2016 NBA Draft: Cal’s Jaylen Brown is a top-5 talent yet unfinished project

Jaylen Brown had a bit of a divisive season in his lone collegiate campaign at Cal.

On one hand, Brown was the best player on a NCAA Tournament No. 4 seed, averaging 14.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and two assists. Also, those counting stats look even more superb when you extend them out to per-minute pace. Brown averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per-40 minutes, numbers that stand up extremely well, especially next to other wing prospects.

The problem is when you put those stats into an efficiency context. Brown had his moments — especially throughout the portion of Pac-12 play that guard Tyrone Wallace missed — that were superb. But they were often inconsistent due to his shooting and turnover issues. Brown was only able to muster a 51.8 true-shooting percentage, and averaged 4.5 turnovers per-40 minutes, more than any other prospect in the top 100 of my big board and second to George Mason center Shevon Thompson in the top 200 prospects.

So what do scouts make of Brown’s performance this season? Let’s take a look at it.

Strengths

First, it must be noted that Brown has absolutely prototypical size for the wing position in the NBA, with the length and athleticism to be able to move up and down the lineup from the 2 spot through the 4 spot at will. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-0.5 wingspan as measured at last year’s Hoop Summit, Brown has tremendous length on the wing to go with an 8-9 standing reach that should allow him to play big in the same way that Harrison Barnes does for the Warriors occasionally at the 4.

To go with those dimensions, Brown is an elite athlete in every sense of the word. He possesses both power — owing to a chiseled 222-pound frame — and grace with terrific explosiveness both vertically and laterally as well as solid body-control that makes him a terror in transition.

There is not a better combination of size and athleticism on the wing than Brown in this draft class, and that’s what makes him so intriguing to teams. He possesses the kind of skills that you can’t teach, and he has the potential to be the kind of versatile player on the wing that has become so highly valued in today’s NBA.

In terms of his game, where that athleticism and size bears itself out best is in terms of his aggressiveness. Brown constantly attacks — sometimes to his detriment, as mentioned above and will be discussed in-depth later. Brown led the Pac-12 in usage rate this season at 31.2. Particularly, he did an excellent job of getting to the foul line. Among players in the CBS Sports top 100, Brown finished fourth in free throw attempts per-40 minutes at 9.2. Brown attacks the rim and embraces contact, knowing that players both cannot stay in front of him and that he has the strength to finish through contact when bumped. He plays a physical brand of basketball bordering on bully-ball from time-to-time, but often it works due to his superior athletic gifts.

Despite the heavy usage rate and high turnover number, it would be unfair to call Brown selfish. When driving, Brown shown the ability to both hit the kick-out 3-point shooter as well as the diving cutter toward the rim, as he showed in this highlight reel play to Wallace.

Brown sees the court well, and has solid vision in terms of setting his teammates up for looks — especially given the Cal spacing problems. His 15.3 assist rate is a solid number for an 18-year-old wing, and shows potential for growth in terms of making plays for others.

Beyond offense, Brown possesses immense potential on the defensive end. This is where the aformentioned versatility will come into play as Brown continues to mature. It’s easy to see him moving up and down the lineup and defending a wide variety of players, both in terms of a straight up man-to-man matchup as well as in terms of switching screens. In 2015-16, Brown became a tremendous on-ball defender in terms of cutting off penetration and slowing down opposing players, something that is vital in Cuonzo Martin’s defensive scheme. He’ll occasionally get caught watching off-ball and give up a backdoor lay-up or a spot-up 3, but this isn’t uncommon among young players and only slightly detracts from his overall profile.

His playmaking numbers on this end aren’t terrific, but that’s a function of the defensive scheme than it is on Brown’s ability to rise up and block shots or get into passing lanes. Martin more than most coaches emphasizes sitting down in a stance and rotating in order to keep teams out of the paint as opposed to gambling for turnovers and transition points. During each of Martin’s two years in charge at Cal, the team has finished in the bottom five nationally in terms of forced turnover rate, and over the last six years his teams have never finished in the top 250 nationally. In time, Brown has potential to become a defender who not only can match up against tough opponents, but also force turnovers.

Weaknesses

There are quite a few here. More than you’d typically see from a potential top-five pick. Particularly, let’s start in the half-court on offense, which is where plenty of his issues are borne out.

It’s hard to see how Brown would substantively contribute to an NBA offense beyond transition opportunities at this stage. First, let’s start with Brown’s jump shot. The 6-7 forward only hit 29.4 percent of his 3-point opportunities this season. In terms of shooting off of the catch, Brown only finished in the 43rd percentile of all college basketball players this season at .94 points per shot. Off the dribble, those numbers were even worse as he only hit at a .6 points per shot clip, good for only the 26th percentile nationally.

Cal had plenty of spacing problems around their star freshman — which we’ll discuss in a second here — but Brown was definitely a part of them, and it hinders his game significantly when playing without the ball in his hands. Here’s a quick video of him sinking a couple, and you can see what we’re working with in terms of mechanics.

