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The cautionary tale of James Young

Once a lefty phenom, James Young’s fall from grace should serve as a warning for the incoming youth movement.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The following is not about James Young’s potential, or Bill Simmons’s fist pump when Young was drafted with the 17th pick in 2014, or the handful of “this is where James Young turns the corner” games he’s teased us with, or which hairstyle coincided with his best 3FG%. Instead, let the following serve as a cautionary tale for future James Youngs—young phenoms and free-agent vets alike—who will wear green in Boston’s narrowing pursuit of Banner 18.

Sure, this roster review could easily be about Jordan Mickey, Young’s Red Claw battery mate who was once considered a diamond in the second-round rough and the best paint prospect in the G-League who has been equally disappointing. A year ago, I could have been writing about the missed opportunity that David Lee never fully grasped in his brief stint in Boston. No, we’re talking about James Young, the Kentucky lefty that could have been a foundational piece in the Celtics’ rebuild, but those are the operative words for Young, aren’t they? “Could have been.”

It’s never been a question of fit. It might seem a strange comp for JY, but Young could have been Jae Crowder before Crowder came in a trade from Dallas and later re-signed as a free agent. Crowder, the team’s resident 3&D specialist, has ten pounds and a handful of years on Young, but if we’re being honest, it’s not the experience or shooting percentage that separates the two. It’s fire, and Young’s lack thereof.

That picture has always perfectly summed up James Young to me: a guy just happy to be here, sitting next to Rihanna, but not with Rihanna. Over the last four seasons, the Celtics have cultivated a team culture enriched with a “chip-on-your-shoulder” attitude and fortified by hard work and dedication to the process. Those are mantras that Young has seemingly never really embraced. I'm not a sports psychologist, but I'm fluent in body language. So many missed threes were followed by shoulder shrugs. So many missed defensive assignments were accompanied by finger pointing or "my bads." All those missed beats have made Young not worthy to even play tambourine in this band.

It's possible that Young would have benefited from a trial by fire. Had Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, and the Celtics gone a more traditional route with their rebuild and sat their vets in favor of their young players, Young might have developed by virtue of more playing time. But Boston refused to tank—in large part due to the character of the players they targeted—and Young never proved himself in practice to deserve more playing time and/or didn't become the two-way player that you have to be to earn time on the court from Stevens.

It's been widely covered during The Finals, but to be an effective wing in this league, you have to be able to guard multiple positions on defense and score in a variety of ways on offense. Young did neither well. He was good in spurts, but with teammates like Crowder and now Jaylen Brown being able to switch from John Wall to LeBron James and hit threes and finish at the rim, it's no surprise that Young buried himself in the depth chart.

2014 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

After the team declined a fairly cheap option earlier this year, Young will most likely be renounced this summer and looking for a new gig. Bird Rights: gone. Upside: forgotten. “Could have been” rewritten as “should have been.” Maybe he resurrects his career like Gerald Green and somehow gets re-routed back to Boston after a journeyman tour around the league where he learns what it takes to make it in the NBA. I’ll root for that just like I rooted for James whenever his number was called over the last three years.

But to Markelle Fultz or Josh Jackson or Ante Zizic or Guershon Yabusele or whoever is joining the Celtics this summer, you have been warned. Be hungry, be prepared, and always be improving. The Process in Boston works differently than in Philadelphia or Los Angeles. You can only hang around on potential and hope for so long. After languishing for the Celtics for three seasons, it’s bad timing for Young. With the team looking to add win now players to the roster and introduce an influx of young talent, they can’t wait for Young to figure it out.

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