Listen to enough Jaylen Brown interviews, and you start to hear the supreme confidence. We knew coming in he was hyper-intelligent, a special athlete, and a willing worker on the defensive end, but I think we underestimated his unwavering quest to be great. As questions mounted about how the Celtics continued to win without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, you heard a growing tinge of annoyance behind all the selfless responses, as if he just wanted to scream, As long as I’m still here, we’ll be OK, but he didn’t quite have the authority or arrogance to let it out.
This isn’t to say he didn’t respect the ability of his injured teammates and wasn’t eager to credit everyone else for their contributions to the Eastern Conference finals run. Quite the opposite, actually. He has a genuine affection for them. He just believes he’s going to be great. He might even believe that he’s already great, and he definitely believes that he’s only going to get better.
So, the question here is: How does Jaylen Brown define greatness?
We got a sense of this when he told us here in November, “Everybody wants to be Kobe Bryant, but nobody wants to wake up at 4 a.m., so how bad do you really want it?” And we see it again now that Brown is taking offense to questions about the East getting easier with LeBron gone.
“To be honest, I wanted him to stay,” Brown told a contingent of reporters gathered at summer league in Las Vegas last month. “I was kind of mad. I wanted to be the team to go through him.”
“Oh, we’re getting to the Finals,” he elaborated when asked again on CJ McCollum’s “Pull Up” podcast. “No question about it. But I hate how everybody’s like, ‘Oh, LeBron’s gone, and the East [is wide open].’ I know he did have a stronghold on the East for the last seven years, but he barely got up out of there this year, and our mindset was, ‘Man, he’s not beating us again.’”
We can argue all day about the ways in which Bryant and James pursued winning, but know this: Being Kobe and beating LeBron are two different sentiments with the same goal. You want to be the killer like Kobe who helps your team beat LeBron on its way to a championship. Be great individually to beat greatness collectively. In some form or another, this is what everyone who has ever picked up a basketball starts out believing. Few get so close as Brown is now.
Listen again. “Our mindset was, ‘Man, he’s not beating us again.” There is a commitment to his team there. Behind that, there is a supreme self-confidence. When the NBA replaced an injured John Wall on the All-Star team with Andre Drummond, Brown took offense on Twitter. Ben Simmons did, too, but it was Brown throwing himself into a hat few thought fit him that took most everyone by surprise, including Drummond. This told us two things: Brown thought enough of himself in his second season that he believed he deserved to be included among the game’s best players, and he cared enough about the perceived slight that he shared it on social media.
Again, not out of the ordinary. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the NBA who didn’t want to be an All-Star, and plenty of players think they belong there. But I’m not sure someone like Marcus Smart believed he had a chance to make the All-Star team. Brown was averaging 14 points (on 54.7 percent true shooting) and 5.4 rebounds at the break. He was arguably the third-best player on the second-best team in the conference at the time. He was a 21-year-old second-year player who didn’t appear on a single media All-Star voting ballot. Fourteen guards received more All-Star votes from their peers. Yet, Brown felt snubbed, and that’s interesting.
Every player has individual and team goals, and you hope those two objectives never stand in the way of each other. Brown may be among those who face an internal battle this season. The Celtics are loaded, especially at the wing position. They will likely begin the season with the same starters as last year, with Hayward, Brown and Jayson Tatum all on the floor, but Brown is a candidate to come off the bench when Aron Baynes starts in bigger lineups, and everyone will have to accept fewer minutes than they might receive elsewhere for the good of a contender.
Brad Stevens believes there is. This week, he told my colleague at Yahoo Sports, Chris Mannix, what he will probably tell his team come the start of training camp: “We’ll just do it like we’ve always done it. Marcus Smart has come off the bench for two years, and I’ve never considered Marcus Smart to be a non-starter. I just think that we’re fortunate enough on our team that we’ve got eight, nine, maybe 10 guys who are starters, so we’ll figure that out as the time comes, and I do think that our guys have a recognition overall that, like, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about trying to be the best that we can be collectively. If we all do what we do to the best of our ability, it’ll benefit everybody individually, but you only get so many chances to be part of a special group. We’re pretty fortunate to be in this position, and we need to take advantage of it.”
That is the right approach, and it should work with this group this season. But what happens if Tatum and Irving — and Hayward and Al Horford, for that matter — are better served to be The Guys, and Brown is relegated to a complementary role on his guaranteed Finals run? Brown is eligible for a max contract extension worth roughly $160 million next summer, a figure he would have commanded from the Nets had their No. 3 pick not conveyed to an already established Celtics team in 2016. He might not warrant that on a roster that is stacking up max contracts.
Brown remains under the C’s control until 2020, when he becomes a restricted free agent. The Celtics could match any contract he signs that summer, but he will be looking to get paid like the All-Star he believes he is (and may very well be). Having represented himself out of college, when salaries were dictated by draft position, Brown told McCollum he “for sure” would need an agent to “definitely” help him determine his value and league-wide interest for his next contract.
For now, Brown is saying all the right things.
“Expectation levels are there, and we have expectation levels for ourselves, so it’s important for us to stay grounded and continue to play ball, continue to play the way we did this past season, sharing the ball, on everybody to get off, and everything will take care of itself, Brown told McCollum. “We have a lot of talent on this team, and we have some really good mindsets, and it’s a pleasure playing with them all, but we have to be on one page if we want to be successful.”
Asked about the competition for minutes on the wing, Brown added, “I expect it to be super competitive. At the same time, we all get along so well. … There are guys who are more competitive than others, and there are guys who love playing one on one against each other, and there are guys who love talking trash to one another, but at the same time we’re all family.”
He recognizes that the chemistry among this crew is unique — even better than when he entered the league two years ago. At the same time, this is all he knows. Two seasons, two conference finals. He’s perceptive enough to realize that it won’t always be like this, that in order to win with this bunch of talented teammates, it could mean more sacrifice than he might like.
Irving was in this position once, winning a title as LeBron’s understudy, before requesting a trade to find out if he could be the best player on a championship team — if he could beat LeBron, if he could be Kobe. If Brown were to walk the same path, it will have meant the Celtics hung Banner 18, but those who want to watch the Brown-Tatum duo dominate the NBA for a generation will hope he discovers his definition of greatness, whatever it may be, in Boston.
Maybe Brown is so supremely confident that he doesn’t need to be a top option on a title team to know he’s great. Or maybe he will be a top option on a title team. Maybe the max contract and All-Star appearances will come in Boston. He’s 21 years old and still figuring this out. I figured the best way to find out how he defines greatness was to ask him. I haven’t heard back from the Celtics. Maybe he’s not ready to set any ceilings yet. It’s too early to start worrying about Jaylen Brown finding himself elsewhere. As long as he’s here, they’re OK. And he’s here.