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NBA Saturday: The Development of Avery Bradley

This has been a career-year for Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley, who opens up about his success … The Indiana Pacers got a signature win on Friday

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Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo talks about participating in the Three-Point Contest during the 2014 All-Star Weekend.

The Development of Avery Bradley

Not that long ago, when Avery Bradley was a rookie on the Boston Celtics, he was completely star struck and nervous around the team’s veteran players. At the time, Bradley was only 20 years old and understandably shy since he was playing alongside future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Shaquille O’Neal. Bradley was scared of being subbed in during practices because he didn’t want to mess up. He was content sitting on the sidelines, so that he wouldn’t get yelled at by Garnett or embarrass himself in front of the stars that he had watched on television for years.

Now, just three years later, Bradley is one of Boston’s most important players. The team has ushered in a youth movement, and the 23-year-old guard is their most productive, experienced youngster. Early in his career, Bradley earned a reputation for being an excellent perimeter defender, capable of terrorizing guards from one end of the court to the other. But this season, Bradley’s role has expanded and he has the opportunity to show that he’s a two-way player.

While this is Bradley’s third season as a starter with the Celtics, it’s his first campaign as one of the team’s focal points. He’s no longer just the lockdown defender who was a complementary piece to Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Now, in addition to playing his tenacious defense, he’s also leading the Celtics in shot attempts per game and handling the ball much more than ever before.

Entering this season, Bradley realized that he needed to step up and do more for the Celtics. While he has battled an ankle sprain throughout the year, he has furthered his development this season and put together a career-year. He’s currently averaging a career-high in points (14.6), rebounds (4.0) and efficiency rating (12.81). In his first three seasons in the NBA (playoffs included), Bradley played in 161 games, but scored 20 or more points just six times. This season, he has already had 10 games with 20 or more points through 45 contests.

“I think [I’ve developed] a lot because I have worked on my game and I got a chance to learn from a lot of great players,” Bradley told Basketball Insiders. “Even though I didn’t play as much, it was big for me to get a chance to learn from Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] and all of those guys. I feel like that helped my development a lot. I would watch everything they did, every single day. Like, literally. The days that I didn’t want to work out, those guys would motivate me. The stuff that I would see them do, it’s no coincidence why they are who they are.”

While Bradley has had some games where he has struggled to shoot the ball, he has also had a number of impressive outings that were incredibly efficient. He had 21 points on 9-11 shooting against the Cleveland Cavaliers in late November, 26 points on 11-19 shooting versus the Washington Wizards in December, and 24 points on 10-15 shooting against the Orlando Magic in November. While Bradley’s offense has been on display this season, he stresses that he still considers himself a defensive-minded player.

“First, I’m a defensive player,” Bradley said. “I’ve always known that if I got a chance I would be able to make shots for my team, but that wasn’t my role. Defense was my role, and that’s still my role now. But now I also get a chance to be able to show both ends of the floor and that means a lot, for my teammates to have confidence in me and for my hard work to pay off.”

Boston’s new head coach, Brad Stevens, is the one who has given more responsibilities to Bradley. Stevens, who spent the last six years coaching at Butler University, is adjusting to the NBA game in his first season as an NBA coach. Bradley believes he has done an incredible job with the young Celtics, and says Stevens’ NCAA-to-NBA transition has been very smooth.

“It’s been amazing,” Bradley said of playing for Coach Stevens. “I feel like he’s done a great job. Obviously this is a different game, but I feel like he has adjusted so well, and he gives us all confidence. To have a coach that believes in you and wants to see you do well and succeed, that’s big and important, especially for a young team.”

When Rajon Rondo and Bradley have started together in the backcourt for Boston, the team is 2-0. Stevens hopes the duo can stay healthy going forward because he loves playing them together.

“It’s huge,” Stevens said of being able to play Bradley and Rondo together. “It’s a huge priority for me. They seem to be on paper really good fits, but it’s even better to see them in person. Their strengths fit each other well on both ends of the floor, and so hopefully that can continue to be accentuated as we get further along.”

Bradley enjoys playing alongside Rondo as well. The Celtics started the season without Rondo, who was recovering from a torn ACL, and it made Bradley and others realize just how important the veteran point guard is to the team.

