Instead of trading their first round picks, Danny Ainge invested in youth and this could be the year that that draft capital finally pays off.
Our frenemies over at Silver Screen & Roll put together a fun piece where they re-imagined the Lakers in their prime, plucking their best years from their storied pasts. As it stands, Los Angeles is fielding a team next season with seven former All-Stars that includes LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, and Marc Gasol. All are on the wrong side of 30 with a bench that also features Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, and Kent Bazemore.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are young. Really young. Yes, Brad Stevens has added veterans at every position like Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson, and Enes Kanter, but even those guys are relatively young. Only Al Horford is over-30 and if he was on the Lakers, he’d still only be the fifth oldest member of purple and grey.
But what might be the key to Boston’s success next season and certainly long term will be the continued development of their key young players: Robert Williams, Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, and Grant Williams. Right now, none of them project to be surefire Hall of Famers, but if LA can jump in the DeLorean, we can go back to the future, too.
Payton Pritchard => Fred VanVleet
Right now, Pritchard might have the highest floor of the young core. He’s the oldest member after spending four seasons at Oregon and it shows. He’s arguably already the best three-point shooter on the team which makes him the perfect complement to Tatum and Brown today. Even if he doesn’t make large strides in other parts of his game, he’s already a perfect fit.
However, fast forward Fast PP’s development and we might see a star turn not unlike Raptors fans saw in Fred VanVleet after Kawhi Leonard left Toronto. For Prichard, as many scouts suggested, the next step is what he can do off the dribble. Now, he’s an undersized shooting guard that can hit catch-and-shoot opportunities at a high clip. But if he wants to become a reliable point guard, he’s going to be able to have to create his own shot and more importantly, shots for others. That means establishing a floater, absorbing contact and getting to the line, passing off penetration, and defending his position.
Robert Williams => Clint Capela
Some fans might consider Robert Williams already as good as Clint Capela and with Timelord locked into a relatively team-friendly contract (four-years, $48M starting next season vs. nearly $20M per season for the next four years for Capela in Atlanta), he’s also a bargain. Of course, Williams’ best ability going forward is going to have to be his availability. He’s only played 113 games over the last three seasons, but now that he’s been extended by Brad Stevens, he’ll be expected to be a building block for this team.
In an earlier CelticsBlog debate with Michael Pearce on whether Williams or Horford should start, I argued:
Last season after the trade deadline when Williams was inserted into the starting lineup, Boston rattled off eight wins in eleven games, boasting a 107.1 defensive rating and a net rating of 7.3. Frankly, they seemed to play freer and with more joy. That shouldn’t all be credited to Williams, but I did get a sense that him getting the nod to play with the starters was a long time coming and you could see the energy elevate when he was on the floor.
The skill and talent are there. They just need to be there more consistently.
Aaron Nesmith => Danny Green
The formula for Aaron Nesmith is simple: play D and hit shots. During The Finals, I envisioned Nesmith as a Mikal Bridges clone:
There’s reason to believe that Nesmith was already rounding into form towards the end of the season. In the final two months of the season, he hit 42% of his threes; in a similar span of games to start the year, he hit only 35%. The game slowed down for the first-year player. He doubled his looks around the rim from 19% of his shots before the All-Star break to 38.3% in March, April, and May. Instead of becoming just a prototypical 3&D wing, he found success attacking the rim.
For a player like Nesmith, expectations are a little lower. Could he added more to his game? Sure. Could he make large strides in development like Brown has over the last two off-seasons? More power to him. But as a complementary piece, he just has to fill the margins.
Nesmith surprised opposing teams with a defensive motor that matched his shooting prowess and that’s certainly an area that the Celtics will rely on him more in 2021-2022. Shooting for the moon would be comparing him to Klay Thompson, but Danny Green is a more realistic comp for now.
Grant Williams => Draymond Green
Grant might have the widest variety of outcomes. In the perfect setting, he’s the rising tide that lifts all boats — invisible at times, but doing all the little things like setting screens, making the hockey assist, and switching on to anybody on defense. We’ve seen Williams be very successful surrounded by great players. Two years ago in the bubble, he often finished games as a small ball 5 when flanked by Brown, Tatum, Smart, Walker, and/or Hayward.
Unfortunately, Williams can often disappear into the background, too. His sophomore season was a mess without a clear role or skillset that he could lean on to make himself invaluable. Tristan Thompson could rebound against anybody. Robert Williams was a defensive menace. What exactly could you rely on Grant to bring to the table?
For Williams to earn more playing time, he has to consistently be able to zig when opposing teams are trying to zag. That means being able to defend at all times against bigger big men like Bam Adebayo or Giannis Anteokounmpo. That means drawing out rim protectors and hitting corner threes. It’s a role that Draymond Green has perfected in Golden State and one that even Green sees in Williams.
By all accounts, Grant has figured out ways to win at every level before the NBA. Undersized, undervalued, and under recruited in high school and college, he just figured it out. If there’s a page to tear out of Green’s book, it’s whatever chapter covers swagger. Williams doesn’t need the brash overconfidence that makes Draymond Draymond, but a dash of confidence couldn’t hurt.
Romeo Langford => Evan Turner
Like Grant Williams, Romeo Langford is another bit of mystery. He doesn’t exactly slot himself in any of Stevens’ previous player types. He’s not exactly a ball handler that overwhelms defenders with speed and keeps them honest with a reliable jumper. As good a defender as he’s become, he mostly can’t hang with most power forwards and centers. He’s not an explosive scorer on the wing. But last season, Brad Stevens projected Langford as a possible Evan Turner clone, a tweener that can do a bit of everything.
In Vegas this summer, Langford again showed the range of versatility he could provide. In the first Summer League game, he put together a 12-point, 6-point, and 4-assist effort that could hint towards a 5 by 5 by 5 stat line that made Turner such a great utility player in his time in Boston. And then there were moments where Langford showed his untapped athleticism that makes you think there’s more untapped potential with the former 14th pick:
— NBA (@NBA) August 10, 2021
“I think sometimes people mistake Romeo’s passivity for playing the right way,” Celtics assistant coach and SL head coach Joe Mazzulla said . “The one thing he does a great job with is he’s always physical defensively and he waits for the right play to come to him. I thought he did a good job of being patient, I thought they were a little physical with him on the dribble handoffs and I thought he matched the physicality in the second half.”
Langford’s upside has been clouded by injury and two uniquely difficult NBA seasons. This is the first summer he’s really been able to work on his game and as everything starts to slows down for him, we could be seeing those dividends pay off as soon as this upcoming season.
So, how good could a team with Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown be surrounded by Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Clint Capela, Evan Turner, and Draymond Green? That’s a pretty deep team and more importantly, young and sustainable through the core’s contracts.
Let’s remember that in Brad Stevens’ move from the bench to the front office, he’s had a front row seat in these players’ development. From the 2019 NBA Draft to the bubble to last year’s COVID season, he knows what they’re capable of now and what they could be in the future. Even with all the player movement from this offseason, the 2019 and 2020 draft classes are largely intact in Boston (minus Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters). That could be perceived as either a vote of confidence or signal a lack of interest from the rest of the league. Regardless, considering Boston’s cap situation and motivation to start building around their two franchise players as soon as possible, the opportunity is now for the young Celtics.