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.”
Generously listed at 5’10,” Celtics rookie point guard Tremont Waters showed flashes of why he belongs on the biggest stage. He’s lightning quick and is a thrilling prospect with the ball in his hands. He moves and shakes like a jitterbug while maintaining a sturdy frame. With the G-League Maine Red Claws, Waters averaged 18.0 points and 7.3 assists per contest and was the G-League Player of the Month in November. The kid can hoop.
However, any undersized point guard has their fair share of obstacles. Fair or not, that one physical trait necessitates an even greater impact on offense than any other position, because on defense, Waters knows he’s going to be targeted on the other end.
But Waters’ scoring prowess isn’t the same as Isaiah Thomas, the most recent Celtics’ sub-six-foot superhero. While I.T. dominated games and put his stamp on them through scoring outbursts, Waters is more of a creator and facilitator. Waters only shot 32.7 percent from 3-point range his final year at LSU. He doesn’t stretch defenses the way Isaiah used to.
The right guy for Waters to emulate to improve his craft is Dallas Mavericks point guard and crafty veteran J.J. Barea. Barea, a 2011 NBA champion with the Mavs, has made a 14-year career for himself despite being known as a man of little stature and a below-average defender. A key for Barea is the impact of his outside shot–he’s over 38 percent for his career–and how he can perfectly play with pace and angles in the pick-and-roll.
Nearly 55 percent of Waters’ overall usage as a rookie came from ball screens. There’s little doubt head coach Brad Stevens sees this as being the way to maximizing Waters’ usage when he’s on the floor. To give him the ball and let him create is a high endorsement from the coach to a rookie. Now Waters has to maximize those opportunities.
Similarly to Waters, Barea is a guy who has received over 50 percent of his usage in the pick-and-roll throughout his career. He’s a specialist: J.J. has never started more than 18 games during a season, but he’s been a respectable piece for over a decade. He’s also only averaged more than 24 minutes per game once. He comes in off the bench, plays his role and he plays it well.
In college, Waters got himself into trouble by being overzealous as a driver. He would handle perimeter pressure by putting his head down and driving hard to the hoop, often looking out of sorts as a result. Waters was both too wild getting downhill when splitting a trap and a fan of one-hand fling passes that were often intercepted:
These turnovers hurt. They come from overaggressiveness, which is possible as a passer and not just a scorer. Waters needs to let the game come to him a little bit more.
The pro game is far different from the collegiate version Waters conquered. The aggressive defenses he turned it over against in college are rarely seen at the next level, especially for non-dynamic scorers. He’s not commanding too many traps, splitting hard-hedges or throwing bullets to backdoor cutters. Pressure, which would shift him into high gear, isn’t applied in the NBA.
Instead, opposing bigs he faces now will stand back and protect the rim at all costs. What they give him–and other non-elite shooters–is the mid-range pull-up. Now the steadfast desire to play as fast as possible by Waters manifests itself differently. In college, he’d try to do too much in small spaces and try to sprint around ball screens while making difficult plays.
Now, he has trouble decelerating into the mid-range pull-up that is open. Whether struggling to decide between jumper and floater or taking awkward-leaning jumpers, Waters’ mid-range game was suspect as a rookie:
I know, I know: analytics. Why harp on the mid-range game when it’s taboo to even take them? For guys like Waters, this is a vital shot. He’s undersized and won’t be a plus-finisher at the hoop against the size and physicality he faces. That’s compounded by bigs who play drop coverage in the pick-and-roll which the vast majority of the league utilizes, so they can stay home and only protect the paint.
Waters is just good enough of a 3-point shooter to see most on-ball defenders to go over the top of screens instead of under. When they do, Waters can’t comfortably launch a trey, leaving him only one area left to score. Sometimes you have to be good at just what the defense gives you, and virtually every one is giving this shot to Waters.
But the in-between runners, jumpers, and off-balance leaners just don’t cut it.
Cue the J.J. Barea tape. Few guys have harnessed their speed in a way that allows them to comfortably pull-up like he has. Barea’s body mechanics on jumpers off the bounce are impeccable. He is able to play very square to the hoop and get his feet underneath him before he rises up. No indecisiveness, no playing too fast for his body. He just takes the space, squares his shoulders and nonchalantly fires away:
Even though this is the shot the defense encourages, Barea appears to take these because he wants to. The examples earlier from Waters feel more like contingency plans, a last-ditch effort for him to score because nothing else is open. There’s an element of reverse psychology at play here. If Barea appears comfortable taking the shots the defense gives him, they’ll eventually adjust to disrupt his comfort and move to giving up attempts he’d prefer.
The key to comfort? Slowing down. Barea plays fast, but he never plays hurried, to steal a line from the late John Wooden. He’s unflappable, and that shows in how he is able to take his time when he comes off a screen. Once getting past the front line of pick-and-roll defense, he likes to steady himself, feeling just how much time he’ll have, then refuses to rush the attempt. Take note of his tremendous pace:
Let’s not fool ourselves here: Barea is super fast. He can buzz around the floor like a mosquito, weaving in and out of traffic. But like any experienced rush hour driver going across the Zakim Bridge on a Friday night, he knows when to hit the gas and when to pump the brakes.
Barea’s ability to change speeds comes from a knowledge of when doing so is advantageous. He uses a fantastic pick-and-roll concept our coaching staff refers to as a “pace dribble.” When a guard comes off the ball screen, he keeps a live dribble but raises his shoulders and does a semi-hop, hoping to freeze the opposing big. If the big lunges at him and thinks it’s a jumper, or slinks back to his man expecting a pass, he can turn on the jets and go straight to the rim. If the big drops back to the rim, there’s enough momentum underneath Barea to take one more bounce to get rhythm for the jumper and no fear of getting his shot blocked:
Point guards use a common soccer term known as “taking the space.” If there’s open field ahead of a dribbling player, he takes it and goes to where the defense isn’t. They’ll either come to him or leave him unoccupied to surgically pick them apart. Either way, it’s a win for the attacking team. But getting to the space is only possible by throttling up and down and not maintaining top speed all the time.
You want to see an example of how different his understanding of pace is than Waters, just see how he slows himself to read the defense after he splits the pick-and-roll:
One more advanced concept Barea has mastered, even at his delicate size, is the hostage dribble. In situations when the guard defender goes over the top of the screen, Barea angles himself in a way that prevents the defender from getting back between the ball, his man, and the hoop. J.J. will use his body to shield that defender away, keep a live dribble and his eyes up to scan the defense.
Eventually, someone will have to come to the rescue or Barea gets an open look. If nobody answers the call, he can get as low as he wants until flipping up a layup, floater, or uncontested pull-up:
What a skill this would be for Waters to add.
There are certain prerequisites that Waters must pass before he can graduate from the Jose Juan Barea masterclass. His ball handling has to tighten and his shooting become consistent enough to ensure the defense always goes over screens. But learning how to play at an appropriate pace is vital to his mission.
When guys rely on their speed for success, instructing them to slow down can feel counterintuitive and like a death sentence for what makes them special. But if you show them the value in shifting gears they may see the value for themselves.