He was always a question mark for the Celtics coming into the season. Was he developed enough? Had he learned enough last season to be able to contribute in 2012?
His unorthodox offensive game didn't seem to be fine-tuned. His defense was stellar, but that skill alone wasn't enough to offset the mental errors he seemed to constantly commit during his first season in Boston.
By now it is evident what player is being discussed. It's Avery Bradley. The second-year player from Texas has been a welcomed surprise for the Celtics.
Bradley spent much of his prep and (brief) college career relying on his defense and athleticism. It doesn't take much to find out how great of a player he was coming out of high school and college. Just YouTube his name.
When Bradley made it to the NBA it was anything but easy. In a league of basketball players considered to be the "best of the best" at their profession, it's hard to rely solely on athleticism and make a large impact – especially as a rookie. Bradley found this out very quickly.
The 20-year old played in 31 games as a rookie averaging just 5.2 minutes per game, 1.7 points per game and 3.6 turnovers per 36 minutes. He was hampered all season by a slow recovery to ankle surgery he had during the offseason.
After playing 17 games with the Celtics in 2011 he was assigned to the team's D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws. Bradley averaged 17.1 points, 5.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.0 steals over the course of nine games with the Red Claws.
It was during that stretch of play that Bradley seemingly began to see that he had what it took to be an NBA player. When Marquis Daniels was injured against Orlando last season, the team had no other option but to recall Bradley. He spent the rest of the season with the Celtics and tried his hardest to fit in and catch on.
It wasn't easy. His playing time didn't improve too much, and he spent much of the final stretch of the season dealing with the struggles that ail an NBA player brooding with talent but lacking in confidence.
The Celtics lost in the postseason, the lockout began and Bradley's quest to get better started, too. Somewhere along the way he must have realized what he needed to do to contribute. Danny Ainge always believed in him. Now, it was time for Bradley to believe in himself. He knew his skills better than anyone else, and it was the work it appears he put in during the offseason that got him to where he is now.
In 2012, Bradley has been a pleasant surprise. He began the season the same way he began his rookie campaign – with errors and constant bad shots. But where injuries slowed his progress in 2011, they seemed to promote his growth in 2012. Rajon Rondo sat out a stretch of games early in the season, and it was Bradley who was called upon to fill that role. He filled it mighty well.
When Ray Allen went down with an ankle injury after the All-Star break it was obvious whose opportunity it was to step in and contribute. It was Bradley's chance. Allen missed a load of games, and Avery did things for the Celtics that hadn't been seen too often this season.
Doc Rivers began utilizing Bradley in different ways that allowed him to contribute without being relied on as a jumpshooter. Back-door cuts became his best friend, and the two have been inseparable ever since. According to MySynergySpots.com, 18 percent of offensive plays involving Bradley have come off of cuts to the basket. On those plays, Bradley is shooting 37 of 52, or a fantastic 71.2 percent.
That's not the only area where Bradley has been able to contribute on offense. The confidence instilled in him by his teammates, coaches and the fact that he has been trusted with valuable minutes has done wonders for the rest of his offense game. He is shooting a much better 43.1 percent during spot-up opportunities and 66.7 percent in transition. Simply put, Bradley has found ways to make an impact.
It's well documented that offense isn't Bradley's forte. Sure, he is an athletic freak and brings a lot to the table in that department, but that athleticism also provides him with a unique gift on the other side of the ball. That gift is stifling on-ball defense.
Bradley is destroying his match-up's spot-up opportunities. Opponents are shooting a measly 26.8 percent against Bradley on 19 of 71 shooting. Those are fantastic numbers from a guy who was inserted into the lineup to play against players who generally outweigh him, are taller than him and are more well known than him.
Avery's presence in the Celtics starting lineup has helped it attain astounding defensive numbers. According to MySynergySports.com, the Celtics boast the league's best overall defense, post-up defense, spot-up defense, pick and roll defense and hand off defense. Boston's defensive dominance also has the team ranked fifth overall in defense during isolation plays.
During the Celtics 18-7 stretch since the All-Star break they have overtaken the Sixers as the league's best team in terms of defensive efficiency. The Celtics are posting a defensive efficiency of 95.3 while the league average is 101.7. Those are just insane numbers. Add those numbers to the preconceived notion coming into 2012 that the Celtics were just "too old" and you get a performance that not many people thought was possible. And Bradley is one of the primary contributors to those numbers. The 6-foot-2, 180 pound guard has developed into a player whose impact on both offense and defense has become invaluable.
If the Celtics are to continue their impressive run and compete deep into the playoffs, it will be a necessity for Bradley to continue learning, growing and playing as well as he has this season. Growing pains are inevitable, but Bradley has given no reason to believe he won't be able to continue playing well. He's a regular contributor in the NBA, now, and he doesn't seem to have any plans on changing that anytime soon.