The Celtics recent (and unexpected) success following the subtraction of Jared Sullinger and the addition of Isaiah Thomas places them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With last night’s victory over Utah, the Celtics are now sitting just 2.5 games behind the seventh-seeded Miami Heat. An unexpected run at the playoffs has the potential to bring great benefit to the development curve of the young Celtics, but it also places pressure on the coaching staff to maximize their chances at winning games in the short term. Kevin O’Connor weighed in on the subject earlier this week with regards to Celtics rookie James Young. Celtics247.com owner Chris took this a step further yesterday, wondering whether Young’s lack of productivity is cause for concern about Young’s future.
Brad Stevens has made a concerted effort to get Young more playing time over the previous month, averaging 14.3 minutes over the last 9 games after playing in just 16 of the team’s first 50 games. Young’s production has admittedly been subpar as of late, but let’s take a look at some reasons to stay committed to his development.
JAMES YOUNG IS THE FOURTH-YOUNGEST PLAYER IN THE NBA
The only younger players in the league right now are Bruno Caboclo, Aaron Gordon, and Noah Vonleh. Caboclo and Vonleh can barely get on the court for the Raptors and Hornets. Aaron Gordon is getting some playing time for the Magic, but they don’t have to worry about competing for a playoff spot. Being relatively young for your draft class has often required players a little longer to show their true skill level. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Tony Wroten, Tobias Harris, and Jrue Holiday were all young members of recent classes who suffered through relatively unproductive rookie years. Each of them took huge steps forward over their 2nd/3rd/4th years and are viewed as valuable pieces moving forward for their team.
SCOUTS VIEW OF POTENTIAL
Of course, being young on its own is not particularly useful. My 17 year-old nephew is 6’7” and I’d trust him to do many things, but winning basketball games is not one of them. For a young player to be valuable, they have to have potential. What do scouts think of Young’s potential? Coming into Kentucky last year, Young was the 8th rated player in his class. Young peaked at 12th in Draftexpress.com’s mock drafts, describing him as an “exceptionally fluid athlete” with the “ability to score in bunches.” Athletes who can score in bunches are certainly a useful commodity in the NBA – just look at how much more dynamic the Celtics look with Isaiah Thomas in the game.
REACHING THAT POTENTIAL
There’s an essential ingredient missing right now in any evaluation of what Young has done with the Celtics – time. Even current detractor Kevin O’Connor noted this about James following the draft – “When it comes to James Young, it’s all about upside… it’s more important to look to the future when assessing Young.” Physical ability is huge in the NBA, and it’s clear that Young has an NBA body and athleticism. Learning the mental part of the game can be more difficult for players as they’ve finally reached a level of competition where they can’t thrive on physical tools alone. While playing Young now may not help the Celtics reach the playoffs this year, being on an NBA court is important to helping him understand the flow of the NBA game and the way his teammates react to court situations. Being alongside them in the locker room is important to James in terms of understanding their work ethics and thought processes and the work that goes in before the game. Exposing him to these factors is no guarantee that he improves the mental aspects of the game, but it certainly can’t hurt.
WHAT CAN JAMES YOUNG BE FOR THE CELTICS?
Offensively, Young can be a dynamic player. He’s a willing shot creator who will benefit from playing alongside NBA teammates. Young’s efficiency in college was drastically affected by playing on a team where no one else wanted to take difficult shots. But in the NBA, particularly lately, Young has been deferential almost to the point of fault. His 12.5% usage rate over the past 9 games is not the way he played for Kentucky (where he shot more jump shots than anyone in the nation). If Young can find the balance between deferring to his pro teammates and irrational confidence, he can be an efficient perimeter scorer with the size to play either SG or SF. Having a 21-22 year-old Young who has found that balance could be incredibly valuable for a competitive Celtics team two years from now. We saw two contenders make big moves this season for players like Young (Thunder for Dion Waiters and Cavaliers for JR Smith and Iman Shumpert).
A more mature Smith is actually a very good comparison for what Young can be. I’m sure plenty of you are rolling your eyes as you remember the lazy, lousy JR Smith that has shown up on the Knicks for the past few years. But JR is a guy who came into the league very young with good athleticism and an excellent shooting touch. He struggled somewhat his first two years and was exiled from New Orleans to Denver. From 2006-2009 (ages 21-23), Smith thrived as an ultra-efficient scoring wing off the bench for George Karl’s Nuggets. Smith was taking ~22FGA/100 possessions with a TS% around .600 for that 3 year period and the Nuggets made the playoffs each year. Smith lost some focus after that, but the Celtics are in a position to give Young a better chance to succeed long-term.
Danny Ainge has made a career out of turning mid-round draft picks into borderline All-Stars through his Celtics tenure. I’m not sure Young will be one of those players, but I think it’s important we give him the best chance possible. His combination of youth, athletic ability, and scoring touch is extremely rare. He hasn’t used that touch well enough yet as a pro, but history shows investing time into players like Young can pay great dividends. I’d like for the Celtics to be the team that reaps those payments, but patience and continued focus on long-term rewards is going to be a necessary part of that process.