Think back to last season. Avery Bradley, the Celtics first-round draft choice out of Texas, struggled immensely. His playing time was never steady, and his season wise widely marked by injury problems. He spent a good portion of the season either inactive, on the bench or in the D-League. His potential to contribute to the Celtics in the immediate future was widely unknown.
And then the lockout happened. And then the lockout ended. Bradley came into training camp as a bit of a wild card. Danny Ainge trusted him and believed that he was still an amazing talent with a lot of room for growth. If you asked most Boston fans you probably would have gotten a chuckle out of that statement. His jumper was off, his handles were just as bad and the main redeeming quality was his defensive effort and energy, and even that was something that needed some work.
The shortened 66-game season began, and Bradley immediately saw a bit of action in the Boston rotation. He took shots that made many feel sorry for the backboard. He made some passes that baffled even the most clueless basketball fan.
However, when the door opened for more playing time for Bradley towards the middle of the season, it seemed like something clicked. Maybe he spent a lot of extra time in the gym (I don't doubt it one bit). Perhaps he was never in a consistent rhythm and simply never had a chance to get himself going. Or maybe it was a lack of confidence, which has been suggested by many people.
Whatever the case may be, Bradley's season got a jolt of energy when he received the opportunity to start, and he has rarely disappointed. He has started 28 games for the Celtics this season, and played in 67. During those games, Bradley has 16 games that he has scored 10-19 points and four with 20-29 points. Doc and the rest of the coaching staff have figured out ways to utilize his talents. He's taking advantage of the competition in transition, off of backdoor cuts and occasionally as a spot-up shooter when the defense goes under screens.
Oftentimes Bradley will run the floor with Rajon Rondo and mimic Ray Allen (almost exactly) as he spots up in the corner for three. In fact, Bradley hit his first three-point basket since the seventh game of the season during the Celtics' 45th game of the year (an embarrassing loss to Philadelphia). After that game, Bradley shot 21-of-41(51.2%) for the rest of the season from beyond the arc.
His favorite spot is the right corner. According to Vorped.com, Bradley is shooting 64.2% from the corner since April 8.
As amazing as his offense has been it is Bradley's defensive prowess that has made him an absolute force. Rajon Rondo recently called him "the best defender, on-ball defender in the league." It's hard to dispute that claim.
His overall rankings according to MySynergySports.com might be a little skewed because of the fact that he didn't see major playing time for a good portion of the first part of the season. That doesn't mean his numbers aren't phenomenal. Bradley currently ranks 40th in overall defense when he is the primary matchup. He is allowing .74 points per play, and opponents are only shooting 141-of-417 (33.8%) against him.
One of the primary areas where Bradley thrives on defense is in the pick-and-roll. 40.8 percent of the plays involving Bradley on defense come when he is paired against the pick-and-roll ball handler. In those plays, he is only allowing .65 points per play and ranks in 31st in the league in this area. His opponents are 50-of-160 (31.3%) during these plays. Even more eye-popping is the fact that Bradley has been able to force a turnover -- either by himself or with the help of other defenders -- on 15.9% of pick-and-roll plays when he is the primary defender of the ball handler.
Bradley has also excelled a defender in spot-up situations. He ranks 51st in the league according to MySynergySports in spot-up plays where he is the primary defender to begin the play. His matchups are shooting a measly 29.8 percent on 31-of-104 shooting.
Perhaps the most impressive portion of Bradley's emergence defensively has been his ability to get himself into great position to make the proper plays. There have been a few occasions when he has been beaten off of a screen, but he has shown a phenomenal job of being able to recover well enough to alter the shot or even block it. In fact, he's amassed 16 blocks this season, and every single one of them have raised eyebrows.
In this particular play, Bradley is matched up against Russell Westbrook. Rajon Rondo was out for this game, and Bradley had the rough duties of dealing with an immeasurably athletic and talented point guard. Westbrook gives the ball to Kendrick Perkins at the top of the three point arc, and begins to move across the top of the key to the other side of the floor. In the middle of his move Westbrook stops on a dime and cuts to the basket. Bradley, who trailed Westbrook the entire way, is left with the responsibility of recovering to prevent Westbrook from an easy lay-up. Bradley does a fantastic job of elevating with Westbrook to meet him at the highest point and block the ball before it touches the glass, and prevent either a lay-up or a goaltending call.
Later in the game, Westbrook controls the ball and is again defended by Bradley. Bradley gives Westbrook a ton of space, which is normally not a good thing considering Westbrook is a good shooter and has the type of speed that will allow him to get to the rim at will. Perkins comes back to the top to set a pick on Bradley. Westbrook uses his athleticism to take one quick step to his left to get Bradley off-balance and bumping into Perkins, and then he quickly drives by Bradley and elevates into a shot. Bradley does another amazing job of recovering after getting beat, and he uses his athleticism to come from the side as he recovers and get a hand on the shot.
The final play is the most recent one, and the one that generated the most buzz.
Joe Johnson receives the ball towards the end of the quarter probably 90 percent of the time during Hawks games. When the ball is inbounded there are 14.5 seconds on the game clock. Bradley immediately attaches himself to Johnson and tries to deny him the ball. Teague looks at Johnson with 11.8 on the game clock and wants to get him the ball. The problem is Bradley is still attached to Johnson. Joe turns Bradley back around so that he can receive the ball safely, and Bradley continues to fight for position. He denies Johnson the ball for a second time. Teague doesn't get the ball in the hands of Johnson until only 7.5 seconds remain on the clock. Bradley stays completely lodged against Johnson's chest, but he defends magnificently without fouling. Johnson, who stated earlier in the series that he enjoys when Bradley defends him because he can immediately post him up, tries to post Bradley up. He backs his way down to the free-throw line, turns around and elevates. Bradley swats it. Avery began the possession attached to Johnson and refused to allow him to make any move towards the basket. When Johnson was left with only a turnaround jump shot as his option, Bradley shut the door.
That play sent the internet into a momentary frenzy. It was like an entire season of hard work wrapped into one possession.
This was awesome. RT @Pflanns: Great defense by Avery Bradley on Joe Johnson. Fought him for position and then got the block.— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) May 5, 2012
I really struggle to think of the last second-year perimeter player as good defensively as Avery Bradley.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 5, 2012
Me too, Kevin. Me too.
People are beginning to take notice of what Boston fans have seen this entire season. Avery Bradley is emerging into a viable option on offense, and invaluable asset on defense. As the playoffs continue, the hype around Bradley will probably keep gathering steam. He's not Boston's secret anymore. The rest of the league knows the havoc he can cause, and there isn't a thing they can do about it.