As sports fans, the players we get attached to the most are the ones who start out as questionable prospects down low on the depth chart and then work their way up to being a key part of the rotation. These aren’t the slam dunk prospects that everyone expects to be good, even though we like those guys plenty too. They aren’t the guys you get in trade or sign as free agents, but we like them a lot too. Stealing a line from Drake, these are the guys who “Started from the bottom, now we’re here”. They become “our guys” and, after all the years and time invested in them, we can’t imagine what it would be like for them not be around.
No player for the Celtics epitomizes this more than Avery Bradley. Danny Ainge plucked Bradley with the 19th pick in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. He was a developmental prospect at best. His scouting reports at the time referenced his ability to defend, but also included lines like: “Has point guard size, but can’t handle the ball and not really a playmaker” and “Has to play off the ball, but not sure his shot will ever be good enough to complement his defense”.
Throughout his first year, Bradley remained glued to the bench. With a veteran roster in place on a title contender, there weren’t many minutes for a developmental player. In his second year, the abbreviated 2012 lockout season, Bradley was a rotation regular. He even became a starter for half the year, as players battled injuries and rested throughout the compressed schedule. For the first time, Bradley was showing signs of being a player. The defense was as good, or perhaps even better, than expected. This arguably remains Bradley’s signature play:
He had good chemistry with Rajon Rondo in the backcourt. Who can forget the countless backdoor cuts for layups and dunks? But the jump shot was still a question mark.
By the next year, Bradley was a full time starter and has been ever since and Ainge gave him a new contract that raised eyebrows around the NBA. $32 million for a guard who still has a questionable jumper and whose defense still remains somewhat hard to quantify? And this deal comes when the team is launching a full scale rebuild and should be hoarding cap space? Years later, we can safely say that line of thinking was way off, as he’s now one of the NBA’s best bargains.
Bradley continued his All-Defense team play, but showed he could be more than just a one-trick pony. He averaged double figures in points for the first time in 2014, and raised his scoring average just about every season since. His once questionable jumper is now more than solid, as he’s shot 35 percent or better from behind the arc for each of the last four years.
Nothing showed Bradley’s improvement as an offensive weapon more than Brad Stevens trust in him to make shots. Starting with Stevens’ first season as coach, and continuing almost ever since, the first set the Celtics run is often for Bradley to get a jump shot. It usually involves him coming off a screen for a jumper around the top of the key. It looks something like this:
Occasionally, there are slight variations, but most games the first offensive set run is to get AB a jumper. Considering this is a guy who scouts said “not sure his shot will ever be good enough to complement his defense”, this is an incredible development.
With a guy like Bradley, we lock in early and praise what he can do right out of the gate. We might even build it up to mythical proportions at times. With him it was his ability to lock up perimeter players and put them in a torture chamber. If another part of their game comes along, we get really excited. Now we might have something. Then he becomes something akin to our little secret. But we don’t want to keep that secret for very long. When people say something like “Sure he’s a great defender, but he can’t shoot”, we love to fire back with a “Well actually…”. And in Bradley’s case, we are right.
Part of the reason last night was so special for Bradley and Celtics fans was that we remember all of those “Well actually…” moments. But we also remember all those times we said “Man, if he only had a jumper” about Bradley too. It has been seven years now, and in terms of the NBA that is basically a lifelong relationship. When we see him do things like this and hit a pull-up jumper off the dribble, we can’t help but smile.
When he gets a big in a switch and toys with him before draining a step back jumper, like he does here, we smile wider and maybe add a little fist pump.
We love everything that Isaiah Thomas can do and root for him to succeed because he’s “The Little Guy” and we love underdogs in Boston. It took a while for most to come around on Al Horford, but now he’s shown he’s worth every bit of the max deal he got. Because Celtics fans appreciate all-around team play, Horford affection is bordering on adulation at this point. Jae Crowder is beloved because he wears his heart on his sleeve and he feeds off doubt, much like how we fancy ourselves in Boston.
But no Celtic represents the climb more than Avery Bradley. Bradley scoring 25 points in the first half of a playoff game is remarkable for a guy who at one point would have been questionable to score 25 points over a six game stretch, never mind in one half of a playoff game. When Thomas does it, we shake our heads and laugh because it has become improbably probable, since we’ve seen it so often. When Bradley does it, we nod and smile, because he’s our guy. He might not be the face of the rebuild, but he’s the silent partner who has been here all along, quietly getting better and paying back the faith Ainge and Stevens showed in him. He truly “started from the bottom” as an afterthought project on a title contender and “now we’re here”. And here is a pretty sweet place to be.