Ask Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga what makes Phil Pressey successful, and the answer is clear, as he told to ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:
"He is one of the most confident people I've ever been around. That's one of the things you love about him...He's never afraid of a situation. I thought he played with tremendous confidence as a rookie in real NBA games...he is a confident sucker. That's why he has been able to have such great success in his career."
To make it in the NBA at all, confidence is extremely important. But to make it as a 5'11" undrafted free agent, it's paramount. Phil Pressey has it in spades. That supreme confidence is what helped him appear in 75 games for the Celtics this past year as a rookie, and start in 11 of them. It's what helps gives him the courage to make any and every pass and know it will get there. Above all else, that self-confidence will make it so the Celtics have no choice but to find minutes for him this coming season.
What makes Pressey an NBA player is his ability to pass the ball. He is a born leader and has great court vision, consistently giving the other four guys on the court the ball in the best position for them to score. Brad Stevens preaches a fast-paced style, and Pressey has no problem pushing the tempo, putting the defense on their heels. There were concerns that he too often tried to make the spectacular play and was too daring with the ball at Missouri, but Pressey quieted those with an impressive 2.77 assist to turnover ratio this past year, which placed him 17th in the entire league among qualified players in that category.
At first glance, Pressey's stats weren't all that impressive this past season, at 2.8 points, 3.2 assists, and 0.9 steals per game. However, he totaled less than 20 minutes in 58 of the 75 games he played, so those raw numbers don't tell the whole story. Per 36 minutes, Pressey's numbers were quite solid, at 6.8 points, 7.7 assists and 2.2 steals.
Of the 11 games Pressey started last season, the Celtics actually won six (impressive for a team that finished 32 games under .500). In those games, he averaged 8.1 points, 7.2 assists and 1.5 steals a game, which showed that his per 36 minute numbers did translate when he played more.
Pressey did have a solid year, considering he was an undrafted rookie, but he was still nowhere near where he needs to be as a player to get regular minutes on a good team. One of Pressey's best attributes is that he is humble enough to know that, and has the drive to make that improvement come to fruition.
Pressey is lauded in the Celtics organization for his work ethic, and coach Stevens certainly took notice, as he told Masslive.com's Jay King: "Phil puts in a lot of hours. Phil's probably in the practice facility as much as anybody else on our team. So I expect it to go in...He deserves to make shots for how hard he works."
Judging from his interview at Media Day, it seems like Pressey lived in the gym this summer as well. "The main focus of this summer was my shooting. Countless hours I put in so I know it's gonna pay off once the season starts...I feel like I made a big improvement"
Let's hope that is true, because Pressey was one of the worst shooters in the league as a rookie, shooting a hair above 30% from the field and 26.4% from three. However, the shooting numbers aren't all bad. In the 11 games Pressey started, his field goal percentage was still low at 39%, but his 3-point percentage rose to an impressive 40% (albeit inflated by a 5-6 outing on January 22nd).
It is encouraging that Pressey shot better percentages when he played more minutes, because that isn't always the case. However, on a good team, Pressey's ceiling will more likely than not be a backup guard who will top out at 15 or 20 minutes on most nights. That means you have to make the most of every minute on the court, which Pressey also discussed on Media Day:
"It's a different game coming from college because you get to shoot whenever you want in college so you can go on times when you miss 3 or 4 and you can continue to shoot. In the NBA, your shots are limited. You have to be more efficient, so those two or three shots you get, you have to make them count"
Despite having a jumper that didn't deserve much respect from opposing defenders, Pressey was still able to penetrate the lane on a consistent basis and rack up assists. Pressey is playing with maybe the best role model in the league in for him in that department, but Rondo will be the first to tell him a jump shot to go with his quickness and court vision certainly wouldn't hurt.
It says a lot for what the Celtics think of Pressey that they picked up his option for this upcoming season even when they were cramped for roster space. Plus, finding minutes will be a little easier to start the season with Rondo out and the team announcing that Avery Bradley will play exclusively at shooting guard this season. That being said, things still won't be easy for Phil considering the logjam at the guard position on the current Celtics roster.
The Celtics have discussed trying Evan Turner at the point, an area where he has had some success in his career, especially working in the pick and roll. In addition, the Celtics used their first high draft pick in years on a point guard, one who has gotten rave reviews so far in camp and after playing with the Team USA select team this summer. If both those guys play well, they could take up almost all the minutes at the point while Rondo nurses his left hand back to health.
That certainly could happen, but I don't see it. I am of the firm belief the Celtics are rolling with the Jordan Crawford model with Evan Turner - meaning they are trying to put him in the best position they can to succeed so they can flip him for an asset. He might be a great fit in Stevens' system, but for me he doesn't seem to be a long-term option for the Celtics.
Marcus Smart is going to be a beast, and he will play big minutes this year based on his defensive acumen alone, not to mention his ability to get to the rim and the foul line. Smart is a combo guard, who will not be restricted to just playing at the point this season. The Celtics played Smart and Pressey together a good amount in summer league, and with Rondo out, I foresee them trying the same combination at the beginning of this year.
Pressey has worked all offseason on his shooting, and that work is already showing signs of paying off. In the Celtics green-white scrimmage last week, Pressey knocked down three out of four threes. Through two preseason games, he is 2-4 from distance and has been instrumental in breaking both games open in the second half with his ability to push the pace. The experience of playing 75 games as a rookie will be a big benefit for Pressey, and as we have already seen this preseason, the game will slow down for him in his sophomore campaign.
Even if everything breaks wrong for Pressey - Rondo stays the whole season and plays great, Turner fits perfectly in the motion system and plays the role of secondary ball hander to a tee, and Smart forces his way to big minutes - he's still a valuable asset to the Celtics. He is a "confident sucker," works hard, and takes up very little of the salary cap. Even if those backup minutes aren't there this year, they very possibly could be in the future, and the Celtics still hold Pressey's rights for the next two years.
Regardless of how it shakes down, I see Pressey getting regular minutes this season. Whether Rondo or Turner gets dealt, Smart proves to be a great option at the two, or injuries crop up, Pressey will be there to soak up those minutes. Pressey could also shine out of the gate and force Stevens to find minutes for him even after Rondo returns.
Pressey is in the unenviable position of having his contract non-guaranteed for each progressive season, but so is life as an undrafted free agent. The last two years, Pressey has said and done all the right things to earn his roster spot, and I believe he will continue to do so for the next two as well. As he said on Media Day,
"I can't get too comfortable, I have to continue to prove myself."
Confidence, a tireless work ethic, and humility on top. The Celtics could do a lot worse.