BURLINGTON, Vt. -- The Celtics rookies quickly learned the importance of early wake-up calls. With ankles taped at the team hotel, Al Jefferson, Delonte West, Tony Allen, and Justin Reed needed to show up well before the veterans or risk being bumped to the back of the line. It could be a long wait for any rookie who overslept. Then again, even the early risers on this development-oriented team will spend plenty of time waiting their turn.
While the rookies believe they can make significant contributions this season, they also recognize the gaps in their basketball backgrounds. They all have skills or qualities that translate to the NBA, whether it be Jefferson's ability to score, West's composure under pressure, Allen's athleticism, or Reed's defensive tenacity and powerful play that draws comparisons to Ron Artest.
But without a well-rounded game, the rookies are more liability than asset on the court. For now, it appears a question of when, not if the 2004 draft class will produce contributors.
"They've shown me that they're really hungry to get better," said Paul Pierce. "They're still trying to learn the NBA system and what it's all about. But they're stepping up to the veterans and asking what they can do better, how can they get on the court. That's what you want in a young player."
Coach Doc Rivers and his staff will challenge each rookie to become the proverbial complete player, or at least less prone to turnovers and fouls. The intrasquad scrimmage last night at Patrick Gymnasium provided a glimpse of the rookies' potential, as well as their shortcomings. Pierce led the White team to a 75-71 come-from-behind victory over the Green, finishing with a scrimmage-high 25 points. But Jiri Welsch was the most impressive scorer. Despite leaving the game early after spraining his right wrist, Welsch finished with 22 points (7-for-7 shooting) in 21 minutes. The injury will be reevaluated tomorrow.According to Rivers, second-rounder Reed stood out among the rookies, though not necessarily for his 9 points (4 for 5), 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. It was Reed's ability to "do the dirty work" and go hard after loose balls, crash the offensive glass, and always look for a steal that made Rivers take notice. Jefferson failed to record a point in nine minutes, but he did grab a pair of rebounds. West finished with 5 points and four assists. Allen added 16 points (5 for 10) and eight rebounds for the White team."It's a lot of hard work," said Jefferson. "I have a lot to learn. That's the main thing. They're throwing a lot at you. You've got to learn fast, and a lot of stuff at the same time. It's nothing like high school. About this time last year, I wasn't going through nothing like this." Added Allen, "It's tough. It's hard. Everything's a new experience. Everything was what they said, like, `It's not going to be easy. You're going to have to accept a lot of criticism. The coaches are going to be on you like you've been in the league for about 10 years.' But it's really all fun when the day is over with."
The biggest difference in the NBA is the intensity. The rookies all come from programs where they stood out among the competition; now they must fight for every open shot, face players who are bigger and stronger, and stay focused on every play.
So far, West has handled the competitive pressure best as he learns the point guard position. He has not become rattled when guarded by Gary Payton or Marcus Banks. He embraces the challenge, but still, that does not guarantee him minutes. Ideally, West will be able to back up both Payton and Banks and play shooting guard when Rivers pairs him with Jiri Welsch in the backcourt.
"We all wouldn't be here if we weren't competitive," said West. "I'd rather be out here playing with guys that I've actually got to work harder against, push myself to the limits just to stay on pace. That's what competition is all about.
"These are the best players in the world, playing in the NBA. You're going to run into competition every day. You've got to take it for what it is, an opportunity to compete at the highest level."
Even so, Allen has found it difficult to stay focused -- or "engaged" as Rivers said -- throughout workouts. While the coach has placed no expectations on the rookies, Allen has the best chance to see meaningful playing time early in the season. But to gain that opportunity, Allen cannot cut corners, as he has shown a tendency to do in practice, nor can he let trash talking with Pierce distract him from learning plays.
"That's my problem," said Allen. "I think my attention span is like an ant. It's just so small, if Doc doesn't stay on me. There's so much stuff thrown at me, so many coaches saying stuff to me, then the veterans put in their part, then the coaches come back again and put in their part and come back again and put in their part. It's just all confusing. But if I can keep my attention span up, I think I'll be on the court."
If Allen is overwhelmed after two years in junior college and two years at Oklahoma State, imagine how Jefferson must feel. Last year at this time, he was entering his senior year at Prentiss (Miss.) High School, preparing for the season with "a little running and a lot of hooping." He played by instinct, dominating opponents nearly a foot shorter. Now, he must learn basketball fundamentals, and figure out why he can do what he does on offense and what he should do on defense.
"Al is a funny guy because he doesn't know much about basketball," said Rivers. "He just knows how to score. He'll stumble somehow down to the post, get the ball somehow, but once he gets the ball in the right spot, he's scoring or you're going to foul him.
"I would love to get him on the floor, but I can't get him on the floor and hurt the team. He has to get to the point where he's playing well. He does in stretches."
The good and the bad during last night's scrimmage reinforced the fact that it remains a long process for the rookies, no matter when they wake up.