Passing Is Everything

I can’t remember where I saw this line of reasoning first, but it goes like this: the difference between being Seth Curry and being Steph Curry is all the stuff beyond shooting. In fact, while Seth has made 44.1 percent of his 3s over the course of his career, Steph is at 43.7. Meanwhile, Seth has worked his ass off to become a good rotation guy, and Steph is a legend.

The point here is that if you can’t dribble and pass well enough, it doesn’t matter how good you are at shooting the ball. This goes for all the parts of playing basketball. Teams draft hyper-athletic players—think Jerami Grant, who was a monster last night in the Nuggets’ win over the Suns—in the hopes of teaching those players the mundane stuff that will allow them to harness their athleticism. The reverse happens, too, of course—think of the Celtics’ experiments with Glen Davis and Jared Sullinger over the past decade or so.

Anyway, when the Celtics drafted Jaylen Brown 3rd overall in 2016, the idea was that he was a project. An athletic wing, smart as hell, capable of learning how to be great. In various ways, he’s been both more and less than that, but through three years, while he’d had great moments and exceeded expectations here and there, his feel seemed to be lacking.

I’m being vague, because it’s hard to describe specifics. I think it comes down to passing. If you’re Jaylen Brown, and you have enough ball-handling and shooting and strength to get to your spots on the floor, the only thing left to prevent you from being great is your ability to see the floor. It tends to be the last piece to develop. Even in his destruction of the league in last season’s playoffs, it was clear there was room for Kawhi Leonard to improve his passing. This season, through two games, it feels like Kawhi is seeing it all. Everything has slowed down.

When players get great at seeing the floor and passing, they are able to exert outsized influence over the game as it is happening. Think late-career Jason Kidd, moving around the top of the key and slinging lasers all over the place. It was like he was operating the game from a distant control center. He was basically washed up as an athlete, but if you are great enough at thinking the game, and capable of leveraging your mind by moving the ball around through the pass, you can help a team win games.

Part of it is patience. You need to let the game develop. Jaylen used to go to the basket like a dart; he was a straight-line driver; he was without syncopation; there was no nuance to it. That’s one way of doing it, and if you’re lucky enough to have great teammates, you’ll usually get the ball with half a step on your defender, so your straight-line driving is an asset. To be great, you need to be able to manufacture your own leverage. Jaylen could always get to his spots, but now it seems like he’s in control when he gets there. He knows his options. Defenders are reacting to him—not vice versa.

So, yeah, part of it is patience, but part of it is vision. Passing is the great connector. Anyone who has ever learned a rudimentary press-break knows that dribbling is death. Passing is how you get to the good shit: run outs on fast breaks, wide open 3s, easy buckets. Great passing is the tactic for which there can be no accounting, because nobody can possibly move that fast. Passing takes a small advantage and explodes it into a huge one.

As a Celtics fan, I was optimistic heading into this season, but my biggest concern was that Jaylen (and Jayson Tatum, too) has been slow to develop as a passer. How far can you go as a team if your best players don’t see the floor better than the average replacement-level schmuck? I don’t want to overstate this; Jaylen just had four assists last night. Still, it feels like something fundamental has changed. On a fast-break in the 4th, with the C’s down one, Jaylen whipped a long bounce pass to Gordon Hayward for a lay-up that made a weird, “ohhhhh” sound come out of my mouth.

Jaylen is in control out there. He sees the game happening, and he has some control over how it happens. I’ve been a huge fan of Jaylen’s since before the Celtics drafted him, but for the first time, I think he might be truly special.

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