Brown’s shot is not “broken” by any means, and it’ll likely convince a team that he can be fixed. Overall, he gets good rotation on the ball, has a clean release in terms of it coming out straight, and gets good arc on the ball with nice touch. However, there are some small issues. While he does a good job of balancing himself in terms of when he steps into his shot, he quickly takes himself off-balance by leaning backward when going up for his shot. The release is slow with a slight hitch at times. Finally, he doesn’t get much in the way of elevation, and often releases the ball on the way down instead of at the top of his jump, making him somewhat easy to close out on. The basics are there for him to have the threat of a jump shot in the NBA, but he’s going to need to do some extensive work to get there.

In terms of slashing the ball, Brown could stand to work on his handle in terms of differentiating what he shows the defense from side-to-side. While Brown does have a good first step to go with a nice hesitation move and dangerous jab step, he doesn’t have much in the way of lateral movement. NBA teams will want to put him through extensive aerobic and flexibility testing to see if he has potential to do this in the future, particularly through his hips, as they can appear stiff at times. That could be the difference between him being a true slashing creator in one-on-one situations, or a player who is reliant on closeouts and using his jump shot to get the defense off-balance.

His handle can also get a bit loose sometimes, and that’s where the turnovers start to pile up. Simply, Brown’s dribble gets a bit high and out of control occasionally as he tries to make things happen in the paint, and that leads to him being susceptible to getting the ball stripped. It’s a big reason why his turnover rate was out of control this season. However, I’m not sure that the turnovers can necessarily be totally pinned on him.

At times this season, Cal didn’t exactly do a great job of surrounding Brown with the best players to take advantage of his skills. Part of this had to do with roster construction, as the Bears simply just had too many non-shooters on the roster in Wallace, Ivan Rabb, Kingsley Okoroh, Kameron Rooks, and Sam Singer. On the other hand though, Martin didn’t exactly do the offense any favors by often playing with two big men as opposed to rolling out lineups of Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird together with Brown in order to space the floor. To Martin’s credit, he used these type of lineups more often late in the season, and they unsurprisingly coincided with Brown taking a leap through the middle of conference season.

That lack of spacing also hurt Brown’s efficiency around the rim in terms of finishing. In order to judge players’ finishing ability in the lane, I’ve created a metric that I’m calling “true finish rate.” This number is a player’s percentage at the rim minus his transition opportunities and put-back opportunities. This distills truly what players are good at finishing at the rim in halfcourt settings on drives or cuts, an essential skill for slashers in the NBA. Brown’s true finish rate this season was 42.7 percent, a low mark for a player with his length and athleticism. He offsets this by often he draws fouls and gets to the line, but a team selecting him is going to have to believe in the idea that their spacing will counteract this inefficiency.

Jaylen Brown had perhaps the most important February of any freshman. (USATSI)

Overall stock report

Basically, that last sentence in the weaknesses section is what it comes down to with Brown. NBA teams are going to have to decide if they buy the tools that Brown possesses, or the inefficiency that he portrayed this season. If a team believes that Brown was highly hindered this season by a poor systemic fit as well as a bad roster to complement his skills, then they will likely have him as a top-five prospect in this draft. Simply put, his blend of athleticism, size, versatility, and defensive potential is highly uncommon, and it’s not all that difficult to see him developing at least into an average shooter in situations off the catch with some work.

However, there are absolutely some teams out there who don’t necessarily regard him that highly, largely due to his — at this stage — largely rudimentary skill level. It’s going to take a lot of skill-based work on Brown’s behalf to reach his ceiling, which means Brown’s fate could easily be determined by pre-draft interviews and the information teams gather on him in regard to his work ethic. Brown is known as an intelligent teenager who takes his basketball career very seriously, and one who marches to the beat of his own unique drum. Convincing teams that he will come in and work harder than anyone else will be essential to him going as highly as he could.

Personally, I buy into Brown’s ceiling, which is why he is currently rated as the No. 5 player on the CBS Sports NBA Draft Big Board. Even if he doesn’t hit his ceiling as a dynamic, versatile two-way all-star, it’s hard to envision Brown entirely flaming out in the NBA due to his athleticism and defense. You obviously don’t want to take somebody like a Corey Brewer in the top-five, but you can do a lot worse than that being one of the lowest potential outcomes a player has.

Brown’s best home will likely be a team that already has a strong amount of shooting in place. However, given that there aren’t many teams like that in the top-half of the lottery at this stage, it’s unlikely that will happen. Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Minnesota and Denver all finished in the bottom seven teams in the NBA in terms of 3-point percentage. Still, it’s hard to see a circumstance where simply the increased amount of space in the NBA game doesn’t help Brown become a more efficient player in terms of turnovers and finishing ability.

Jaylen Brown may not have taken over college basketball as expected last season. But in the end, he’s still going to be a highly sought after player for the NBA game due to his potential.

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