Stars win championships. Role players get you there.
As it stands, the Celtics could be stocked with a fairly vet-laden roster with Marcus Smart, Evan Fournier (if he re-signs), Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Tristan Thompson. That’s six solid players that will do much of the heavy lifting. Throw in Robert Williams and even sophomore Payton Pritchard (who lead all rookies and sophomores in regular season minutes this season) and that’s eight.
Depending on what Brad Stevens decides to do with the mid-level exception, the remaining TPE’s, and possible minimum free agent signings, Boston will depend on their stable of young players and internal development to round out the rotation, but if these playoffs are any indication, young players can have a real impact on winning despite their age and experience.
Whether it’s the Clippers’ Terance Mann or the Hawks’ Kevin Huerter, second and third year players have all played substantial roles in their teams’ championship hunt this summer. Last season, Grant Williams and Robert Williams were key contributors to Boston’s run to the conference finals.
For many young players, particularly first round picks outside of the lottery, their contracts are viewed as incubators, four-year wait-and-see periods to see if they’re worthy of future consideration. But for teams like the Celtics with little financial flexibility who have embraced a youth movement of sorts, players entering their second and third years are leaned on to contribute.
The two most likely candidates for a breakout year are Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford. The picks used to nab them in consecutive drafts — from the Kings via the 76ers and from the Grizzlies respectively — ironically lost value when both teams outperformed preseason expectations; now, both players will look to do the same in 2021-2022.
In Langford’s rookie and sophomore seasons, he started the year on the shelf, recovering from thumb surgery in Year 1 and wrist surgery and COVID in Year 2 before finally coming back last April. To date, he’s played only 50 regular season games total after being picked 14th in the 2019 NBA Draft and his comp is constantly changing.
Coming out of IU, the former Mr. Basketball was viewed as a slasher with raw athletic gifts and a jump shot that needed work. Heading into the bubble last year, he was lauded for his work on defense. And before transitioning to the front office, Stevens said that Langford could develop into an Evan Turner-like big ball handler. If he becomes some combination of all three and more so the latter, opportunity may knock in 2022.
As it stands right now, Stevens has not replaced Kemba Walker, a primary ball handler who averaged the second most touches with a 25.6% usage rate in the regular season. With the emergence of Tatum and Brown as playmakers and now Horford in the fold, Boston could manage starting Smart and using Payton Pritchard as the back up point guard to the second unit. And on occasion, Langford could be used as a playmaker.
“(Langford) can distribute and be a great complementary piece at a high level,” Evan Turner said. “He can add rebounding, defense, and his developing shot. He could be a triple-double threat. And with Brad’s playbook, when he starts getting more comfortable, he can start taking people to the post. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about is big-guard stuff, and I think that’s advantageous.”
Stevens obviously isn’t the head coach anymore, but it could be a role that Ime Udoka envisions, too. Langford won’t put defenders on their heels with his handle or speed, but as a change of pace point guard, there’s hope that he’ll finally find his place in Boston’s rotation in Year 3. In Boston’s brief playoff appearance against Brooklyn, Romeo Langford averaged the fifth most minutes on the team and turned in a 17-point, 2-steal, 2-block, and 2-assist in Game 5.
If Lanford’s often languid play frustrated you, Aaron Nesmith’s energy in his rookie season was a welcomed sign. Once billed as the best shooter in the 2020 NBA Draft, he instead made a name for himself and carved out a role as an energy player off the bench. But as fun and exciting as Nesmith’s daredevil approach was as a rookie, he’ll have to figure out a way to be a consistent positive on the floor and that’ll most likely come from behind the arc.
There’s reason to believe that Nesmith was already rounding into form towards the end of the season. In the final two months of the season, he hit 42% of his threes; in a similar span of games to start the year, he hit only 35%. The game slowed down for the first-year player. He doubled his looks around the rim from 19% of his shots before the All-Star break to 38.3% in March, April, and May. Instead of becoming just a prototypical 3&D wing, he found success attacking the rim.
The Celtics don’t need Langford and Nesmith to make a giant leap in development, but if Stevens as their former coach and now GM, thinks they can be reliable contributors, that could change the outlook of the summer and subsequently, the fortunes of next season.
Think Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson on the Suns. Phoenix didn’t ask for their two young role players to create off the dribble or become the focal point of the defense. They were part of a supporting cast put together to prop up the star trio of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton. Nearly 85% of Bridges’ made field goals were assisted (Johnson, 92%).
In Game 1 of The Finals, they played their roles to perfection, particularly Bridges. The third-year man scored 14 points including 2-for-4 from behind the arc and was predominantly guarding Khris Middleton. Johnson added ten points playing the most minutes off the Suns bench in a 118-105 win. The headlines will rightfully belong to Chris Paul and Devin Booker this morning, but Phoenix isn’t three wins away from a championship without strong contributions from their youth.
For the Celtics, Stevens could use the MLE or one of several TPE’s to bring in a veteran to fill a hole in Boston’s rotation. With an established player, you generally know what you’re going to get. But if the Celtics are going to get any return on investment for using their picks in 2019 and 2020, they have to play the kids. Maybe it isn’t Nesmith or Langford that will make the jump. Maybe we see Grant Williams puts his sophomore slump in the rearview and we see the Grant Williams from the Orlando bubble. Maybe Udoka finds the key to unlock Carsen Edwards’ instant offense off the bench. Whoever it is, it’s time. It’s time for the team to see what they’ve got and more importantly, for them to step up.