For three uninterrupted minutes, the TD Garden crowd roared so loud you might have thought it was a playoff game.
This was a 25-point blowout in mid-January, against one of the worst teams in the league – as insignificant a regular season game as they come. But with the clock winding down, every Celtics fan in the building was dying to witness 19-year-old Jordan Walsh’s first NBA basket. His lone attempt at a three didn’t go, but the raucous crowd – yelling ‘swing it’ at his teammates – helped create a memory that would last forever.
“To actually be able to get in and play, and be able to show people that I do have the ability to hoop — it’s an amazing feeling,” Walsh said. “It’s a milestone in my life that I’ll never forget.”
The crowd reaction to Jordan Walsh every time he touched the ball in this 1-minute span has me cracking up.— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 18, 2024
His first NBA basket will have to wait for another day. pic.twitter.com/UXPO7uGKcm
Walsh finished the night with four rebounds in three minutes of action. Ironically, that means that for a fleeting moment, he leads the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes, as several people noted after his debut.
“I saw that actually,” Walsh told me, chuckling. “That was pretty funny, my friends sent it to me. We had a good laugh.”
Jordan Walsh technically leads the NBA in rebounds per 48 minutes at 63.0 RP48 pic.twitter.com/2fINgGZeMG— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) January 18, 2024
Walsh is back in Maine, where he’s spent the majority of the season.
Since making his NBA debut on Wednesday night against San Antonio, Walsh has already returned to Portland, where he was assigned to play at the end of October. When he went up to Maine after training camp in Boston, his teammates and coaches had already established a camaraderie after spending weeks together, but made sure to embrace him.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Walsh said. “They love the passion that I have for the game, the work ethic that I have.”
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Maine, he admitted, but one of his favorite activities has been going to restaurants with his coaches and teammates.
“When you get a chance to go eat with your team, you should take that chance,” he said, laughing. “I definitely take advantage of that.”
Walsh, who grew up in Texas and went to college in Arkansas, has been in awe of the freezing Maine winters. “It’s been so cold,” he said. “It’s icy all day, every day.” And the travel has been significant adjustment – the Maine Celtics fly commercial and oftentimes stay in one city for days at a time. “It’s a lot of back-and-forth. We spend a lot of time at the airport.”
Even so, for Jordan Walsh, the experience has “just been awesome.”
“Everybody being such good people who wanted each and every person to succeed, it made for a smooth transition from Boston to Maine,” Walsh said. “They all want everybody to succeed. That’s the thing in Maine that helps us really be a family, really be together.”
The dynamics of the G-League are unique in that rosters are composed of players affiliated with the big club and others vying just for a chance to get to the NBA. Each team can have up to three two-way players; for the Celtics, those spots are occupied by Neemias Queta, JD Davison, and Drew Peterson. A limited number of G-League players are guys like Walsh, who have fully-guaranteed contracts but are simply on assignment as they develop.
Blaine Mueller, the first-year head coach of the Maine Celtics, told me last week that Walsh has a target on his back as one of the rare guys who has a long-term NBA deal.
“Everyone knows it, and they’re going to come in, and try to give him their best shot,” Mueller said.
But success for Jordan doesn’t mean scoring thirty points a night, or thriving as the offense’s primary option – because that’s not the 3-and-D role that he’s working toward playing in Boston.
“There’s different ways to dominate the game than what the casual fan may expect,” Mueller said, adding that fans often want to see their favorite draft picks explode for highlight-reel dunks and plays that go viral on Instagram and Tik Tok.
“You’re not going to necessarily see a guy crashing from the corner, grabbing it, and kicking it out for a teammate to hit a three on social media,” Mueller said. “But that’s what he’s being asked to do. Or getting a great defensive stop – it’s not the sexist thing in the world, but that’s what translates for him.”
Jordan Walsh is a fan favorite here in Portland, Maine. Hits his second three of the night, and the Celtics are running away with this one. pic.twitter.com/Es8Fy2KiJf— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 14, 2024
Walsh has already improved tremendously as a three-point shooter
So far this season, Walsh has averaged 16.3 points and shot 40.8% from three. Those numbers are significant leaps from his college figures; he shot 27.8% from beyond the arc at Arkansas, and averaged 7.1 points per game.
“It’s been a big thing since college — all of the NBA knew that I needed to work on my shot,” Walsh said.
Walsh told me his increased scoring output, and far-improved outside shooting, is largely the result of an unwavering confidence that the Celtics coaching staff worked hard to instill in him. As a freshman in Arkansas, he often passed up open looks, but immediately upon his arrival to Boston, he was encouraged to shoot whenever he was open.
