Bradley may have rare window of opportunity
Danny Ainge has more than once publicly approached second-year Celtics guard Avery Bradley about his practice habits or techniques or maybe the way he ties his shoes.
With a passion for the former Texas guard to succeed, the Celtics president has turned Bradley into his personal project. Bradley left the Longhorns after one season - drafted by the Celtics with the 19th overall pick in 2010 - and the consensus after one-plus NBA season is that he wasn’t ready.
He doesn’t have a true position. He doesn’t shoot all that well. He is an NBA-caliber defender, but that isn’t enough to garner playing time.
When second-round pick E’Twaun Moore arrived in Boston this season after four years at Purdue - having played in scores of big games and flourished in big moments - the pressure on Bradley to improve increased exponentially.
Bradley is a work in progress, but the Celtics appear invested in him and committed to his future. That is fortunate for him, because not all high draft picks get a large window of opportunity for development.
Former Kansas guard Xavier Henry, drafted seven picks ahead of Bradley at No. 12 by the Grizzlies, was shipped to New Orleans Jan. 4 in a three-team trade for former Philadelphia forward Marreese Speights.
Henry is four months younger than Bradley, and when he was drafted, ESPN analyst David Thorpe wrote, “Either way, Henry is one of the few players who wasn’t drafted in the top five - he went 12th - who has All-Star potential. Memphis mentored [O.J.] Mayo beautifully as a rookie, and I see similar things happening with Henry.’’
Yet the Grizzlies dumped the 20-year-old Henry without ever giving him a chance to prove himself. He played 38 games as a rookie and was traded while nursing an ankle injury. The 76ers drafted Speights 16th overall in 2008, and he started four games in three years.
Patience is short with younger players. Gone are the days when prospects such as Jermaine O’Neal were given years before teams decided whether they could be cornerstones. The Trail Blazers drafted O’Neal out of high school in 1996 and he played sparingly over four seasons before they traded him to the Pacers for Dale Davis. O’Neal made six All-Star teams in Indiana.
“You haven’t seen something like this in sports where teams are trying to make a ton of money, so I think their patience is short with guys’ development,’’ said O’Neal.
“I think what organizations are not understanding is that sometimes it takes a little bit longer. When you draft players, you have to know what you’re drafting, what the time frame is you have for a draft pick, and what the support system is.
“Portland was perfect for me because I still had a lot of great people around me. The city was great for me.
“Teams aren’t doing that anymore. They are drafting players for what they think they might be or who they might be like. And it’s not really fair to the draft picks.’’
Since an increasing amount of players are taking advantage of the one-and-done rule that allows them to enter the draft following their freshman season, there is a spate of unpolished, ill-prepared prospects every June. Bradley and Henry were two of those.
The success rate for draft picks can be barely 50-50. Of the 30 first-round picks in 2006, for example, half are no longer in the NBA after Brandon Roy’s retirement.
“It all comes down to timing,’’ said Chris Webber, the former All-Star who is now an NBA TV analyst. “If you are a young kid and you come in and they can’t use you right away, the team has to figure out if they are trying to win a championship now or whether you fit in the team’s plans. As a young player, you can’t take that personal.’’
But what teams say privately about many of these teen-aged prospects is that they lack a work ethic or come to the league with a sense of entitlement. Sacramento forward DeMarcus Cousins, who declared after his freshman season at Kentucky, apparently drove former coach Paul Westphal crazy with his arrogance.
“It’s about being a professional, and that’s why you should decide if you want to come in early,’’ Webber said. “Because there is somebody always working just as hard as you. So it may be smart to wait a little bit longer to make sure your game is ready.
“The NBA is a funny game right now. Those with the best game, if you are in the right position, you will be showcased. Just because you’re a great player doesn’t mean you’ll make it in the NBA.’’
Bradley’s rookie season was hindered by right ankle surgery; he was limited to 31 games, mostly garbage time. His role has expanded this season as backup point guard, and his improvement is apparent, but it could take a few more years before he is a consistent NBA starter.
Whether the Celtics exhibit that much patience remains to be seen.
“Some people call it pressure, but I look at it as just coming in every day and working hard trying to get better, and I know if I do that, everything will work itself out,’’ he said.
“Danny definitely helps me out a lot on things I need to improve on. He’s a good person and a good mentor for me.
“Even though I don’t get a chance to play as much as I would want to, I’m learning a lot and I’m learning how to be professional. I’m learning work ethic.
“Paul [Pierce] is in here [at the practice facility] every day. All the stuff he does, it’s amazing. It just rubs off on the younger guys because we want to be like him.’’
Walton finally gets pain relief
Walton is missed on the national stage, the Hall of Famer stepping away from broadcasting when spinal pain became too great and required delicate surgery. Walton had always dealt with back and foot pain - the latter slicing years off his NBA career - but the pain that developed in later years became debilitating.
