In a recent interview with NBC Boston, Enes Kanter revealed that Brad Stevens often gets into pick-up games with the ball boys after practice. He’s canning threes and blocking shots. After six seasons with the Celtics (that were preceded with six years at Butler), it’s easy to forget that Stevens was a player before becoming a head coach. In four years of college ball at DePauw University, Brad Stevens averaged about eight points and an assist per game. By all accounts, he was a scrappy, tough guard, but only found his true calling after he graduated and moved to the bench.
In Boston, he’s become a point guard whisperer of sorts, a kind of coach that maybe the younger Stevens could have used himself. He plateaued as a player, but as a head coach, he’s found ways to get his team to exceed expectations. Outside of last year’s debacle, the Celtics have consistently been overachievers and on an individual basis, the biggest leap has come at the PG position.
Jordan Crawford started thirty-five games for Stevens in 2013-2014. That stint produced a Player of the Week award for Steez when he scored 70 points and dished out 20 assists over three wins early in the season. Crawford’s strong play eventually got him ticketed to Golden State for three second round picks.
The following season, the newly signed Evan Turner became Stevens’ pet project. The second overall pick in 2010 was a bust in Philadelphia and a playoff run for the Placers. But in two short seasons under Stevens, Turner became a fan favorite as a 13/6/6 utility man. As a free agent, Turner cashed in and signed a 4-year, $70M with the Trailblazers.
While Kyrie Irving’s tenure in Boston was largely a disappointment, he undeniably had his best statistical seasons in green. He raised his shooting percentages nearly thirty points, dished out more assists per game than he ever did in Cleveland, and was serviceable defender in the Celtics’ schemes.
Stevens’ biggest success story to date has been Isaiah Thomas’ rise from team malcontent to MVP candidate. After bouncing from Sacramento to Phoenix, Danny Ainge brought in Thomas in an 11th hour trade at the deadline and immediately, IT became the heart and soul of the Celtics. He followed up his first All-Star season with a run for the ages in 2017. Of course, it can’t all be attributed to Stevens, but it’s hard to ignore the sympatico relationship between the two.
In Year 7, Stevens will look to use his Midas touch on Kemba Walker. For now, coach and player are saying all the right things. Walker has complimented Stevens for being a great teacher of the game and talked about developing a relationship with his head coach. Stevens has commended Walker for being a team-first leader and committing early despite a long stint with Team USA in China.
There’s still some uncertainty with how Stevens will choose to employ Walker. Last season, Walker was the league’s most potent pick-and-roll point guard. In Charlotte, he averaged 11.8 possessions per game as a ball handler and averaged 1.01 points per possession, earning him an efficient 90.9th percentile; last year, the Celtics averaged the 24th fewest PnR’s per game (even though they ranked pretty highly in efficiency at 79.3rd percentile). Ainge has seemed to stock the 5-spot with enough rim rollers for Walker to play with, but Boston is more talented on the wing than the Hornets ever were in Walker’s eight seasons.
If you ask Stevens, the technical side of the ball works itself out in the end. Instead, he’s prioritized togetherness and team unity in training camp and Walker has embraced that mindset. On Wednesday, a familiar face visited the Celtics and reiterated those points of emphasis. Jim Calhoun was Kemba’s head coach at UConn when the two won a national championship in 2011 against Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs. As his former coach and a diehard Celtics fan, Calhoun was happy to see Walker choose Boston in free agency and promises fans that they’ve got a special player.
“I’ve coached fifty years and thirty NBA players who’ve played at least four years. He’s as special as anybody I’ve ever had in the sense of leadership, caring and has incredible confidence with humility, which is a really hard thing to have,” Calhoun said.
“(Kemba) knew about Brad, I knew about Brad, coached against Brad. He knew who the coach was. He knew Danny. He knew what the Celtics represent and most importantly--I guarantee you and I don’t care about what anybody could have offered him--he was going back to winning.
That was the #1 thing he kept mentioning. He kept mentioning winning. When you talk to a guy three or four times, you get a dominant theme. His dominant theme was about winning.”
It would be tough for Stevens to improve on Walker’s individual accolades. He’s been an All-Star for the last three years and earned a Third Team All-NBA nod last season. However, what has alluded Kemba is winning. Walker signed a four-year max deal to spend his prime in Boston and if everything works out, he could be the longest tenured starting point guard that Stevens has ever coached. Right now, it seems like the perfect match.