The Boston Celtics have big expectations. With their two superstars coming back, there’s a lot of optimism around the team that this could be the best team in the Eastern Conference. One of the biggest selling points in the Celtics’ potential run of dominance in the Eastern Conference is youth. Despite the star power, more than half of Boston’s 15-man roster is made up of players 25 and under. In ranking them, I wanted to base it off how much value they can add to next year’s title push as opposed to who has the highest potential. I think this viewpoint is important because the usual disconnect between fans and coaches is that the fans see young players based on how they project their upside while coaches--particularly Brad Stevens--live in the present and view guys on the value they bring today.
From Marcus Smart to Jaylen Brown, the theme for Celtics youngsters always revolves around “earning your time,” a mantra that Stevens truly lives by. So along with my “coaches eye” rankings, I added another element to my analysis based on who has the highest chance of earning said minutes. Finally, my analysis will have a positional component to it. Certain guys are going to have a higher chance to stepping on the floor than others just based on positional strength. Celtics are one of the deepest teams in the league at the wing and guard position, but there’s a little more leeway for at the big spots. I don’t think that makes a player more valuable on its face, but that in conjunction with a players ability to excel in potential role were weighed heavily in making these rankings. Overall, there will be a few surprises, but the top guys are who you expect. So without further ado, here are the Celtics top players 25 and under.
1. Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown is arguably the Celtics most versatile perimeter defender who has shown an ability to defend 1-4, battle through picks, bang in the post, and move his feet in isolation situations.
Offensively, Brown has already carved out a nice role for himself as a player who can spread the floor, blow by hard closeouts, and attack mismatches in the post. Even without the ability to create for others, the skillset he has now makes him one of the most important players on the team. His spacing ability opens the floor up for the stars while his defensive versatility takes away the need for a player like Gordon Hayward or Jayson Tatum to defend the opposing team’s best perimeter scorers.
2. Marcus Smart
Okay, hear me out. I don’t have to explain to you guys what Smart brings to the table. His game just oozes the toughness that we all affiliate with Celtics basketball. Outside of the strongest of bigs, Smart can hold his own against anyone defensively and despite historically bad shooting, he has also carved out a niche as a playmaking ball-handler who might be the best passer on the team. Throughout this exercise, the one thing I've continued to ask myself was, “how well could this team survive if this player went out for the year?” And every year, this team in its many iterations performs positively when Smart is on the court. He gives Irving the ability to take a break from running the offense to focus on his own scoring and is often the first player Stevens looks to off the bench when the team needs to be stabilized.
If you want to know how the Celtics/Coach Stevens think about Marcus Smart, here you go: https://t.co/Cb9xeT3erI— A.K ⚖️ (@Kungu_NBA) June 13, 2018
Every great team has a player whose best asset is his ability to lift the energy of his team. Marcus Smart has been that player for the Celtics as soon as he got drafted.
3. Jayson Tatum
This isn’t the place where most were expecting Tatum to land, but I think it’s the perfect place considering the context. Tatum has the highest upside out of all the players in this group and his development will be an exciting storyline to watch throughout the year. With that being said, what makes Boston a great situation for Tatum also makes him less of necessity. Tatum’s advanced offensive game was a godsend for the Celtics during the playoffs, but on a healthy team the necessity for that skill decreases. It’s much more likely that Tatum’s bread and butter is similar to the beginning of the year as a spacer and defender while he’s on the floor with the starters.
On that same note, Tatum plays one of the most important positions in basketball and has one of the rarest skillsets. Even if his skill may not be a necessity, the threat of it makes the team even more dangerous. If one of the stars is having an off night, he can always be there to pick up the slack, and chances are, he’ll have an opportunity to be a top option on the second unit. I’m more bullish than most on Tatum’s overall upside and have been for a long time, but I think the teams overall depth at position makes him more of a cherry on top than the actual sundae.
4. Terry Rozier
Rozier will be entering his contract year with a new shoe deal and even more confident after his 16/5/5 playoff coming out party. The theme of the year for Rozier will be whether he can continue to have be as impactful in a more limited role, something he has struggled with since being drafted.
His leap from below to above average shooter from three was a great sign, but he stills struggles at the rim (54.4%), and needs to improve his decision-making as a passer. With the right mindset, Rozier could be part of a strong second unit that opens games up even further for the Celtics.
5. Robert Williams lll
“Rob” is going to be in a very interesting predicament this year. The team re-signed Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis will be back healthy, and Al Horford has been known to dabble at the center position. So where does that leave Williams?
The pitch here begins with what separates him, Williams brings a different dynamic to the team that they do not have at the position. He’s a strong athlete who has the ability to play above the rim and be a lob threat in a way the Celtics haven’t had in a long-time.
Defensively, he can protect the rim and move his feet better than most at his size. Williams is a two-time SEC DPOY and the most athletically gifted at his position on the team. That might not guarantee him a huge role on the team, but it puts him right in position to carve out a nice role because of how his skillset fits in with some of the surrounding players.
6. Semi Ojeleye
Ojeleye finds himself on one of three teams in the league where a “3 and D” wing won’t be guaranteed any minutes coming into the year. Ojeleye spent most of the first year showcasing the “D” part of his reputation well, but the “3” part was largely nonexistent. So coming into this year will be simple: will Ojeleye be able to stretch the floor? With the shot, Ojeleye will be in prime position to push Marcus Morris aside and claim a role in the second unit. Without it, he’ll be a situational player who will have to be used sparingly during the playoffs due to his limited spacing ability.
7. Jabari Bird
Bird quickly became a fan favorite with his ability to know his role and never play outside of himself. Bird showed out in the summer league as a guy who can be a dynamic finisher, solid spot-up shooter, and a good ball-mover that can play within a team construct. Bird will be a situational guy that won’t get time unless 1) Stevens is trying out something new, 2) guys are resting, or 3) (*knock on wood) there’s an injury. It’s a long season and opportunities can come when players least expect it. Bird is one of those guys that I'm confident will be ready for his moment.
8. Guerschon Yabusele
Despite being an internet sensation, Yabusele has a lot to prove. He’s a below average defender who is too small and vertically challenged to be a rim protector, but not quite quick enough to be trusted in space. His jump shot has shown some promise when he has some time and there’s some underrated passing ability that is intriguing.
The question for Yabusele is whether he can show enough defensively in camp that a coach can trust him as an everyday rotation player during the season. I’m skeptical that happens in Boston.