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Newest Celtics look to build on last year’s success

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With Al Horford, Gerald Green, and Jaylen Brown replacing Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger, how will the Celtics look different heading into this season?

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Media Day officially marks the start of the NBA season. Across the league, it’s a time of enthusiasm and optimism and Media Day bingo. Every team talks about getting better and playing for a championship, but in all the canned responses and coach-/GM-/player-speak, there are little nuggets of truth and insight that could predict how the team approaches the upcoming year and how they could look differently after an offseason of trades, free agency, and the draft.

The headline of the Celtics’ summer was adding Al Horford, and head coach Brad Stevens reiterated how well he’ll fit in in Boston:

"We’re not asking Al to be anything more than him," Stevens said at Media Day Monday. "He’s a good fit for how we play on offense. He’s a good fit for how we play on defense. He’s a professional. He has a routine. He works hard at his craft. He’s a guy that guys can follow by example."

That’s Brad being Brad with a very measured response on the Celtics’ big free-agent signing, but he did go into some detail about how Horford will fit into the system, particularly on the offensive end. After spending much of his career as a paint-dominant big, Horford expanded his game last season under Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta. The Hawks run a similar read-and-react system that utilized stretch 4s and 5s above the break and, sometimes, behind the arc.

Horford shot 256 threes in 2015-2016—nearly five times more than in his combined eight prior seasons—and hit 34.4%. Stevens said that “it’s unfair to ask Al to be more than who he is,” but the new Al Horford has evolved into a modern NBA big and the Celtics will gladly reap the benefits of that development now that he’s in green. Even though the Celtics were third to last in the NBA last season in 3FG% at 33.5%, Horford will be a joining a front court with Kelly Olynyk (40.5%) and Jonas Jerebko (39.8%) that has the green light to shoot.

In ESPN’s Summer Forecast series, I had predicted that Kelly Olynyk would eventually be Horford’s primary frontcourt partner in the starting lineup after he recovered from shoulder surgery, but now I’m thinking Amir Johnson will start next to Horford while Horford serves as the stretch big to the starting five. Johnson told Marc D’Amico and Amanda Pflugrad of Celtics.com yesterday that he traveled to Atlanta to work out with Horford for a week in the offseason to develop some chemistry and familiarize himself with his new teammate. Stevens is comfortable with Horford out on the perimeter, and he should be a huge improvement over Jared Sullinger.

The Celtics’ other feature addition to the roster was prized rookie Jaylen Brown. For a player picked at #3, there didn’t seem to be a lot of hype at Media Day surrounding the 19-year-old, but by all accounts, it sounds like Brown will get a chance to play right away. I’m paraphrasing Brad Stevens here, but in his interview with Celtics.com, he basically said that Jaylen will play if he can defend his position AND make open shots AND score off drives AND make no mistakes. That’s a tall order for a kid that spent only a year playing college ball, but Brown should be able to contribute right away.

Brown acknowledges that his defense will get him on the floor saying, “ I think my size, speed, and athleticism will be at an advantage right away. Defensively, just being a big body and guarding high level guys.” However, his NBA-ready body will only get him so far, and he knows that there will be a learning curve to his development. Isaiah Thomas noted that it won’t be carte blanche for Brown:

I’m not saying he’s not going to play, but just continuing to have confidence and not get down on yourself. As a rookie, he’s coming to a good team, not a bad team, so he’s not going to have the opportunity to do whatever he wants. Our job is to make sure he knows that – when your opportunity comes, take full advantage of it.

And if Brown doesn’t pick things up right away, there’s always Gerald Green. Green’s return to the Celtics after getting drafted by them in 2005 happened so late into the offseason that it’s become a little bit of an afterthought, but it could prove to be an important signing while Brown and the rest of the Celtics’ young core gets up to speed.

Thomas called Green a “professional bucket-getter.” While the two were paired together in Thomas’ brief stretch with the Suns, Green played some of the best basketball of his career. Thomas was instrumental in recruiting Green (of course, right?) this summer, and it’s very possible that he could benefit from a career revival because of the frantic style the Celtics like to play:

"I think in Phoenix...Phoenix is like the run and gun team," he said. "We used to do a drill where we'd try to score in the first seven seconds. We used to do that in practice. Once we came into the games, it was natural for us. People didn't understand the way we were playing. That's just how we played. In Miami it was all about slowing it down, giving it to our core guys, giving it to our horses, (Dwyane) Wade and Chris Bosh. That's something we did periodically, just kind of play off those guys and get your shots from there."

The Celtics play fast. Very fast. They were third in the league in pace last year, and with the youth movement in full swing, they should play even faster. At 30 years old and on a one-year deal, Green shouldn’t steal minutes away from Jaylen Brown (or really anybody for that matter), but he’s a perfect insurance policy in a system that suits his strengths.