There were many questions surrounding the Celtics after a series of moves in the summer that saw them go from a savvy veteran team that were a few pieces away from the top tier, to a full rebuild. The roster looked unbalanced, with a glut of SG’s and PF’s, but with no true (healthy) PG and center. There were also questions around our new coach, who is the youngest coach in the league at 36 and has no NBA experience.
Now that preseason is wrapping up, some of those questions can finally be answered. Different thoughts came to mind whilst watching the games unfold – I have grouped different players in those thoughts:
“Damn! He’s got game!”
There were three players that I thought have been playing at a cut above the rest: Jared Sullinger, Gerald Wallace and Jordan Crawford.
Their top play has been somewhat surprising as all of them had their questions marks coming into the season – Jared Sullinger being out of shape and having a rocky off-season with legal issues, Gerald Wallace trying to bounce back after a poor season in Brooklyn and Jordan Crawford who the Celtics were reportedly trying to move to whoever would take him.
Jared Sullinger: After having back surgery and missing more than six months of basketball, there was talk that Jared may not even be ready to go by the start of the season. Not only is he playing, he has probably been the best player on the Celtics’ roster for the preseason, averaging a team high in both points (11+) and rebounds (5+) in just about 20 minutes of play per game.
For what he lacks in height and athleticism, he makes up for with instincts and basketball smarts. The Celtics are simply a better team when Sully is on the floor. He has a soft touch around the hoop against larger opponents, and is now dragging his opposing big out of the key with his improving mid-range jump shot, which opens the lane up for our guards/forwards to penetrate. Defensively, Sully has become very good at being in the correct position to take a charge just like Big Baby, which is crucial as he is not tall/athletic enough protect the rim.
He needs to work on his three-point shooting as he has been taking long distance shots and connecting on a below-average 22%. Sully has also admitted that he is still out of shape as well, meaning that there is definitely room for improvement. Being still very young, Sully can also be prone to foul trouble as the referees still give him some ‘rookie calls’. If he can address his weight and 3 point shooting as the season unfolds, we could have a star player in the making – he already has the brains, now he just needs his body and skills catch up.
Gerald Wallace: Wallace was an afterthought of the blockbuster trader over the summer. The general consensus was that he has a large, immovable contract and that we would not really contribute too much. Somebody forgot to tell him that – from the first game of preseason, he lived up to his nickname ‘Crash’, throwing his body over the floor, and into the stands. He will easily be a fan favourite of a fan base that values effort and hustle.
He started preseason off red hot from the field but has since cooled off, averaging just under 10ppg. Gerald is at his best when he is attacking the hoop – there was no surprise that one of the most effective lineups for the Celtics featured Wallace with Sully and Olynyk, where the two bigs spread the floor for Wallace to get to the rim.
We know what Wallace will give this team when healthy – everything he’s got. If there is anything he needs to work on, it might be his shot selection. He is not known as a 3-point shooter, so, teams will leave him open, he needs to attack the hoop rather than settle for that 3.
Jordan Crawford: Crawford was the forgotten man on the Celtics’ roster after the trade was completed. Fans just assumed that Crawford would be traded to make way for MarShon Brooks, as rumors swirled around about the how the Celtics were willing to part with Crawford for nothing. His performance in these preseason games may just be the most surprising – known as only a scorer, Brad Stevens had the insight to put Crawford at the point guard position. There has been talk of his ability to create offense for others, but, no one thought he would be able to handle the point guard duties due to his
crazy unpredictable style of play.
He has come into this new era as a different player – he’s willing to pass the ball, he makes the correct decisions on the court, and his shot has even improved. He is shooting a little under 50% from 3 point land, an impressive feat considering many of his shots bailed out the team with buzzer beating bombs. His assist numbers are around the 3apg mark, but, this only tells a part of the story as he is moving the ball quickly, and was involved in many hockey assists (passes that lead to an assist).
‘Steez’ needs to work on maintaining this level of play. His shots may not always fall, but if he is taking the correct shots while creating for his team mates, he could very well see himself as the starting point guard come the regular season.
“He’s been better than expected”
The two players that stirred these thoughts for me were Phil Pressey and Vitor Faverani, simply because no one really expected them to do too much.
Prior to training camp, we heard little of these guys – both were signed with the team for depth at two extremely shallow positions: point guard and center. They now both have a legitimate shot at making the regular season rotation.
