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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Future is now for West

WALTHAM -- Win now and look to the future? The Celtics are trying to do both. By signing veteran and future Hall of Famer Gary Payton, the team has made it clear that a playoff pedigree (not to mention a chunk of postseason revenue) matters, and the blossoming of rookie guard Delonte West might have to be curbed for the moment.

That's a tough one to swallow for fans of the rookie from Saint Joseph's, like me. West flourished in Payton's absence, leading the Celtics to a thrilling win in Phoenix with a huge three in the final minutes and a pair of hustle plays that turned the game around. He was on the court for crunch time against the Lakers, directing veterans Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, and Ricky Davis to a 104-101 victory.

In the past three games, West has committed zero turnovers over a stretch of 81-plus minutes.

"Aw," the rookie groaned yesterday. "I hope y'all haven't just jinxed me."

No one is suggesting that Payton has outlived his usefulness on this team. Obviously, his leadership has been a calming influence, and his absence of malice upon grudgingly reporting back in November was commendable. Payton's presence is undeniable, but West has exhibited a fair amount of poise of his own. He doesn't look like a rookie, unless you count the frenetic manner in which he attacks the basketball on defense.

Al Jefferson and Tony Allen, too, have made splashy contributions in their first seasons. But consider this: When Payton was dealt to Atlanta, coach Doc Rivers picked his brain on the way out the door, just in case (wink, wink) Payton wasn't returning. Asked about the young players, Payton's most enthusiastic comments were reserved for West.

West logged 19 minutes in the loss to Minnesota Sunday, and that's what he can expect to get, give or take a few minutes, the rest of the way. Payton, meanwhile, started and submitted 32 minutes.

"I'm not looking at minutes," said Rivers. "Delonte is the backup right now. I'm looking more at Gary's time, to tell the truth. I want to monitor him, which means Delonte will play a little more. Having Gary Payton in front of him is not going to kill him."

Agreed. Let's call it a flesh wound. The confidence of young players has been known to vacillate according to how much playing time they get, but the good news is West is still very much in the rotation.

Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who monitors West's box scores nightly, felt his former guard has a fabulous opportunity to play significant minutes for a team in the NBA playoff hunt.

"When I checked the transactions and saw they brought Payton back, I worried he might be a little down and out," Martelli said. "But that's certainly not the indication I got when I talked to him.

"I think the thing I'm proudest of Delonte for is how much he looks forward to practice, to improving every day. There's a lot of guys who say, `Look, I'm a first-round pick, you can't tell me anything.' He's not one of those guys."

West was close to inconsolable when injuries sidelined him for the first third of the season. Even when he became healthy, he had to wait his turn. For a gym rat who lives to play, it was frustrating and demoralizing not to be able to prove he belonged.

"I know everyone in the league wants to be there, but Delonte is almost a kid that has to be there," Martelli explained. "Basketball is not just something that he's good at. It truly is his passion.

"He has made it his business to learn the history of the game. He was so happy when he was drafted by the Celtics because he knew exactly what they've meant to the NBA. He's one of these kids that needs to know everything about the game, not just his own game. He has tremendous respect for the career path he has chosen."

It was West who purchased one of those retro leather jackets and asked team president and resident legend Red Auerbach to sign the sleeve. During the league's rookie orientation, when other newcomers were asking who the heck ever heard of Bob Lanier or Satch Sanders, West was reciting their vital statistics.

With that in mind, it's easy to understand why West has viewed Payton's return as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

"Gary can give you the different side of things," West said. "Coach Rivers comes over and explains what he wants, but then Gary comes over and explains it a little more in depth. He makes it easier for me to understand what Coach is getting at."

West is not what you'd call a true point guard (who is these days?). He was the "other" member of the Saint Joseph's backcourt last season that went 27-0 and beat Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. Point guard Jameer Nelson garnered most of the headlines, while West quietly collected a slew of admirers who grew to appreciate his playmaking abilities.

"I'll tell you what," Martelli said. "The great untold story of our team last season was, from two-thirds of the way through the year on, Delonte led us in assists. He was like the perfect second passer. You've got the guy who makes the first pass. Well, Delonte was the one that made the next pass that led to a basket.

"I don't know the NBA all that well, but all I know is that Delonte is a guard. Not a 2 or a 1, just a guard, kind of like Danny Ainge was with the Celtics."

There's no doubt West's recent success initiated some dialogue among members of ownership and the front office. The merits of allowing West to find his way or putting him under the steady watch of Payton were debated more than once.

In the end, winning now narrowly edged developing younger talent.

Hey, I'm all for the Celtics making a run at the playoffs, but I still want Delonte West on the floor, early and often. I know he'll make mistakes, and I imagine he'll commit another turnover sometime soon. But he's fun to watch, his energy is contagious, and he just seems a little more mature than most NBA kids.

Win now and build for the future? Sure thing. Just remember the kid from Saint Joe's might help you do both at once.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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