“I feel like it changed things for everybody,” Bradley said of having Rondo back in the lineup. “He brings a different look to the game, and he’s a very smart player on both ends of the floor. He makes it easier on everybody because of how smart he is and how much he knows the game.”

Earlier this season, the Celtics and Bradley’s camp weren’t able to agree to an extension, which means that Bradley will become a restricted free agent this summer once Boston extends a $3,581,302 qualifying offer to him. Bradley will likely receive interest from a number of teams, and it remains to be seen how much Boston is willing to spend to retain him. Bradley is trying not to focus on any of that, just like he didn’t pay attention to the extension negotiations when they were taking place.

“Just like any other process, you try not to worry about it – it’s just like the trade deadline and all that stuff,” Bradley said. “You just don’t worry about it. You can only control your play and your attitude, and that’s all I am focused on.”

The biggest question about Bradley is how much more will he improve in the years to come? He’s only 23 years old, so it’s safe to say that his best basketball is ahead of him. Coming out of high school, Bradley was considered the top recruit in the country because of his potential, ranked ahead of players like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Favors, John Henson, Lance Stephenson and Kawhi Leonard among others. How much more room for development does he have?

“A lot,” Bradley said, without hesitation. “I continue to learn every single day. I learn from Coach Stevens every day. I learn from Rondo every day. I learn from all my teammates. I know that if I continue to work, I can continue to improve. Like this summer already, I have some things that I know I need to work on, that I’m going to put in my game. I’m starting to work on those things already. I’m not going to get specific, but every part of my game I feel like I can improve – defense and offense.”

The sky seems like the limit for Bradley. He has come a long way from the kid who was scared to participate in an NBA practice, and he’s just getting started.

Pacers Over Blazers is Signature Win

The Indiana Pacers got a signature win on Friday night, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in overtime, 118-113. A win over Portland is nice, but this Pacers victory was even more impressive for several reasons: Indiana was without Lance Stephenson, Paul George struggled throughout the evening (17 points on 5-23 shooting) and the Pacers had to come back from down eight with a little over six minutes remaining in the game.

Even when Indiana isn’t at full strength, they’re a very scary team, which is why it isn’t hard to imagine them hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy behind their balanced attack and great defense. George Hill had the best game of his career with 37 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals and David West chipped in 30 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks as well.

“That was a heck of a basketball game, very intense,” head coach Frank Vogel said following the win over Portland. “Our guys exhibited great will.”

“This was a big win for us,” West said. “Against the top teams, you’ve got to get wins throughout the year. This is a good win for us. We talked about finishing strong before the All-star break. We prepared well yesterday for this and just came in and had an overall good game.”

“Regardless of the circumstances in the game, I’ll take a win anytime,” George said. “They are a great team, a great organization. It was a great team win. They really battled. We had to gut it down. We really just manned up defensively, and offensively I thought we made huge plays. It was fun. Those are the games you want to be a part of, playing against the highest competition in a game where you’ve got to grind it out. It’s the most fun games in this league.”

The Pacers overcame the eight-point deficit thanks to big shots from Hill and West. The duo scored 28 of Indiana’s final 37 points.

“We were just making sure we stayed in it and stayed aggressive,” West said. “Ultimately we made enough plays defensively against the top offense in the NBA to come up with a big win at home.”

“We always say it’s a long game and we’re never out of it with the defense we play,” Hill said. “Even with the deficit we had, we knew we’d continue to keep grinding. It was fun. We knew Lance was out. He’s a big part of our energy and things like that. We always say when a guy is down, the next guy has to step up. I just tried to be as aggressive as I could tonight.”

Hill was extremely productive, and drew praise from his coach after the game.

“He’s a special player, probably our most underrated guy,” Vogel said of Hill. “To have a break out game like that offensively with Lance out was good to see. It was his individual mind set. He gets slack because his assists and rebound totals aren’t all that high. But he’s capable of doing what he did tonight.”

“When I first walked in here I was yelling at everybody that I had a lot of energy today,” Hill said. “From 5 o’clock when we came here to start shooting, I don’t know what it was, I just felt different today.”

The Pacers are 39-10, which is the NBA’s best record.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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