When the Celtics drafted Jordan Mickey in 2015, they hoped they were getting a back-of-the-rotation rebounder and rim protector. It was clear that he wouldn’t get major minutes as a rookie, but Boston hoped they could develop Mickey into a useful, inexpensive bench big.
The Celtics desperately needed an effective shot blocker to patrol the back line (and still do). Mickey averaged over three blocks a game in college and earned SEC First-Team All Defense honors in both of his years at LSU. Boston saw potential there and decided Mickey was worth rolling the dice on as an early second-round selection.
It’s been two years since then, and the Celtics are still waiting for Mickey to cash in on that potential. He played well this year for the Celtics’ G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks in 32.6 minutes per game, but he failed to find consistent playing time in Boston.
Mickey spent most of the year shuttling between the Red Claws and the Celtics, a trend that has held for the entirety of his career. In fact, he’s been assigned to and recalled from Maine forty-one times in the past two seasons. That’s indicative of who he’s been as a player to date—probably a little too talented to play in the G-League full-time, and not quite talented enough to stick in an NBA rotation.
Typically those kind of players find long-term success internationally, and that may ultimately be where Mickey is headed, if he doesn’t show significant growth in the upcoming campaign.
There are things to be excited about in that regard. Mickey’s shooting stroke has improved dramatically. He shot a very healthy 43.8 percent on 2.7 three-point attempts per night in Maine. That’s very good for any player, let alone one with Mickey’s size and shot-blocking ability.
If that skill translates to the next level, Mickey becomes very interesting. Defenses are smarter in the NBA though. Closeouts are more aggressive, and the opponents performing them tend to be quicker and more athletic. Mickey has only ever attempted one three-pointer in his entire NBA career, a reality indicative of what makes projecting his future so challenging.
Mickey’s trouble staying on the court in Boston really comes down to the stakes of competition. In Maine he can test out his limits with very little consequence. He can shoot ill-advised jumpers or slide out of position on defense without fear of being immediately pulled from the game.
That doesn’t exist in Boston, particularly not with Brad Stevens at the helm. Mickey frequently found himself riding the bench after only a couple of minutes, riddled with poor decisions. He’ll need to turn that around if he wants a meaningful future in the NBA. That’s doubly true if he wants that future to take place in Boston.
The Celtics are ready to compete now, and they could certainly use the best version of Mickey. A player that can contest at the rim and space the floor with shooting is one that is ludicrously valuable. He’s also already the team’s most explosive big man when finishing near the hoop. None of that matters if he can’t get himself in the right spots, however, and Boston may be running out of patience on that front.
The Celtics will have to make a determination on whether or not they would like to have Mickey in the fold next year soon, and, interestingly, his performance might ultimately be irrelevant in that decision. If Boston can lure a big-name free agent this summer, they will need to trim a lot of salary, and Mickey may very well be a casualty of that process.
There is a team option in Mickey’s contract for just over $1.3 million next year. It’s not an outrageously high price for a player with the type of intriguing skill set Mickey has, but every cent is going to count for Boston this offseason. If the Celtics feel that money can be better utilized elsewhere they shouldn’t hesitate to do so. Mickey hasn’t played well enough for them to regret letting him go.
Then again, he hasn’t been quite bad enough to make that call a no-brainer. Mickey remains more or less what he was when he entered the league—an intriguing talent who is not yet effective at the game’s highest level. He’s earned the right to additional opportunities to develop his game. Whether or not the Celtics’ finances will allow them to offer him the appropriate context to do so is another question entirely.