Celtics

Ime Udoka gives offseason message for Jayson Tatum, hopes for internal improvement

"Take a step back and rest your body first and foremost."

Ime Udoka gave Jayson Tatum an uplifting message following the Celtics' NBA Finals loss. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Celtics coach Ime Udoka had nearly as good of a first season as he could have asked for, reaching the NBA Finals before losing to the Warriors in six games.

Arguably the biggest reason for Boston’s midseason rise up the Eastern Conference standings and Finals run was Udoka’s coaching, which was built upon his relationships with the players. The Celtics’ young stars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — were repetitively vocal in their support of Udoka, even when the team was struggling.

Following a rough Finals performance by Tatum, Udoka shared the encouraging message he gave the Celtics’ leading scorer for the offseason on Friday.

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“He had a great year — first-team All-NBA, all the accolades that he accomplished, and obviously he had a huge part in getting us to where we were,” Udoka said. “My main message to him was, take a step back and rest your body first and foremost. You had a long season, a long offseason with the Olympics last year, and dove right into it with the season and all the situations we went through like injuries. He was kind of the steady force, didn’t miss a lot of time due to injuries or COVID. When guys were out, he had to shoulder a lot of that load.

“Physically get right, mentally take a step back, reflect, and kind of decompress. Get your mind right as well. Just that time away. Don’t want to bother guys as much right now, but we want to relay the message that there’s still more to build on and grow on in certain areas.

“I think first and foremost, just taking that step away and reflecting on everything when you get back into the gym and take a chance to look at the season as a whole and look at the accomplishments you made personally. For him, he’s a gym rat that wants to get right back into it. Obviously, he has his offseason routine where he takes care of himself extremely well. Get his body right and start building up.

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“So from there, we want him to take a step back, rest, and take a look at the big picture and what he accomplished and build on that.”

As Udoka’s message helps close the chapter of the first season in Boston, he’s looking at the start of the next chapter. Udoka’s second year with the Celtics is already underway with the draft happening on Thursday night. Boston didn’t have much of an eventful evening, selecting Alabama guard JD Davison with one of the final picks of the draft.

Udoka and the Celtics’ attention turns to free agency and the trade market. The Celtics’ coach reiterated several times on Friday that the team is prioritizing internal improvement. But Udoka also gave a guideline as to which kind of players the Celtics will target in free agency and with their $17.1 million trade exception.

“Obviously, free agency’s a huge deal coming up and we’ve got some needs to address,” Udoka said. “For us, consistency across the board, continue to play the way we have — defensive mindset and also sharing the basketball. And anything we can add, position-wise, to help us with that would be beneficial. For us, consistent scoring off the bench is a huge key. We like to look at certain positions and think we have a lot of things covered but can always have positions [covered].”

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“We had some young guys we really relied on, Payton [Pritchard], Derrick [White], Grant [Williams], and those guys grew tremendously throughout the year, and we need to see more of that,” Udoka added. “But certain positions and roles need to be touched on and we have a good amount of names that we’re looking at and hopefully some of those things work out.”

Even though Boston doesn’t have cap space, it sits in a good spot roster-wise. All of the Celtics’ regular rotation players from their run to the Finals are under contract for next season. In addition to the big trade exception, the Celtics can also use the mid-level exception and the veteran minimum to add players via free agency.

While the money might not be enticing to prospective free agents, the situation in Boston could be. Udoka recalled his time as an assistant on the Spurs as an example of this when free agents joined the team following their Finals win in 2014. Udoka said he’s hoping the Celtics can have a similar reward for their Finals run this past season.

“Great players attract others and talk to each other throughout the season and the offseason,” Udoka said. “Just watching us on that stage and the growth of our young guys, that’s appealing to other players. When you have guys like Jaylen, Jayson, guys who have a bright future, you start to look at longevity and consistency across the board. That’s appealing to other guys.”

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The selection of Davison is the first addition Boston made to its roster this offseason. While Udoka admitted that he “probably watched less college basketball than ever this year,” he shared how Davison stood out to him.

“Excited about the young guy. He’s a tremendous athlete,” Udoka said. “Obviously, with the hair and flying around, he stood out. But he stood out as a player too when I saw Alabama. We’ll implement JD into everything we do and looking forward to seeing him in Vegas.”

Udoka mentioned that the Celtics could have a departure. Two of his top assistants, Will Hardy and Joe Mazzulla, are candidates for the Jazz head coaching job. If either gets hired for the gig, Udoka will call on another assistant to replace the departing coach.

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