Celtics' youth movement shows NBA not finished with one-and-dones

celtics-tatum-brown-blakely-column-11018.jpg

Celtics' youth movement shows NBA not finished with one-and-dones

LONDON – It wasn’t that long ago when finding an NBA coach that hated the "one-and-done" rule for college players was easy.

They're not ready to help right away and lack a fundamental understanding of the game’s fundamentals. Those were part of the arguments against players coming into the league after only a year of playing in college.  

MORE CELTICS:

Now, we’ve seen more and more NBA teams roll the dice on players with slightly more than a semester’s worth of college to their name. It's to the point where on many levels it's become the rule rather than the exception.

And you know what?

It’s working.

Of the 30 players taken in the first round of the most recent NBA draft, 10 of the first 11 picks opted for the draft after their freshman year of college and a total of 16 first-rounders turned pro after their first season of college.

There may not be a better example of the one-and-done player’s success story than the Celtics' Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, each taken with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 (Brown) and 2017 (Tatum). 

“I’ve been real impressed with our last two guys who came from college, played one year,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “They were obviously ready for a lot of the demands of the NBA.”

And on Thursday in London, they face a Philadelphia team whose core group is built around players who also took their talents to the NBA just one year removed from high school.

When you take a look at both rosters, Boston has three players – Kyrie Irving, Brown and Tatum – who left college after just one season.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia boasts four players – Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and former Celtic James Young, who recently signed a two-way player contract with the Sixers.

Stevens has maintained an open mind in his time in Boston when it comes to players who come into the NBA with just one year of college under their belts.

While he understands the concerns that some coaches and front office executives may have with players being so green coming into the league, his perception of how one-and-done players are viewed is heavily influenced by the players he has coached.

But with the draft and all the components that come with it, there have been players who left college after one year who struggle.

One of those players was Young.

Drafted by Boston with the 17th pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Young simply didn’t work out. He spent three seasons with the Celtics, appearing in 89 games while averaging 2.3 points per game while shooting 36.7 percent from the field and 27.6 percent on 3’s while playing 8.4 minutes per game. 

He’s now with the Sixers’ G-League affiliate after signing a two-way player contract. Because of the nature of his deal which limits him to just 45 days with the Sixers, there’s a definite level of uncertainty about his status.

But when it comes to Brown and Tatum, now that’s an entirely different matter.

Brown was a member of the All-NBA rookie second team last season and has shown the kind of growth Boston was hoping to see from him in his second NBA season.

His ability to come in and hit the ground running was among the many reasons why the Celtics had no hesitation in having Tatum play a more prominent role after Gordon Hayward’s injury.

“When it happened, we all kind of knew we would have to step up individually,” Tatum, referring to Hayward’s injury, told NBC Sports Boston. “So that’s all I did; just step up and make the most of the opportunity.”

Brown added, “Every situation is different. Even though me and Jason were the same pick, our situations were very different; just come in and try to adapt. Adaption is the key to surviving in the league.”

Tatum had planned on leaving Duke after one season, but he acknowledged he wasn’t sure how well his lithe frame could handle the bumping and grinding of the NBA.

“Could my body withstand playing that many games,” Tatum said was a question he asked himself frequently before entering the draft. “Just the physical part, playing against grown men.”

Simmons, the top overall pick in 2016, knew he would leave after one year when it became clear that he would be among the first players selected.

“It’s been a dream to play in the NBA,” said Simmons who ranks among the top assists men in the NBA this season as a rookie. “As soon as I had that opportunity, I was going to take it.”

While all the aforementioned players have room to grow, it’s hard to imagine another year or two of college would have made them better prepared for the NBA.

Celtics guard Marcus Smart left Oklahoma State after his sophomore season, but he too contemplated an early exit after his freshman season.

The extra year spent in college was instrumental to Smart’s improved play that catapulted him to being the sixth overall pick by the Celtics in 2014.

“The experience. There’s nothing like going to college and experiencing the feeling of your peers and fellow classmates, going crazy,” Smart said. “The vibe was crazy; the people that I was with. That ultimately made my decision easier.”

Things worked out well for Smart.

But not every player who considers turning pro makes the right decision.

Former UNLV standout Anthony Bennett was the top overall pick in 2013, but his career has been in a tailspin since. Drafted by Cleveland, he was part of the trade that sent Kevin Love from Minnesota to Cleveland. It wasn’t too long afterward that Bennett was out of the NBA but he still played well enough to be on the fringe of getting back in.

He’s now playing for the Celtics’ G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws. He has appeared in two games for Maine, averaging 4.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 13.9 minutes.

Bennett aside, the success stories among one-and-done players are more prevalent and makes it a path that NBA teams are becoming more comfortable with pursuing as more and more enter the NBA and, like the aforementioned players for Boston and Philadelphia,  make their presence felt immediately.

