‘Three & D’ wings are en vogue in today’s game, yet a survey of the current state of the NBA identifies a player type of increasing rarity, the true ‘two-way’ wing.
Only four players can currently claim membership in the Two-Way Wing Club: Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George. Yet, there may just be a fifth player who is showing all the tell-tale signs that he is on the cusp of joining this elite club. That player is Boston Celtic; Jaylen Brown.
Danny Ainge forced the Celtics down a different path this off-season, shipping defensive stalwart Avery Bradley to the Pistons (for cap space that would be absorbed by Gordon Hayward) and Jae Crowder to the Cavs as part of the deal for Kyrie Irving.
Both players were ahead of Brown in Brad Stevens’ rotation last season. Their departure created an opportunity for Brown to see an increase in minutes and make the defensive stalwart role his own in his Sophomore season. The increased role as a defensive stopper was justified, not by the opportunities that generally follow a top three draft pick, but earned after demonstrating his defensive capabilities against the very best in LeBron James during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brown has continually justified the role of lock-down defender given to him at the start of the season, with his pesky defense passing the eye test. A pertinent example is when Brown tasked with guarding DeMar DeRozan – who is seventh in the League for clutch points – on the last possession of the Celtics’ 1-point victory over the Raptors.
Brown’s defense in the final possession is far from a one-off. He has been active all season, fighting through screens, quickly re-positioning his feet to channel penetration towards help defense and contesting shots. A similar illustration of his work on DeRozan can be found here.
However, with Hayward, Irving and Al Horford as Boston’s new ‘Big Three’, Brown’s offensive production wasn’t expected to be depended on. The whole situation changed six minutes into the Celtics’ season when Hayward landed awkwardly on a botched alley-oop, dislocating his ankle and fracturing his tibia; ultimately destroying his season.
It was in this moment that the importance of Brown, along with Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart rose. They were all tasked to collectively fill the hole that Hayward left, a task they have thus far filled with great aplomb as Boston sits atop the League’s win column and are on track for a 60 win season. We knew of Tatum’s touted offensive prowess, consistently exhibited last year as a Freshman at Duke, but Jaylen Brown’s offensive breakout has been a nice compliment to Kyrie Irving, Tatum and Brad Stevens’ offence.
It is through this series of events that Brown has been provided with the opportunity to demonstrate his legitimate two-way wing potential. So how does he compare to Butler, Leonard, James and George?
What Makes A Two-Way Player?
Firstly, lets set some statistical parameters for what a two-way player means in numbers. Butler, James, George and Leonard are all seen as ‘elite’ two-way players, and this is the bar they’ve set.
Offensively, the markers for a true force on the offensive end for a wing player has traditionally been scoring production and efficiency. Taking a baseline of over 20 points per contest at a clip at around 50 True Shooting% as a bench mark for offensive wings, Butler, George and Leonard all reached that point in either their fourth or fifth season. LeBron hit the mark in season two.
Defensively, definitive statistical indicators are harder to ascertain and should be viewed in conjunction with the eye test. If we take defensive rating as a statistical reflection of a player’s defensive impact, anything under a rating of 100 can be considered in the top echelon in today’s game (only four players finished under 100 DRtg last season). Again, James (three times), Butler (two times), George (five times) and Leonard (four times) have all hit the mark, with Leonard’s 96 rating points best in the League in 2014/15. Add to that DRtg, a Defensive Win Share total of 4.5 or over will traditionally be in the top 10 in the league, regardless of position.
These two defensive metrics ran against current active players in the league comes up with a total of eight or nine players, depending on whether you view Kevin Durant as more of a Power Forward defensively.
Of those eight, outside of the four previously mentioned, only Dwyane Wade has ever broken the 20 ppg, 50%+ True Shooting percentage. Yet, we will discount Wade’s membership as those days have long passed, and he is at the tail end of his career.
How Jaylen Brown Compares
At the date of writing, Brown has a League-best Defensive Win Share total of 1.2 and holds a Defensive Rating of 98, good for 8th best in the League. However, it can be argued that with the 2017/18 season still in its infant stages, that the DRtg stats are skewed, with seven of the top ten in the League hailing from the Celtics, and all under 100. The Celtics’ switch based defensive schemes may also play a part.
Brown’s scoring production is up from his Rookie year, which is to be expected with a jump in court time from 17 minutes to a shade under 33 minutes per contest. His 2P% is the same as in his Rookie season at 50.7%, but his 3pt % is up 6.1%. Most tellingly, however, Brown’s 16.2 ppg is good for second on the Boston Celtics, two points more per contest than Al Horford.
The method of his scoring is also quite rare in comparison to the rest of the league. Only seven players in the league boast better percentages (when filtered for over 24 minutes per night and at least 10 games) than Brown’s 16.5% of points from Free Throws, 14.8% of points from the fast break and 19.2% of points off turnovers.
By virtue of his defense, Brown has half a foot in the door of ‘Two-Way Wing Club’, and well on the way to striding fully through, if his offensive production follows that of the other members.
It is unlikely that Brown will hit the magical 20 ppg and 50%+ TS% that is required to fill the offensive requirements this season. Still, none of the Two-Way Wing Club not named LeBron hit that mark in their second season; both Leonard and Butler accomplished it in season five, and George hit 20+ ppg, 50%+ TS% in season four.
It would be unfair to compare anyone to LeBron, but when you compare the other three and Brown’s second season, Brown proves he is on the right path to join the trio. Brown is ahead in points per game and defensive rating, and third for TS%, but still over 50% (as are they all).
The biggest impediment to Brown reaching the offensive requirements will be his own teammates. Assuming that Brown sticks with the Celtics, his short to medium future is in tow with Irving and Hayward, who will be option one and two respectively. Al Horford also deserves to be mentioned. It’ll be hard for Brown to find the shots night in and night out on a fully healthy Celtics squad to reach 20+ ppg. Hard, but not impossible (the Warriors did last season, and could well do it this season as could the Thunder).
In comparison, the current members of the Two-Way Wing Club were on rosters that provided an opportunity to increase their offensive production after establishing their credentials as lock-down defenders. Leonard had the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the Spurs, all who were ageing just as Leonard started to come into his own.
Similarly, George took over as the Pacers go-to player just as the game was starting to catch up with Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and David West.
Butler, on the other hand, found himself in a similar position to Jaylen Brown when Derrick Rose started a horrific run of multiple knee injuries and Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer moved on.
Thankfully, Brown’s method of scoring this season lends itself to potentially meeting the offensive requirements even after Hayward returns, with over 50% of his points coming from free throws, fast break points or off turnovers. If he can continue that method of production, and improve his scoring efficiency; especially on free throws (currently at 60%), and can continue to improve his three-point percentage (40%), passing the 20+ ppg mark is not out of the question.
There will also be the added benefit that comes with playing behind two quality scorers. It is possible that he will see more spot-up shooting opportunities, and more open lanes for cutting and penetration as Hayward and Irving draw better defenders away from Brown towards themselves. Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony – the third leading scorers on the Warriors and Thunder, but still averaging 20+ppg – do it on 16.3 and 16.6 FGA respectively. In comparison, Brown is currently at 12.4
Jaylen Brown is proving he can impact both ends of the floor at a game-changing level. He may not be there yet, but soon, the Two-Way Wing Club may just hand out its fourth membership.
Stats current as of 23 November, 2017.