Somehow, the Boston Celtics made it through this year with six rookies seeing time.
The foundation is in place for a longstanding core in Beantown. If lessons from past NBA homegrown stars (i.e. Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors) teaches us anything, it’s that paying a balanced, talented core max money puts an onus on cheap, young role players to excel in their lane. Money can’t buy everything, so if it buys stars, the depth has to be manufactured somewhere.
That’s where player development comes in. The Celtics have so many young players to develop and are hoping that at least a few will stick. Heading into the offseason during one of the most tumultuous endings to a year, these players’ development cannot be lost in the shuffle. They’re professionals now; it’s their job to get better and the team’s job to help them.
Seeking improvement requires an honest look in the mirror, recognition of one’s own strengths and a plan to improve their weaknesses. For that reason, we’ll stay away from sharpening the already-existent strengths of these young players and focus more on rounding out their game to the point where they can be a consistent and trustworthy contributor.
A large part of this series will also focus on finding comparisons that our current Celtics are physically overlapping with. It would make little sense for Tacko Fall to study Draymond Green, since the two cannot move the same on the court. The point of film study is to take someone similar and say “look at how they maximize their ability in a specific way. You should be able to learn from this and maximize your game in the same way.”
A glimpse ahead to the summer for Danny Ainge and the front office should reveal relatively little roster upheaval, and a return for many of the same pieces as 2020. For Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards specifically, a lot of his improvement plan centers around how he’ll be utilized in his sophomore season.
Per Synergy Sports Tech, Edwards was utilized in three main areas in the half-court offense: spot-up duty (22 percent of all plays), running off screens (22 percent), and acting as the pick-and-roll ball handler (25 percent). He’s a prolific shooter, which allows him to be utilized in an off-ball role despite his size. A ferocious cutter who attacks open spaces and is deceptively quick, Edwards was known at Purdue for his ability to run off screens and get his feet set quickly and bomb from downtown.
The difference for Edwards comes from running the pick-and-roll effectively against pro size. He struggled as a rookie to finish at the basket: he was 0-for-5 from spot-up situations when driving to the hoop and of the 26 shots he took coming off the pick-and-roll, only one of them was at the rim. Carsen finished his first season a mere 3-for-15 on attempts at the rim.
With a similarly strong, stocky build, Ty Lawson from his Denver Nuggets days could provide the right model for success to finish amongst the trees. Lawson, listed at 5’11 throughout his career, was the right combination of speed and strength at the guard spot. He had a four-year run in Denver where he averaged 16.4 points, 8.0 assists, 2.6 turnovers, and shot 61.3 percent at the rim. Not bad for someone under 6’0”.
Lawson was great at using his left shoulder to ram into contact and create space for a shot. So much emphasis is put on developing a player’s first step, where they quickly and deftly get past their man. But the last step is just as important, especially when going against the best rim protectors in the world.
When driving off the pick-and-roll, Lawson would lean into his opponents to fend them off from getting back in front of him. He often drew and-1 opportunities or free throws because he was constantly seeking contact:
Edwards also has a bowling ball physique and a strong shoulder. He just hasn’t used it yet at the pro level. Too many times he would try to finish around contact or in straight lines instead of seeking out the defenders:
What Lawson mastered was the counterintuitive concept of inviting contact in order to create space. Undersized guys need to play angles with their defenders to seal off the possibility of getting their shot blocked. Edwards isn’t quick enough to finish around them, so he has to finish through them. Sometimes, you have to literally jump sideways into your man to get a clean look:
It’s appropriate that Lawson used to do this to a young Kemba Walker since the former Charlotte Bobcat is now the backcourt leader for this C’s team. He’s also another mentor for Carsen to study and work alongside when developing his finishing arsenal.
Before his first season in Boston, Edwards even acknowledged his affinity for Walker and noted the desire to become his understudy:
“I’ve looked up his game studies and studied his game so much,” said Walker, “it seems almost unreal to be able to be playing with him. …I’m just hoping I can learn from him.”
Of course, Walker is one of the craftiest guards the game has to offer and has become a superb finisher at the hoop. He’ll employ the same contact-seeking tactics when he can’t use his blazing quickness to go past guys:
What’s frustrating with Edwards this year is knowing he’s capable of doing these things. He was solid with both his angles and utilizing his broad shoulders at Purdue. Perhaps no longer being the man and a top option changed his psyche and lessened his confidence to pull off these moves against NBA bigs. Edwards is more than capable of bringing up his finishing numbers at the rim. He was at a solid 48.3 percent at Purdue–unspectacular, but workable. Maybe the size and physicality really was different. But either way, there’s proof he’s capable of making these moves:
NBA shot blockers are, in the words of Larry David, “pretty, pretty, pretty good.” They don’t need to leave their feet to block a shot coming from someone nearly a foot shorter than them.
But they still do.
Never underestimate the value of a good pump fake. What was noticeable in all of Edwards’ rim attacks this year was a hurried tendency to try and finish before the rim protector could catch up. He had lots of one-foot takeoffs, left his feet far too early and left himself no contingency plan as a result. He would also try to finish with his chest open to the bigs instead of using his shoulder to shield their reach to the ball. Those open-chested finishes were not very promising:
It’s a tough concept for smaller guards to try and play off two feet in the lane since jumping off two limits your vertical burst. Again, it’s counterintuitive because Davids wants to utilize their speed against Goliaths. But two feet provides balance and can give players a split-second longer to read their defender.
Lawson was particularly good at coming to a jump stop, giving a quick head-fake to a roving shot blocker, and then finishing around them for the deuce:
Notice how he squares at a complete stop, uses a quick show of the ball to get the defender in the air, and still leans in to create the contact when applicable. He’s not jumping super high off the ground, he’s just making the right use of angles to get his shot off with his dominant hand.
The hesitation in a dribble move is a huge part of catching opponents off balance, too. While Edwards tried to play at one quick speed as a rookie, a more nuanced approach that involves a change of speeds would benefit him.
By going slow off the screen, Lawson would make bigs in drop coverage (meaning they’re dropped to the rim instead of out near their man) hesitate and think he’s going to pass. What he would do is freeze the big, get them leaning, and then attack their outside hip for a clean pass. His angles were perfect as her changed speed:
It’s a nuanced skill that involves feel and it takes time to develop. Pace and control are more important on ball screens than speed: pro point guards control acceleration, timing, and tempo. It’s about putting the defense into the palm of your hand and then exploiting whatever the next movement the defense makes.
As far as the other skills go, Lawson is a pretty good guy for Carsen to emulate. He was a strong pick-and-roll player, a good shooter (more so off the bounce than screens) and had a lethal shot fake on the perimeter into a one-dribble pull up. There are a striking amount of similarities between the two.