It's the Boston Celtics' favorite play to run in the half court: Avery Bradley sprints from the baseline, rips through a down screen, and receives a dribble handoff. As he turns the corner, he dribbles twice to his sweet spot, and elevates for a jumper. Everyone in the stadium knows that Bradley is going shoot, except for when he doesn't.
Bradley is a shoot-first player in Brad Stevens' system, as demonstrated by his 13.2 field goal attempts to 1.6 assists per game. But that doesn't mean he isn't a competent passer, which seems to be a commonly held belief among the Celtics faithful.
With all of the improvements the Celtics have undergone this season, Bradley's progression as an efficient passer and playmaker has gone somewhat unnoticed. This is probably due to his history of lazy turnovers and his reputation for being a non-playmaker, but the reality is that he has taken his passing to the next level.
"I think Avery has had his moments passing the ball. He's not trying to hit homeruns as much," Stevens said before a recent game. "Earlier in the year he was trying to make passes that were extremely high risk and I just don't see that as much. He's very sound with the ball, for the most part."
Last season was Bradley's first true season as a go-to threat and he struggled with a 0.89 assist-turnover ratio. But this season that ratio has jumped to 1.19. It's certainly not a world-beating number, but it's a significant improvement for a 24-year-old without much experiencing handling a heavy load of the offense.
Bradley is also averaging a career-best 8.2 turnover ratio, which is the number of turnovers a player has per 100 possessions. This ranks him 42nd of 228 qualifying players, or the 82nd percentile.
"Avery's greatest strength on offense, other than his ability to stop on a dime, is how quickly he can explode on a cut," Stevens said when asked how Bradley has developed. "Sometimes that speed makes it hard to deliver a pass on the money. And he's done a much better job at learning his strengths and applying some more efficient passing to his game."
Stevens is proving to be one of the best coaches in the league at putting all of his players into situations that maximize on their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. When Bradley has the ball in his hands, that involves dribble handoffs, off screens, and pick-and-roll.
This video compilation of plays details some of Bradley's passing out of his "pet plays," including the dribble handoff, a down screen action, and the high pick-and-roll. All three play types are intended to get Bradley into space, which typically leads to mid-range shot attempts, but it can also open up passing lanes.
The film shows that Bradley has improved the accuracy of his passing this season. His pocket passes (a bounce pass to the rolling screener) generally land right in the receiving player's stomach, which allows them to go right up into their shot. And on passes that don't touch the floor, Bradley uses the necessary velocity or touch.
Synergy Sports Technology doesn't measure the assists a player derives out of "handoff" or "off screen" play types, which is where a bulk of Bradley's dimes come from, but it does look at pick-and-roll.
When Bradley passes as the pick-and-roll ball handler, his teammates receiving the ball score 1.031 points per possession, per Synergy, which ranks in the 67th percentile of qualifying NBA players. This is an enormous improvement over last season, when they scored only 0.804 points per possession, ranking him in the mere 4th percentile.
But how has Avery Bradley progressed so quickly? Hard work? Film study? No, Bradley says he's just simplifying things.
"I'm just not thinking. I'm going out there and playing. Everything is instinct for me," Bradley said when asked about his passing evolution. "That's really helping me out a lot, especially being able to make plays for my teammates. I'm just going out there and reacting to how the defense is guarding me."
Avery Bradley will need to score a lot of buckets over the final stretch of the season for the Boston Celtics to make the playoffs, but he'll need also need to pass the ball as well as he has all season. Thankfully, he has developed into a player that can be relied on in that situation, which bodes well for both his future and the team's postseason dreams.