Phil Pressey: Being in the mix for backup point guard duties after a strong training camp, he mysteriously did not see any minutes in the first pre-season game. He did however, get his chance in the second game after Jordan Crawford missed the game with a personal matter. He made his presence known with a near flawless game – 13 points, 3 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 0 turnovers. He also led the team on a near-impossible come back, erasing a 23 point deficit in the 4th Quarter that fell just short for the W.
He has proven himself to be an extremely effective ball handler for the Celtics, giving the game what it needs and not forcing anything. Averaging only 1.3 turnovers per game has showed that he has learned a great deal from the Summer League, where his biggest knock was that he was turning the ball over too much. If he can keep this up, he will surely be in the rotation come regular season.
Vitor Faverani: When Danny signed a relatively unknown 25 year old Brazilian center who had been playing in Europe (fresh off releasing another Brazilian 7-footer that didn’t work out), expectations were not really high. After some research on Vitor, fans found out the following: his nickname is “El Hombre Indestructible” and that the scouting reports indicated that he is a skilled offensive player with question marks on the defensive side of the court. Prior to playing, he spoke a good game, but many were unsure how his skills would translate. The more he plays, the more questions are answered: he has shown range in his jump shot (hitting a shot clock-beating 3 pointer), he has great hands (catching difficult passes on the break, or on the roll), gets up and down the floor, and loves finishing with power.
His defense though, has been a pleasant surprise as he has been able to neutralise opposing bigs, play nice transition D and even at times, been the most vocal on the floor – no easy feat for someone who is still learning how to speak English.
Look for Vitor to play a more pivotal role on the team as the season progresses and he settles in even more – but, as it stands, this looks to be a great signing by Danny.
“He has been solid.”
These guys have been solid contributors for the Celtics, and have not really over or under-performed. There are a couple of “Celtic veterans” that have played how we have expected them to (both with improvements) in Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley. Kris Humphries, after an off-season of Celtics fans trying to come to terms with seeing him in green, has been a solid contributor, along with rookie Kelly Olynyk – who has learned that the Summer League doesn’t count for much against the ‘real’ NBA talent.
Brandon Bass: The Celtics know what they are getting out of Bass. He is money in the mid-range, and athletic when attacking the rim. His defense has drastically improved since he was traded to Boston, and he looks to continue that trend with the new-look Celtics this season. Coming out of training camp, members of the team spoke about how Bass has been more vocal on defense, trying to lead the youngsters by example.
He has not had a spectacular preseason offensively – shooting at a low 43.5% from the field, but he has picked up the rebounding work, grabbing 6.3 boards per contest.
Bass has drifted in and out of the lineup so far as coach Stevens tries to find the right combinations to use. Whether or not he comes off the bench at the start of the regular season remains to be seen – but starter or not, Bass will be featured heavily in the regular rotation throughout the season. Bass could be a potential trade piece at mid-season for a contender that is looking for a stretch 4 that can guard small/power forwards.
Avery Bradley: When Rondo went down with a knee injury last year, it was left to Avery Bradley to pick up the pieces at point guard. At times in the 2012/13 season, he looked like he was struggling, and he ultimately lost confidence in himself – this affected him both on the offense and the defensive end with the likes of Raymond Felton torching him in the playoffs. When coach Stevens took over the team, he stuck by this sentiment by keeping Bradley as the interim point guard. Bradley worked on his shot and his dribbling in the off-season to better prepare himself for this role, but, once again, seemed to struggle mightily at times.
Bradley is at his best when he plays off the ball – catch and shoot, back door cuts and slashing – it serves him better in defense as well as he has the energy to harass the opposing guards over the whole court. Coach Stevens must be seeing this as well, as he has started to give the point guard duties to Jordan Crawford and Phil Pressey. In preseason game number 4 vs the Knicks, the first game Avery was taken off these duties, he responded with 13 points from 11 shots in only 24 minutes.
Avery’s defense is always going to be the strongest part of his game, but, he has shown a much-improved jump shot, from both 3 point land and the long 2.
Kelly Olynyk: After a Summer League MVP performance showing his offensive polish (post up, face up, catch & shoot and on the fast break), it was easy to get carried away with Kelly Olynyk’s ability. As expected, he has slightly come back down to Earth during the preseason as he is now facing NBA talent on a nightly basis.
His shooting percentage has dropped down to 43.8%, but, the quality he’s shown that has everyone talking is his ability to pass the basketball. Being a point guard in his high school years before growing into a 7-footer has been a blessing for Kelly as he is able to do things a 7-footer typically cannot do – put the ball to the floor, initiate/finish fast breaks and create offense for himself and/or others.
