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Stevens: “most encouraging thing has been the play of our second unit”

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Brad Stevens’ history of trusting young players could set the stage for bubble breakout opportunity.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

While many championship contenders elect to fill their bench with veteran know-how, the Boston Celtics have made a concerted effort towards player development when filling out their roster.

Chief among those examples this season are a trio of young NBA players who have earned rave reviews from the Disney World bubble as teams begin to round back into form.

Carson Edwards and Tremont Waters — two 2019 second-round picks who struggled to stand out during Boston’s first 64 games — both drew the praise of head coach Brad Stevens after the Celtics’ first few days of practice.

“Stevens called out rookie guards Tremont Waters and Carsen Edwards as two players who have shown improvement to him,” wrote CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith. “On Waters, Stevens said, ‘he can make you look bad if you’re not focused. He’s pretty special at that.’”

“‘Edwards also looks more comfortable,’ as Stevens said the Purdue product ‘looked confident with his shot and had a terrific Day 1 of practice.’”

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

After a hip injury limited him to just 23 games before the season’s sudden halt, sophomore big Robert Williams has used the time off to get his body right. His undersized 6’8’’ stature is compensated by a 7’6’’ wingspan, length that Stevens hopes to use to Boston’s advantage.

“He’s got great vertical athleticism,” Stevens said about Williams. “Hopefully, he maintains good health. When he’s had his opportunity, he’s had some moments.”

“He looks like an older player now. His communication is great. He’s really improved in our pick-and-roll defense.”

The Celtics haven’t been shy about placing faith in the hands of the inexperienced in recent years. Think Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two pillars of Boston’s current team. Marcus Smart and even Terry Rozier also played critical minutes in their formative years.

Under the current circumstances that not only account for the added injury risk from a sudden return but also the eventual absence of Gordon Hayward and potential knee issues of Kemba Walker, that trend might continue to finish this season. It’s worked in their favor for the most part, breeding consecutive conference finals appearances in 2017 and 2018 and a current roster that houses some of the NBA’s premiere young talent.

Consider that, because of the pandemic, players have been off for four months; that’s the length of an average off-season where young players evaluate what they need to work on and strengthen areas they can take advantage of. Success in doing so makes you wonder the type of benefits that could come from similar actions in these upcoming playoffs. Not just for Boston’s title hopes in 2020, but the strength of the roster in the coming years.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three

After Hayward’s gruesome ankle injury, Tatum was playing 30.5 nightly minutes as a rookie. Come playoff time, he’d prove vital in Boston coming within one game of the NBA Finals in 2018, scoring 18.5 points per game. Now, he’s a borderline superstar with career-highs across the board.

Brown was merely a piece of the 2016-17 Celtics but became much more of a focal point the following year. He started an extra 50 games, saw his minutes increase by 13.5 a night, and more than doubled his scoring average with an improved 3-point stroke.

The same arc played out for Brown the following two seasons. He took a back seat amid a tumultuous 2018-19 campaign, playing less minutes across fewer starts. With the Celtics’ pecking order clear the following season, he’s blossomed into a 20-point-per game scorer.

Smart’s progress took a big longer but proved just as fruitful. He saw 27.0 minutes a night right off the bat for a non-playoff team but continued to see those same minutes as Boston developed into a perennial postseason participant. Always a plus at the defensive end, Smart now brings a respectable 3-point shot, 35.6 percent combined over the last two season on 5.4 attempts per game.

A mid first-round pick, Rozier played sparingly in his first two years, but his junior campaign saw an uptick in minutes and subsequently points, paving the way for a seized opportunity in the 2018 NBA Playoffs when he piloted the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals with 16.5 points, 5.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds a game.

Production tends to go hand in hand with opportunity. To what extent is at least partially talent-based. Unfortunately, neither Williams, Edwards, nor Waters can likely muster the talent to reach the height of a quartet comprised of three top-10 picks and a 16th selection.

However, how one produces is also circumstantial. For these NBA babies, it’s about filling a role around a core set largely in stone, which comes from capitalizing on a moment that could very well materialize come playoff time.

Boston’s conservative approach to Kemba’s knees could open up pockets of playing time in the seeding games. Hayward’s pending departure due to the birth of his child will leave a hole in the rotation potentially in the second round. Daniel Theis is locked in as the starting center, but who follows in the depth chart is up for grabs.

The time off should certainly help their cases. It seems to already have in practice. Players don’t typically get a four-month window to assess and improve, but Boston’s youngsters have used it to their advantage.

“The game has definitely slowed down for him,” Smart professed about Williams. “But he’s still got his head at the rim and catching crazy lobs. For us as a team, having the game slow down for him is huge for us. He changes our defense. He allows us to take it to another level.”

To what extent that level, as well as the potential contributions of Edwards and Waters, reaches isn’t easily predictable. Only that the opportunity might be there. When trying to carve out a spot in the league, that’s all you can really ask for.