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Through the lens of his coaches, Celtics rookie Jordan Walsh is one thing: a winner

After trading Marcus Smart and Grant Williams this summer, the Celtics may have already found their next defensive instigator.

2023 NBA Las Vegas Summer League - Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan Walsh is a competitor.

Heading into the NBA Draft, scouts pegged the 19-year-old wing out of Arkansas as a defensive menace. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor praised his “relentless approach.” Adam Spinella of The Box And One called him “engaged and smart on the defensive end.” No Ceilings noted his ability to “make life difficult” for opponents.

On a Razorbacks team with two top prospects in Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr., Walsh’s role as a disruptor on defense created a harmoniously chaotic environment where his energy reigned supreme.

Walsh started crafting that fearless approach as a pre-teen.

“At first, it wasn’t pretty,” said Charles Stoker, Walsh’s long-time trainer. “He hated me. He cried [in] a couple of workouts, didn’t want to come back.”

Stoker started working with Walsh in the seventh grade when John, Jordan’s father, sought outside help to further his son’s basketball career. At the time, Stoker said his new athlete “couldn’t even put his right foot in front of his left foot without making a foul.”

However, the middle-schooler’s work with Stoker started to pay dividends in high school. “He stuck with it,” said Stoker. “He believed in it. And he actually started to see his results show whenever he played in his games at a young age.”

In his first three years at Faith Family Academy in Dallas, Walsh blossomed into a five-star recruit. He became a defensive beast, averaging 2.4 steals and 2.3 blocks per game in his junior season.

“He takes it personally when it comes to defense,” said Brandon Thomas, Walsh’s coach whose teams have won multiple 4A state championships. Back in 2019, Walsh momentarily traded in his defensive badges for an offensive highlight; he slipped backdoor and slammed home the game-winning dunk to secure Thomas’ fourth Texas title.

But don't get it twisted. Walsh's controlled chaos is most noticeable on defense. “He wants to guard the other team’s best player. He wants that challenge. He accepts it. He studies film and all those things that it takes for him so that he can have an edge, not just physically. I mean, he’s physically gifted, but most players in the NBA are as well. So, he’s going to do whatever it takes to make sure that he has an edge there.”

For his senior year, Walsh moved on to play for Link Academy in Branson, Missouri, where he teamed up with other D-I prospects like Julian Phillips who was selected three picks ahead of Walsh, Michigan’s Tarris Reed Jr., and Ohio State’s Felix Okpara. In his one season at Link, Walsh averaged 15.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.1 assists.

ESPN ranked Walsh the 11th-best high school prospect in the nation before he committed to play for the Arkansas Razorbacks. But once he got there, he was no longer the focus of attention. For head coach Eric Musselman, Ricky Council, Black, and Smith led the team in scoring, while Walsh fit in around them as a strong role player in Fayetteville.

Louisville v Arkansas Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

He ranked sixth in minutes per game, sixth in field goal attempts per game, and seventh in usage rate among players who appeared in at least 15 games. Walsh’s coaches said the counting stats didn’t matter then and don’t matter now.

“He’s a winner,” said Thomas. “He’s going to figure out whatever he needs to do to help his team win. He doesn’t care about stats and accolades. He only cares about winning.”

The young wing is unafraid. “He was never shy, never bashful,” said Rodney Perry, who coached Walsh at Link and is now an assistant at Kansas State. “He would always speak up for the team. If they wanted to go do something, he’s the guy that’s going to ask. So, he was never scared of anything really.”

Under Perry, Walsh’s competitive fire was ignited further to the point where it was often the only thing on his mind.

“He loves to compete, and so sometimes, when it comes to the basic stuff, he’s like, ‘okay, well, let’s hurry up so we can get to the competing part,’” said Perry.

On June 26, just after Boston selected him with the 38th pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, Walsh hosted a youth camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was his first public appearance as a member of the Celtics. As he entered the building, he jogged through a line of kids, dishing out high-fives along the way.

To the press, he delivered articulate answers and dished out personable quotes about diving on the floor for loose balls. To the kids, Walsh's playful energy was magnetic and he even got scored on by one of the campers.