Celtics and 76ers poised to be future in the East

future_of_the_east_celtics_sixers_112817.jpg

Celtics and 76ers poised to be future in the East

BOSTON – Cleveland is the hottest team in the NBA these days, and are still considered by many as the favorite to come out of the East this season.
 
But sooner or later their reign atop the Eastern Conference will end.
 
When it does, there won’t be any shortage of teams looking to take their place.
 
And while there are many squads that will be in the conversation, all serious talk about the heir apparent in the East should begin and end with Boston and Philadelphia.
 
Detroit (13-6) is having a great season and has a lot going for itself. But the Pistons’ success going forward will depend on whether former Celtic Avery Bradley is re-signed this summer. Because unlike the Celtics and the Sixers, Detroit doesn’t have the potential to add young talent near the top of upcoming drafts, the way Boston and Philly can.
 
Toronto is another team that is in the thick of things this year. They have proven All-Stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and experience on their side up and down the roster. But you get the sense that their window to compete at the highest levels is shrinking. And when you look at their youth, it doesn’t get you all that excited, either.
 
Washington is similar in many ways to Toronto with All-Star talent, quality depth and an experienced core group. Everyone in their rotation is signed beyond this season, so there is a high level of continuity with their main players. However, injuries have consistently left the Wizards coming up short in the past. And this season seems to be no different with All-Star John Wall currently sidelined with a knee injury.
 
And while Boston and Philadelphia are far from perfect teams, they each have shown clear and undeniable signs that they “got next” when it comes to which teams will fight it out for the top spot in the East.
 
Here’s a look at five reasons why Boston and Philadelphia are the two best teams in the East that can compete with the best now, and still have an extremely bright future.
 

Young rising stars
 
Sometimes watching Kyrie Irving you forget that he’s only 25 years old. And then you watch Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and reminded that they are 19 and 21 years old, respectively. That kind of talent wrapped in a still-on-the-rise frame is reason enough for the Celtics to feel good about their present and potential for the future. The Sixers have a similar embarrassment of youthful riches led by Joel Embiid who will someday – maybe even this season – be talked about as a league MVP candidate. Embiid still plays with some restrictions, but not enough to keep him from being one of the more dominant players in the NBA this season. In addition to the 23-year-old Embiid, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons has also asserted himself as a star of the future and in all likelihood, the 21-year-old Simmons will be this year’s Rookie of the Year. Throw in 23-year-old Dario Saric who was runner-up for Rookie of the year last season, the Sixers have a strong nucleus in both the short- and long-term development of their team.
 

Future assets

The Celtics have played six different rookies this season, which speaks to how young their roster is. But the crazy part is they could potentially be even younger with all draft picks that they still have in their possession. They included their 2018 first round pick from Brooklyn as part of the trade with Cleveland for Kyrie Irving. But they still have a potential lottery pick in next year’s draft from the Los Angeles Lakers (via Philadelphia) with another lottery-protected pick from the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019 as well as a protected pick from Memphis, all the while still being in possession of their own first-round picks. As for the Sixers, they have a first rounder from Sacramento in 2019 but that pick is dependent on whether the 2018 pick that Boston gets from the Lakers, will be conveyed in June. The bulk of Philly’s draft assets lie in the half dozen or so second round picks that’ll be coming their way in the next two or three years.
 
Defensive anchors
 
When it comes to being an elite team in the NBA, at some point you have to develop/draft/trade for a defensive anchor-type player. When you look at Golden State, Draymond Green is that guy. For Cleveland, it’s LeBron James. For the Boston Celtics who have the best defense in the league this season, that player has been Al Horford. His defense and rebounding have been hallmarks of his game ever since he came into the NBA. And for the Sixers, you have Joel Embiid whose size and athleticism allows him to cover a lot of ground quickly on defense which has been one of the Sixers’ strengths – team defense – this season.
 

Great lengths for success

Continuing along those lines defensively, one of the reasons Boston’s defense has been so much better has been part due to the added length of the players in the rotation now compared to those in Boston a year ago. The 6-foot-2 Kyrie Irving has replaced 5-9 Isaiah Thomas. Jaylen Brown who is 6-7, replaced Avery Bradley who is 6-2. Jayson Tatum is 6-8 and he’s manning the wing position that was held down last season by 6-6 Jae Crowder. Philadelphia’s Robert Covington is a 3-and-D guy who just got paid $62 million over four years. A big part of his success defensively lies in the 6-7 forward having a 7-2 wingspan. But when it comes to length, Ben Simmons when he’s running the point and Joel Embiid are both major problems for teams with impressive wingspans of 7-foot and 7-5, respectively.
 

Fan Base
 
Both Boston and Philadelphia have passionate fan bases that have seen their respective teams go through some rough stretches that eventually put them on a path of prosperity with the wins piling up, and the gap between them and the current elite team of the day, shrinking.

