NBA

Celtics’ Malcolm Brogdon drives toward Sixth Man of the Year — and perhaps a title — in ‘perfect situation’

Malcolm Brogdon made history in 2017 when he became the first second-round pick to win Rookie of the Year, doing so largely as a bench player with the Milwaukee Bucks. Now, in his first season with the Boston Celtics, after an injury-riddled, three-year stint running the show for the Indiana Pacers, he’s returned to a reserve role, and it’s an arrangement that’s working beautifully. 

Brogdon, who is playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career, could earn a couple of pieces of hardware this spring. He is one of the frontrunners for Sixth Man of the Year, and the Celtics, who boast the best record in the league, are the odds-on favorite to win the title. 

“This is a perfect situation for the Celtics and for him,” said Pacers coach Rick Carlisle. “He’s an elite player off the bench in this league. Really, it’s like having a sixth starting player. They’re very fortunate.”

Such a partnership only works because Brogdon has embraced his new station. After starting every game he played for four straight seasons, he hasn’t started a single one in Boston. He’s playing the fewest minutes (23.7) of his career, his shot attempts (10.0 per game) are at their lowest since his rookie season and his scoring average (14.1 points per game) is the lowest it has been since 2017-18. 

But for Brogdon, less is more. He’s fourth in the league in 3-point percentage, with shooting splits (.485/.454/.890) that have him within striking distance of a second 50-40-90 season. (Larry Bird and Steve Nash are the only players with more than one.) Most importantly, with a lower workload, he’s managed to stay healthy. After never playing more than 56 games with the Pacers, he’s on pace to reach the 70-game mark for the first time since his rookie year. 

“I want to be a good teammate,” Brogdon said. “I’m a guy that’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good of the team, so I always want that to be what I’m known for.”

Brogdon was a complementary player in Milwaukee and a primary offensive creator in Indiana. In Boston, he has been able to reprise either role depending on the game or situation. He can initiate the offense to ease the burden on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown or space the floor as a spot-up shooter and secondary playmaker. 

Regardless of how prominent he is offensively in a given game, Brogdon ensures that the Celtics’ standards don’t slip when they go to the bench. For a team that appeared to be one piece away from winning the NBA Finals last June, his presence is a game-changer. 

“I think [I’ve been] a steady presence and spark off the bench,” Brogdon said. “I think that’s what this team was in need of last year was more depth, and I think I’ve brought that.”

On a team full of jump shooters, Brogdon’s ability and desire to attack the basket stands out. His herky-jerky drives aren’t featured on House of Highlights too often, but he has a way of getting where he wants to go. 

“Once he gets his hips even with you, you’re dead,” said teammate Blake Griffin. “Unless you’re a 300-pound center, then he’ll probably move around you.” 

Only the Warriors score a higher percentage of their points from the 3-point line than Boston’s 39.3 percent. The Celtics are in the bottom third of the league in free throw rate (.255) and, according to Cleaning The Glass, they are 24th in at-rim shot frequency (30.2 percent). When their shots are falling, like they were early in the season, Boston looks unbeatable, but when they’re not, the offense can get grimy. 

During a press conference in December, Celtics president Brad Stevens stressed that the Celtics need to create more easy baskets. If they could manufacture one more layup per half, he said, they would make life much less tough on themselves. Brogdon “adds another dimension to us” because he consistently gets downhill.

“We haven’t been the best offensive rebounding team in the world, we haven’t been great at turning people over yet this year so we’re not getting run-outs,” Stevens said. “We’ve gotta get some shots at the rim and some drives to get to the free throw line, and he’s one of our better guys at doing that.”

Despite his limited playing time, among the Celtics, Brogdon is second in drives per game (10.9), third in free throw attempts per game (2.8) and third in total points in the paint (186). The only players ahead of him in any of these categories are Tatum and Brown. 

“Coming here I think we have guys that are tough-shot makers in JB and JT,” Brogdon said. “So to have a guy who can get to the paint is a huge piece for them, and I try to fill that void.”

Brogdon has more space than ever before, and if the defense collapses to stop his drive, a shooter has an open look. No player on the Celtics has made as many passes out of driving situations this season as Brogdon, and his teammates are shooting 36.8 percent from 3 when he gives them the ball. Such an environment is “the best thing to play with when you’re a guy that drives the ball hard,” Brogdon said.

On Saturday, Brogdon scored a season-high 30 points on 11-for-17 shooting in 31 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets. The Celtics cruised to a 16-point win and improved to 7-1 when Brogdon scores at least 20 points.”I always tell him his aggressiveness is what we really need,” Griffin said.

Brogdon has been the best kind of offseason acquisition, a purely additive one. He’s not a defensive liability, he takes care of the ball, he keeps the team organized and he’s a beloved teammate. 

“We can always count on him as one of our leaders,” Tatum said. “One of the guys we trust with the ball in his hands to make the right play for everybody.”

Brogdon described himself as “laid back” and an “observer” who does his best to stay even-keeled during “times of distress.” His calmness under pressure “was so helpful for me because I’m a roller coaster of emotions,” said Pacers guard T.J. McConnell. “So to see your captain like that it was easy to come back down to earth.”

“I call him Prez because he’s a guy you can look to that’s gonna lead you in the right direction,” said Celtics forward Grant Williams. “He does a great job balancing his communication — when it needs to be more aggressive versus more passive, when he needs to hold people accountable versus when he needs to pick people up.”

His role may have changed with the Celtics, but Brogdon’s approach never does. He is the kind of player teammates trust, whether the ball is in his hands or not.  

“You put that on one of the best teams in the NBA, it’s a match made in heaven,” Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “I’m really excited for him because it looks like he’s having fun.”


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