“Man, Jordan is a funny guy. I’ll tell you, man, he’s a funny guy,” said Stoker. “He keeps me laughing. Just being around his peers and things of that nature, everybody loves to be around him because he’s just a guy that gets along with everybody.”

Ultra-curious fans have already found something off the court to obsess over. Recently, a Twitch video surfaced of Walsh showing off a Kitana sword, and screeching while donning a camo Smurfs hat. Fans online were drawn to his charisma. Walsh seemed to embrace the attention and signed his first NBA contract wearing the hat.

At just 19 years old, Walsh appears able to balance his playfulness with professionalism.

“It’s always a good time around him,” said Aaron Espinosa, one of Walsh’s AAU coaches, who also worked with the new Celtic through the pre-draft process. “He’s never been a kid that we’ve had to struggle with or [deal with] any character things. He’s just always a fun-loving kid.”

While his entertaining antics continue to draw fans’ attention, his personable nature is what will make him beloved in Boston.

“He’s the total package when it comes to understanding the responsibility of an athlete,” said Thomas. “[He understands] that it’s a privilege. It’s not something that he’s just entitled to have.

“He’s going to make sure that he’s everything that he needs to be on and off the court to make people appreciative of the fact that he’s on their team,” said Thomas. “And he’s going to make them feel good about spending their money on those tickets to come and see [the Celtics] play, because he’s going to give you everything he has.”

On Draft Night, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens had Celtics fans anticipating a move as he traded back time and time again. Boston began the night with the 25th pick in the first round, moved it for multiple seconds, and continued to trade back until they ultimately selected Walsh as their only rookie.

After the draft, Stevens stated that the Celtics felt comfortable trading back because they still had guys on their board they liked who would be available at #38, and Walsh ended up as one of those players.

According to Espinosa, Boston’s interest in the Razorback was mutual.

“Boston was his first workout, his first NBA workout,” said Espinosa. “And coming home from that workout, we sat down and spoke about it, and he was excited.”

2023 NBA Summer League - Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Louis Grasse/Getty Images

After talking with Stevens for the first time, Walsh felt an immediate connection, and now, he’s fully embracing the Celtics.

“He was like, ‘Man, I really like them. I had a great conversation with Brad. He made me feel like that’s a good place,’” said Espinosa. “And then, obviously, he went through these other rosters, but he really feels like Boston is home for him.”

The Celtics wanted Walsh, and Walsh wanted the Celtics. Stevens drafted an energetic, hard-working, defensive-minded wing who will put his team first.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and from where Jordan came from and where we started when he was in eighth grade, just to see everything that we dreamed up and set goals for is finally here,” said Stoker. “And Boston has shown him the love and the support. We appreciate Brad Stevens and the organization for giving him a shot.”

With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown already in place, Boston’s draft plans were never going to center around a star who needs to dominate the ball. And based on his coaches’ recollections, Walsh may be just that.

Through his first three Summer League games, Walsh has consistently shown off his motor, running at 1000 miles per hour and pestering opponents. But against the Los Angeles Lakers, he flashed some potential that could stretch beyond that of a defensive specialist.

The Celtics were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention by that point, but the pursuit of winning still consumed Walsh. After an intense defensive possession in the third quarter amidst a 17-5 Celtics run, the 19-year-old let out a roar that thundered throughout the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

“It’s all been a part of the gameplan,” Walsh said of the Celtics gaining momentum in the third quarter with a 30-17 run. “Boston, we’re known for being tough. We’re known for fighting. And that’s what we’re doing now. We gathered our team at halftime and we told them, ‘Us being down 10 halftime is nothing. Let’s fight through. Let’s get a dub.’”

Walsh finished the night with 25 points and eight rebounds, helping Boston secure their first win of Summer League and spoiling the Lakers’ undefeated record.

Less than a month after drafting him, the Celtics signed Walsh to a four-year deal, and with it, the young defensive disruptor out of Arkansas has his first shot to help the C’s chase Banner 18.

“He’s ready to just come in and do absolutely whatever it takes to get the Celtics to the next level,” said Stoker. “And that’s that championship level.”

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