“When you are in an environment like that, that not only wants you to succeed but is forcing you to succeed, forcing you to shine in those moments, it really does boost your confidence,” Walsh said. “Now, if I do have an open three — or maybe it’s not completely open, it’s somewhat contested — I’m going to shoot it,” Walsh said. “They’ve done their job in preparing me for those moments.”
But the increased efficiency is more than just the result of a confidence boost. After he was drafted, the Celtics coaching staff flagged that as they reviewed his college film, they noticed something they believed was at the root of his shooting woes: his footwork.
“They said that a lot of time in college, I had a whole bunch of different footworks going into my shot, which sometimes made me off-balance, sometimes not ready to shoot,” Walsh said. It was something that one of his assistant coaches at Arkansas had mentioned to him before, but it was never really a point of emphasis. Eager to improve his on-court numbers, Jordan immediately went to work.
“They told me about it, showed me film, showed me the different percentages depending on my footwork,” Walsh said. “I took that and I ran with it. And, you know, obviously I’ve improved since then.”
While he refines his offensive game, Walsh has continued to thrive defensively.
At Arkansas, Walsh was known as a defensive specialist, and nearly every NBA scouting report described him as physically gifted, pointing to his 7’2 wingspan, and strong instincts. Scouts also noted his ‘willing to sacrifice his body’, high-motor playing style, and tendency to ‘smother players on the perimeter.’
Now, Walsh is teammates with some of the top defenders in the world — like Derrick White, who was Second Team All-Defense last year, and Jrue Holiday, who was First Team.
“You finally accomplished something, which is becoming a professional basketball player, and now you’re with some of the best players in the NBA — Tatum, Brown, Jrue, all those guys,” Walsh said.
Recognizing how uniquely lucky he is to be surrounded with such veteran talent, Walsh has eagerly sought out advice from his Celtics teammates.
“I thought it was really important that I take something from each one of those guys’ games and apply it to my own,” Walsh said. “They’re open with information, they always want to help me – even guys that aren’t too much older want to help. The fact that I joined an organization that has such a good track record, and such a good group of guys, makes it easier for me to transition.”
His eagerness to learn has impressed the stars in Boston.
“He’s a kid that just wants to get better each and every day, always asking questions and stuff like that,” Derrick White told me. “Even when he’s not with us, he’s still a part of us.”
I spoke with Derrick White about Jordan Walsh, who’s back in Boston today:— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 17, 2024
"He's a kid that just wants to get better each and every day. Always asking questions and stuff like that. It will be good to see him again. Even when he’s not with us, he’s still a part of us.” https://t.co/yQs3sxhWdA pic.twitter.com/Db91vuOwku
Thanks to his one-on-one battles with Payton Pritchard, Walsh has learned how to guard smaller, quicker players.
“He’s taught me, indirectly, how to guard a smaller guy — getting into them and making them uncomfortable,” Walsh said.
He’s also gleaned a lot of defensive wisdom from Jrue Holiday.
“Jrue is always telling me how to navigate your space as a defender so that you’re always in between the basket, and you’re never really getting beat,” Walsh said. “If I can implement that into my game, I can be an even better defender, an even better player.”
Those around him are in awe of his natural defensive abilities. JD Davison said Walsh has made significant strides in the last few months alone, to the point where he is typically the clear best defender on the court.
Jordan Walsh has the potential to be special defensively. pic.twitter.com/RvGZEup82m— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 14, 2024
Tony Snell, a 10-year NBA veteran who is also currently one of Walsh’s Maine Celtics’ teammates, told me that thinks the 19-year-old could end up being one of the best defenders in the world.
“He can be an excellent, elite defender. He’s gifted in that aspect,” Snell said. “He could be a top First Team All-Defense guy. That’s what we expect of him.”
And that’s where Walsh has his sights set.
“I’m hoping that eventually I’ll have the chance to be an elite 3-and-D player for the Celtics, and give them a chance to accomplish everything that they want to accomplish – be a glue guy who always does whatever it takes to win,” he said. “That’s the end goal.”
On Wednesday night, as the rookie ran up and down the court to the buzzing anticipation of the Garden crowd, he was certain of one thing: he wanted to experience a whole lot more of this.
“Being a Maine Celtic is preparing me and getting me ready for those moments,” Walsh said. “And hopefully, in the future, there will be a lot more of those moments.”