 The Celtics began chipping away at the wall of success that stood between them and elite teams, a couple years ago. A furious finish to the 2014-2015 season ended with them getting to the playoffs only to get swept in the first round by Cleveland. They followed that up with a deeper first-round showing the following year, and last season advancing to the Eastern Conference finals where they were once again eliminated by the Cavs.

After having had one of the more active offseasons in recent memory, the Celtics came into this season with the goal of having a team that for the first time in years, could compete with and potentially knock the Cavs from atop the Eastern Conference mountaintop. That lofty goal seemed in doubt when Gordon Hayward went down with an ankle injury just five minutes into the opener and was lost for the season. Rather than sulk about who they didn’t have available, the Celtics surged ahead with a winning streak of 16 games which was the fourth-longest winning streak in franchise history which has only strengthened the faith Celtics Nation has placed in this team that has been embraced for their toughness, resiliency and “Get it Done, no excuses” brand of basketball.

 Philadelphia’s rise in the East hasn’t been quite as smooth. The Sixers (11-8) currently have the fifth-best record in the East, and are looking to snap a five-year postseason drought. If healthy – and that’s always, always a big ‘If’ when talking about the Sixers – they should be in the playoffs this season. And these fans deserve this. They suffered through the near empty home games for years; the “trust the process” era where they were an NBA joke being clowned on at an arena near you. Well, it’s the Sixers who are on the verge of getting the last laugh and as I said, their fans deserve this moment.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Bean: I no longer enjoy the Markelle Fultz jokes

cp-spark-celtics-sixers-fultz-tatum.jpg

Bean: I no longer enjoy the Markelle Fultz jokes

I have jokingly called Markelle Fultz “trash” maybe a zillion times. As a newcomer to basketball Twitter, it’s just been a practice in making up for lost time. 

[You see, basketball Twitter is an absolutely magical place. You just say a bunch of nonsense but everyone understands that you’re either exaggerating for effect or just being absurd altogether. Basketball Twitter doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. Basketball Twitter just loves its sport and has fun. Take a damn note or 50, hockey Twitter.]

But the sad thing is that calling Fultz trash, a bust, or whatever else hits too close to the truth right now. And calling a kid a failure only months after he was selected first overall is just mean. Until Fultz gets a little wind under his sails, I’m pulling for him and so should you.

Mainly, I love the Jayson Tatum-vs.-Fultz argument. The Celtics traded out of the first pick to No. 3 in a draft believed to have a clear-cut best player and quite a bit of separation between the top two guys and everyone else. All indications are that if they stayed at No. 1, they would have drafted the guy they took at No. 3 (Tatum), which would have been criticized heavily. Hell, even trading to No. 3 to get Tatum was criticized. 

Naturally, Celtics fans should want Danny Ainge to eventually be proven right. Fultz' promise made that an unlikely result, but that struggle would make up the Tatum-vs.-Fultz rivalry. Right now, however, Ainge has already been proven so right that there really isn’t even a debate. In freaking November. And it’s as much about Fultz’ stock absolutely plummeting as it is about Tatum proving to be one of the Celtics’ best players right out of the gate. 

The hits seemingly don’t stop coming for Fultz, who is still in the midst of an indefinite sabbasketball™ due to a shoulder issue. Questions about Fultz began leading up to the season, when re-worked free throw mechanics made him look like Keith Foulke trying to shoot a basketball on half a bottle of NyQuil. It was ugly and it was bad. 

After four games, all of which saw him come off the bench, and bland numbers (six points a game, 6 of 12 on free throws), Fultz’ agent said the player couldn’t even raise his arms to shoot and shouldn’t be playing. The 76ers then shut him down, saying they’d re-evaluate him in three weeks. Then that date was pushed back again. He hasn't played a game since Oct. 23. 

Two weeks after he was initially shut down, we got this: 

That’s Fultz shooting left-handed, which people typically don’t do when they aren’t lefties. There was initial panic that this marked yet another departure from Fultz’ mechanics, but the team clarified that Fultz was only shooting left-handed because he’s not yet been cleared to shoot with his dominant hand. 

Fultz is likely chalking the whole start to his career up to not being 100 percent. He’d be foolish not to. Yet while Tatum is putting up 20-point games and putting away wins, Fultz and the 76ers are still just trying to get on the same page. Tatum has sprinted far ahead of where anyone could have expected and Fultz has fallen far behind. 

That stinks. If Fultz turns out to be a complete bust, Ainge will deserve all the credit in the world in dodging that bullet. Hell, he already deserves credit for seemingly making the right pick. Yet we’ve got to wait for Fultz to actually look decent before we laugh too hard. Cracking jokes about an OK player is commonplace. Making fun of a bad player is super mean. 

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE