Through 81 games of the 2010-’11 NBA season, Avery Bradley displayed all the comfort of a nun in a strip club.
There was nothing fluid about his game, nothing confident. We could always see the physical tools that made him a high draft pick—the 40-inch vertical, long and wiry frame, and the foot speed that allows him to, in the words of his high school coach, “put people in a phone booth” on defense—but his production didn’t at all match his physical attributes. Part of that was that he was still raw. After only one season of college basketball, and that one season wasn’t spectacular, Danny Ainge knew the now 20-year old Bradley would need seasoning. But we still felt we would at least see flashes, teases, of offensive talent. Instead Bradley showed nothing, beyond his God-given physical ability, to make us think he could ever become a competent offensive player.
Until last night.
Suddenly, Bradley was a threat. Suddenly, he looked for his own offense. Suddenly, I could close my eyes, think of the future and envision Bradley playing serious, impact minutes.
“It felt good to finally get the rhythm that I used to get in the D-League and college,” Bradley told ESPN Boston. “It helps your game.”
It was fitting that he developed that rhythm on the defensive end of the court. Sometimes, basketball players only need confidence, and Bradley’s very first possession was certainly a shot of confidence for a player who had sorely lacked it. Showing the same lateral quickness that caused Doc Rivers to label him “an NBA defender before he got here,” Bradley quickly let Anthony Carter know his job wasn’t going to be easy.
After the dunk, everything seemed to come more naturally. Bradley settled into the game quickly, and by “settled into the game,” I mean he went off on a scoring rampage nobody saw coming. A 20-foot jumper shortly followed the dunk. A runner off the glass came next. A few more buckets later, and I admit that watching the outburst felt like watching Stevie Wonder see, Bradley’s first half came to a close. Twelve points in only twelve minutes, for a player who had only scored 32 points the entire season entering the night.
The explosion wasn’t evidence that Bradley should have played more minutes all season. On the contrary, he still showed quite visible flaws. Doc Rivers called Bradley a “direct-line drive guard” after the game, meaning he does not have moves to beat his opponent laterally. Indeeed, Bradley drove north-south straight to the hoop on most of his scores.
Since Bradley’s offensive repertoire has been slow to develop, his last bucket might have been his most meaningful. Before his crossover and subsequent strong take made Derrick Brown look bad, I don’t remember Bradley making an attack move all season. Granted, it was Derrick Brown, a forward rather than an opposing point guard. It was still the most comfortable move Bradley made all season.
You can see the burst of speed which helped make Bradley such an attractive draft pick. You can see how he could eventually become a top-shelf player. But for now, he still doesn’t have very many point guard skills. Against the Knicks’ backups, in a meaningless game at the end of the season, Bradley got away with that. Against more pressure, though, Bradley has trouble running an offense. Even yesterday, he occasionally revealed his troubling lack of natural point guard skills.
Bradley still made the jumper, yet another example that grime can turn to gold. Even so, you could see his lack of ball-handling on full display. When his defender applies fierce (or sometimes even mediocre) pressure, Bradley allows his opponent to dictate his play.
The Celtics believe his offense will improve. Possessing a great work ethic by all accounts, Bradley’s not someone who sit idly while his natural talent goes unrealized. Thankfully, while he strives to improve his ball skills, his defense is already more than adequate. Not every play ends like his first one did last night, with Bradley picking his opponent’s pocket and gliding in for an emphatic dunk. Some other defensive contributions he makes are more subtle. For example, Bradley almost always picks his man up full court. He attaches to his man at the hip, like a shadow. He’s physical, he anticipates well, and his feet make up ground like Devin McCourty when a potential interception’s thrown his way. Even when Bradley’s opponent advances the ball without a turnover, Bradley assures it’s no easy task.
Does one 20-point game automatically lead me to assume Avery Bradley will become a key contributor next season? No. He still has a mountain to climb in order to become a solid NBA player. But his defensive prowess will go a long way toward forcing him on the court, and for the first time, we’ve seen hope his offensive skills could one day catch up to his better half.