His defense was his main concern coming across from college, but so far in the preseason he has been impressive with his lateral movement and his positioning. Kelly’s biggest concern is his rebounding numbers that he has put up so far, averaging only 2.8 rebounds a game which, for a 7-footer, is simply not good good enough.
He has cemented a spot in the rotation on his offensive prowess and defensive improvements alone, but he needs to help the team out in the rebounding department if he is to see a starting role/major minutes within the regular rotation.
Kris Humphries: After the fans’ initial disappointment of Hump being in green, stories started filtering in about his off-season workouts and how he has dedicated himself to getting better after a disappointing 2012/13 campaign with the Nets.
Being only 2 years removed from back to back double-double seasons, the Celtics are hoping he can recapture that form. He has come out in the preseason with an improved jump shot with extended range all the way out to three point land. He has been played very sparingly so far with only a touch under 16 minutes per game, so his numbers are not eye-popping, but, Celtics know what they have in Hump – a big with extended range that hustles for rebounds and can run the floor well.
His interior defense has been average at best as he has been forced to play out of position at the center position, leaving him undersized against some of the centres in the league. He will, however, be part of the main rotation, possibly as a starter – with a large expiring contract however, look for Danny to possibly shop him, especially when it is closer to the trade deadline. He has the makings of becoming a fan favourite in Boston, especially if he can get close to those rebounding numbers from 2 seasons ago.
“He’s been very disappointing..”
There were two Celtics that were expected to step it up this year after the veterans were traded – they have not been close to the expectations set upon them. Jeff Green and Courtney Lee both have the athleticism to be great 2-way players, they have shown flashes of being great players for the Celtics, but, they both have failed to set the world on fire during this preseason.
Jeff Green: I think he has been the most disappointing player on the Celtics’ roster throughout the preseason. He finished off last season averaging 20ppg in the playoffs, he was aggressively attacking the hoop, hitting threes, and even guarding Melo. After Paul Pierce was traded from the team, the general thought was that Pierce was going to pass the scoring baton to Green, and Green would just take off and run with it – this has not quite happened.
Green was at his best when he was attacking the hoop, his explosiveness combined with his size allowed him to get to the hoop at will, finishing with either a thunderous dunk, or an athletic layup. Throughout the preseason we have not seen this part of Green. He has been settling for the corner 3 and long 2 point shots, and has basically gone away from what he was most effective at. I know it’s *only* preseason, but, for the man that was to be the Celtics’ leading scorer, it is worrisome that he cannot get himself going. His level of interest did not look to be high over the first couple of games, but, it seems he is starting to get frustrated over the lack of numbers he has produced. A part of the problem may possibly be that the plays designed for Jeff may not be putting him in the best possible position to score.
Hopefully he can turn the corner, if not, he may find himself losing minutes to Gerald Wallace.
Courtney Lee: Courtney Lee has continued his disappointing campaign in Celtic green. The Celtics signed him for his athleticism, his ability to hit the 3, and his good defense. After a full season, we are still waiting for that 3 point shot – after an off-season of telling the media that he is working hard to be the player he once was, the early signs are not good. He is in the low 30% in both 2 and 3 point field goal percentage good for under 7ppg in 25mpg.
His confidence seems to be his greatest undoing, after missing a couple of jumpers, his hesitation in shooting almost means the shot will miss before it even leaves his hands.
Lee’s defense has been still at the standard the we have expected from him, but, I can see Lee fighting for court time with Brooks for that 4th guard spot, depending on what the team needs, offense or defense.
“Didn’t see enough of them”
There has been limited time for Keith Bogans and MarShon Brooks. Bogans sprained his thumb and will be out indefinitely, while he was on the court, he more or less gave what was expected – veteran presence, and a bit of defense.
Brooks on the other hand was quite a surprise, he has only been logging 10 minutes per game, with the majority of this coming in garbage time opportunities. There is no doubt he can score the basketball, he has been disappointing however, in moving the basketball – it seems that he has been more or less a black hole in offense, not moving the ball unless he was in absolute trouble and needed to kick it out. Let’s see if he can learn from his mistakes and crack Coach Stevens’ top 8-10 players for the regular season.
Out of the camp invites, Chris Babb, who is a certified 3 and D player, has shown the most promise. If he is to make the 15th spot on the roster, he will need to show more in the remaining games. The other invites have barely played.
If the preseason is any indication on how this year’s Celtics are going to play, we may be in for a bumpy ride. They are exciting at times, and possess the athleticism to play an uptempo game, but with so many new faces, there will be a steep learning curve once the games that matter get underway. One thing is for certain however – these kids will play their butts off. Unfortunately, it just may not be enough to produce wins.