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Avery Bradley showing there’s no limit to improvement

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2015-16 could have been a plateau in the growth of Avery Bradley, with career numbers across the board and a nod on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team. Instead he’s rocketed past that production through eight games with a player efficiency rating on par with Karl-Anthony Towns and a whopping eight rebounds per game.

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Avery Bradley has never had to be the most overwhelming presence in the huddle, yet he’s handled his improvement as if the team depends on it. Through two commanding head coaches, legendary teammates departing, and a transition that involved bringing many new players aboard, he quickly became the most tenured Celtic. Through it all, though, he’s never been the most important.

Until now.

From the moment Bradley arrived as a challenger and ultimately a force behind Ray Allen’s ouster in 2011-12, he exhibited a steady stream of development expected from a 20-year-old first-round pick. In a matter of three years between trips to Maine, an injury that ended his sensational 2012 playoff run, and varying levels of playing time, Bradley progressed from a disruptive defensive specialist to a rounded two guard capable of starting.

In the context of the Stevens era, he has never been the center of attention. There has been Thomas’s flashy rise to an All-Star, Jae Crowder’s emergence, Jared Sullinger’s constant weight battles, Evan Turner’s quirky comments, Marcus Smart’s appearance on every rung of the thermometer, and, most recently, the most significant free-agent signing in Celtics history.

Something always came up to overshadow Bradley as a headline. He was seen as the constant, a steady hand in between the most important pieces and the bench. Yet in the most important moments over the last two years, Bradley has been thrust into the spotlight.

When the Warriors came to the Garden for the most anticipated Celtics game of 2015, it was Bradley who poured three straight shots down the throat of a 24-0 team and stood up to their best player defensively in narrow 2OT defeat. Bradley drilled the game-winning three in the corner to defeat the top-seeded Cavaliers later that season. The sight of him in agony on the ground during game one this spring, with the Celtics up on the Hawks, was terrifying because at that point his enormous value on both ends of the court had become apparent. They couldn’t win the series without him.

Bradley’s 2015-16 campaign seemed insurmountable because he soared in every area central to his game. He continued to hit shots inside the arc with excellent efficiency (50%), his three-point percentage went up with volume (36% on 412 shots), and he was routinely given difficult defensive assignments to great avail.

Nothing was made of his limited rebounding impact on one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA. The Celtics ranked 20th with a -81 differential. He was a guard who averaged only around two rebounds per game to that point in five seasons. If anything, all that would be asked of Bradley now would presumably be to hope that he provides more of the same, perhaps with the addition of some ball-handling duties in the absence of Turner. But replacing the rebounding capabilities of Sullinger and Turner? That would surely fall on the big men like Al Horford.

But through eight games, it’s Bradley who leads the team with 68 boards, 7.9 per game.

Part of that is an indictment on the Celts. They’re the worst rebounding team in basketball (-56 differential), but it also speaks to Bradley sensing what his team would need more of from him. Rebounds are certainly a statistic of opportunity, and eight games is a small sample size, but this isn’t typical from him.

Through six NBA seasons Bradley had recorded 10 rebounds in just two games. In 2016-17 he’s done so in four of the eight he’s appeared in. He’s 30% of the way to his rebounding total for the entire 2015-16 season, a career high in 72 games, and there’s still 74 left in this campaign.

Most players are firmly established in their basketball identity by age 25. There’s an expectation among fans and commentators on what they’re able to provide. That hasn’t been the case with Bradley. He’s ever-growing and progressing in a way that most players don’t. There isn’t any comfort in where he’s situated at a given moment. There have even been many occurrences where Brad Stevens has trusted Bradley as a ball handler enough to run the offense for certain sets. That responsibility has grown out of his preseason efforts, where Bradley racked up more assists than he has in the past as an outlet ball handler in between the rim and arc, distributing to shooters on the perimeter.

The concept of Bradley as a ball-handler was dead under Doc Rivers. Now it’s risen again as a possible solution to the four minutes of ball time per game that Turner has left.

Bradley’s NBA existence in 2016 is part tragedy, part jubilation, and part model for success. It is tragedy in that he signed a contract that pays him $8 million per year just prior to the likes of Timofey Mozgov getting twice that number on the first day of free agency. It is jubilation in that the Celtics have reaped an enormous roster benefit through his and other good contracts, and the team has been better than most. As for the idea of him as a model, that will be better understood in 2018.

When his payday comes, Bradley will undoubtedly receive a massive contract that earns him upwards of the $27 million per season DeMar Derozan received. He’s that good, the cap is still rising, and if these past two seasons are any indication he’s only getting better, especially when his improvements are at least partially financially motivated.

There’s a chip on his shoulder. That’s been a theme across the roster, but if the Celtics are going to be a team worthy of East contention, the rest is going to have to make like Bradley and improve in areas outside of typical proficiency. Tyler Zeller has done it by rebounding above his typical rates, and Marcus Smart continues to work on his ability to be a primary ball handler.

It goes beyond that though. Like LeBron, Bradley’s status as a rebounder came out of nowhere. He’s the model for this team, and through his unexpected improvements he’s arguably become the most important player on the roster. If the Celtics are going to be surprise contenders, more have to do the same.