“Five years ago, when my spine collapsed and failed me, I spent the next three years on the ground,’’ he said. “All you want is for that pain to go away and get that chance to play one more day. I’m lucky. I’m coming up on the three-year anniversary of my surgery. I had no idea what life was like without back pain.’’
Not only did the pain force Walton to interrupt his broadcasting career, it led him to contemplate his mortality.
“When you spend three years on the ground, in excruciating, debilitating, unrelenting pain, it can only be described as being submerged in a vat of scalding acid with an electrifying current running through it,’’ he said.
“And you know full well that your life is over and it’s not worth living. You go through the stages of thinking you’re going to die, to wanting to die, to being afraid you’re going to live, to all of sudden you get better. Your life is never the same again.’’
Walton is auctioning a $100,000 event package at his San Diego home to benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which provides equipment and other necessities for physically challenged athletes. Walton has a special connection with the cause.
“When you spent three years on the ground, you need to start over,’’ he said. “That’s what I’m doing.
“The great thing about the game of life is you never know where it’s going to take you. People who lose a limb, our veterans who come back from our wars in the Middle East, people who have been blown up, children with horrific birth defects or who have been in tragic and terrible accidents, they lose a limb and they think their life is over - the way that my life was over a few years ago.
“I’ve got this second chance and I’m going for it.’’
It has been 26 years since Walton joined the Celtics as a replacement for Cedric Maxwell and helped the team win its 16th title. He was at the tail end of his career, relegated to reserve duty because of years of foot injuries. But he played a career-best 80 games as a 33-year-old, averaging 7.6 points in 19 minutes. For that one season, his body cooperated.
“I was a Celtic fan growing up as a boy; Bill Russell was my favorite player ever,’’ he said. “It was a very, very special team that could beat anybody any way. Larry Bird, who was the greatest player I ever played with, Kevin McHale, the second-greatest low-post player I ever played against, all the guys made the team so much fun.
“The day I beat Kevin McHale one-on-one in practice in front of the whole Celtic family, that’s what stands out.’’
If you’re wondering about the greatest low-post player Walton played against, it was his first NBA rival, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“Kareem was the greatest player I ever played against, regardless of position, by far, not even close,’’ he said.
The current Celtics may be slightly reminiscent of that ’86 team, with a roster full of players in their final productive years. The question is whether they are capable of another championship run.
“[Rajon] Rondo is the key, but the domination of the paint - which puts incredible pressure on Kevin Garnett - ultimately [will be most important],’’ he said. “Kevin Garnett is not a center. He is a forward, and those are completely different positions.
“While he can play limited amounts of time at center, that’s not his game. That means Jermaine O’Neal and Brandon Bass have to carry extremely heavy burdens.
“It’s a young man’s game, and right now the Miami Heat are the best team in the Eastern Conference. They’re a lot younger, and they can run faster, harder, and longer, and that comes back to Rondo as the critical component.’’
But it is possible for an older team to prevail, Walton added.
“If the players will listen to the coach, and if the players will make the sacrifices, it can happen,’’ he said.
Is there need for Sheed?
While the Celtics don’t regret signing Wallace to a two-year deal, they were disappointed that he did not work himself into top condition that season. He had to come out of Game 7 of the NBA Finals because of exhaustion.
Wallace may have some value around the league as a top post defender despite his age (37). But the Celtics will not be in the market for an aging center whose casual approach was a concern even when he was surrounded by role models such as Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
Wallace appeared convinced that he wanted to retire after the Finals but he never filed the paperwork. His $6 million salary came off the Celtics’ books last season. There will be interest in Wallace among title-contending teams with strong coaches, but it may take him the majority of the regular season to get back into playing shape.
Good news for the Raptors and center Aaron Gray, who missed the first two weeks of the season after a heart abnormality was detected. Gray underwent a procedure to correct the issue and will return in two weeks . . . Word out of the NBADL showcase was that Antoine Walker is out of shape and not close to a return to the NBA. The former Celtic returned for a second stint with Idaho and was averaging 10.8 points and shooting 34.4 percent through 14 games. Walker, 35, last played in the NBA in 2007-08 with the Timberwolves. In the opening game of the showcase, before NBA scouts looking for roster additions, he finished 1 for 8 with 7 points in 30 minutes . . . Orlando’s Dwight Howard, who attempted an NBA-record 39 free throws in a win over Golden State Thursday, still maintains a desire to be traded. He said he wants to move to the Nets, Mavericks, or Lakers but expects to be with the Magic through the All-Star Game, which happens to be in Orlando. The trade deadline has been pushed back to March 15 because of the lockout, so the Magic could wait for the market to develop. Howard can opt out of his contract this summer and become an unrestricted free agent . . . Glen “Big Baby’’ Davis got into an exchange with an autograph seeker in Portland as he breezed by a group walking to the locker room after warmups. Davis reportedly pointed out his new four-year, $26 million contract with Orlando during the exchange with the fan. If you recall, Davis was fined $25,000 for screaming an obscenity at a fan in Detroit after the fan made constant fun of his weight.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.