gordon Hayward injured early and Kyrie Irving joining him on the sidelines for the playoffs, Brown was thrust into a bigger role and enjoyed a breakout second season. He averaged 14.5 points per game, shot 39.5% from behind the arc and played a key role in the Celtics’ run to another Eastern Conference finals. In Game 2 of the team’s first-round series, he made history as the youngest player in franchise history to score 30 points in a playoff game. Not Russell, not Havlicek, not Bird, not Pierce. Brown. 

He found it difficult to build on that success amid trade rumors and the return of Irving and Hayward. By December, he had lost his starting spot and rival executives described him as “disjointed” and “detached” to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan

“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown said at the time. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s all about your mindset, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”

Brown stabilized as the season went on, but the team never fully meshed and was eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. 

Despite the disappointment, the Celtics showed their faith in Brown ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, by handing him a four-year, $115 million extension. With Irving gone, Brown stepped back into a bigger role and made good on the promise he showed as a sophomore. He averaged career-highs of 20.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, and helped the Celtics get back to the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble. 

Early in the next season, he poured in a career-high 42 points, which was a clear indication that his upward trajectory would continue. Over the next few months, he would make more history. This time for most points in fewer than 20 minutes, then got a shoutout from Bill Russell and made his first All-Star appearance. Then, he tore a ligament in his wrist ahead of the playoffs. Just like that, his season was over. 

The next one didn’t get any easier. He tested positive for COVID-19 during training camp, which left him with joint pain and fatigue, and played a major role in his inconsistent start. 

“My breathing was more of my concern and I’m breathing fine, but I’m just not recovering as fast as I’d like,” Brown said in October of 2022. “And I’m having some joint pains and that’s a part of COVID as well. As I continue to fight through it and continue to play more games and get the right stuff into my system it will get better. Right now, I’ve been inconsistent, I think that’s obvious, but my body hasn’t felt the same.”

Brown’s hot-and-cold play mirrored that of the team’s under new head coach Ime Udoka. They had a team meeting just a few weeks in, trade rumors resurfaced and they were still under .500 beyond the midpoint of the season. At least on a national level, patience was wearing thin with the Brown and Jayson Tatum partnership. 

Internally, the front office hadn’t reached that point. Neither had Brown nor Tatum. 

“I think we can play together,” Brown said. “We have played together well for the majority of our career. The last year or so hasn’t gone as expected. But the adversity we’ve gone through will help us grow and get better in the future.”

“Obviously we live in a world where we’re on our phones and the TV and we see all the things about ‘We can’t play together’ and everybody in the media saying that one of us gotta go,” Tatum said. “We just had a talk about how we both want to be here, we both want to figure it out.”

The Celtics did figure it out. They closed the 2021-22 season on a 28-7 rampage, then went through the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in the playoffs, beating Kevin Durant, Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler in the process. With Brown and Tatum leading the way, the Celtics advanced to the Finals for the first time since 2010. There, they had a 2-1 lead on the Golden State Warriors, but were beaten by Steph Curry‘s brilliance, Draymond Green‘s antics and their own inexperience. 

Brown was the Celtics’ best player in the Finals, but even that wasn’t enough to keep his name out of trade talks. Barely a month after the season came to an end, Shams Charania reported that the Celtics were offering Brown to the Nets in a potential Durant trade package, but the Nets declined the offer. 

With his future in Boston potentially in the balance, Brown went to the source and called team president Brad Stevens and Tatum. 

“[KD] and JT are friends. They was working out together and whatnot,” Brown told The Ringer. “So, I wasn’t sure what the energy was. I wasn’t sure what the direction of the organization was.”

Stevens assured Brown that it was just noise. The team was committed to him and Tatum. Ahead of the trade deadline that season, Grousbeck even made a call to Brown to reiterate that the team didn’t want to move him. Brown was able to put everything aside and delivered his best campaign to date: 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, his second All-Star Game and his first All-NBA nod. 

The Celtics won 57 games, and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals yet again, where they were heavy favorites against the No. 8 seed Miami Heat. They were unable to get back to the Finals, however, in large part due to a no-show from Brown. His shot deserted him and so did his handle. He averaged 19 points, shot 16.3% from downtown and had more turnovers than assists. 

“We failed, I failed,” Brown said after turning the ball over eight times in a devastating Game 7 defeat at home. “We let the whole city down.” 

The nature of Brown’s performance did nothing to quiet the talk about his destiny in Boston. As much as the organization liked him, would they really give him the massive extension he was eligible to receive in the summer of 2023? The answer, it turned out, was yes. In July, he agreed to the richest contract in NBA history: $304 million over five years. Immediately, the jokes rolled in, many of them about how Brown can’t even dribble with his left hand. 

As Brown entered this season, he was not only trying to bounce back from the embarrassment of the Heat series, but to justify his contract. He did as much as he could during the regular season by averaging 23 points and 5.5 rebounds on a career-high 49.9% shooting to become an All-Star for the third time. The true test, though, wouldn’t come until the playoffs. 

Over the last two months, Brown has turned the postseason into his personal redemption tour. He helped the Celtics cruise past the Heat in the first round, declared no one on the Cleveland Cavaliers could guard him, hit a game-tying shot to force overtime in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, went off for 40 in Game 2 and was named MVP of that series in a sweep of the Indiana Pacers. In the Finals, he was the Celtics’ best player. His 30-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist effort in Game 3 just may have been the best performance of his career given the circumstances. 

“All the things that I thought were setting me back or adversity ended up being the biggest blessings,” Brown told FOX Sports earlier this month. “Getting moved to the bench, even trade talks, getting booed, whatever the fans were saying, overpaid, overrated. All of that stuff made me who I am today. It drove my work ethic. And it drove my demeanor.

“I always have a chip on my shoulder because I feel like how I think of myself, others don’t think of me. It makes you want to go work and go out and prove everything.”

Brown no longer has anything to prove. Not to fans, not to the media, not to the Celtics, not to himself. 

He’s an NBA champion. He’s a Finals MVP. And he’s not going anywhere. 

Celtics NBA Championship gear revealed

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