Celtics

Jabari Bird fighting for Celtics' playoff roster consideration

Jabari Bird fighting for Celtics' playoff roster consideration

BOSTON –  This time of year, it’s hard to put too much stock into what players are doing in games if they haven’t played much all year.

But there is no getting around the impact that Jabari Bird has made, a two-way contract player who is opening a lot of eyes with his overall play and athleticism.

It’s getting to the point where the Celtics have to give some thought to the possibility of having the rookie on their playoff roster, something that can only happen if they waive one of their current players with a guaranteed contract. Bird, who has averaged 11 points in Boston’s last two games, said he’s not thinking beyond the Celtics’ two games remaining in the regular season, knowing he’s got a pretty good shot at playing in both.

“I’m not too concerned with what’s going on as far as my future and things like that,” Bird told NBC Sports Boston after scoring nine points on 4-for-5 shooting Sunday afternoon. “I’m trying to control what I can control, and that’s going out and play hard every game."

Bird added, “I’m just trying to show everyone in this organization that I’m a good ball player.”

MORE CELTICS: 

In a recent interview with NBC Sports Boston, Jaylen Brown, who played with Bird at Cal two years ago, talked about how all Bird needed was a chance – a real chance – to showcase his game.

“I’m telling you, he’s a really, really good player,” Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “When he gets his chance, and he’ll get it, he’ll show everyone. You’ll see.”

Indeed, Bird has been given opportunities to play meaningful minutes of late and to his credit, he has made the most of those times.

The 6-foot-6 wing has impressed many with his athleticism which allows him to get open along the baseline for easy baskets, above-the-rim skills and solid play defensively.

It has been a while, so it’s understandable if Celtics fans have forgotten how important Bird was in Boston’s first win of the season, at Philadelphia in October. It was Bird’s pestering defense against Sixers guard J.J. Redick that was pivotal in the Celtics getting the win that night.

While he reflects on that night from time to time, Bird knows it means little if he’s not able to build on that performance going forward.

Bird’s play both with the Celtics and with the Gatorade League’s Maine Red Claws (Boston’s G-League affiliate) has been limited due to injuries. But as we have seen lately, when healthy Bird can indeed be a contributor off the bench.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is among those who have been impressed with the play of Bird who was selected by Boston with the 56th pick in last June’s NBA draft. As far as Bird’s future beyond the two remaining regular season games, Stevens is quick to acknowledge that decision won’t be his to make.

“Those aren’t my discussions or my job,” Stevens said before adding, “But at the end of the day, I think he is playing well. He’s doing some good things. I thought offensively he was pretty good, especially early. He’s done a good job in the last couple of games and will probably play some of the next two.”

Said Bird: “Like I said, it’s just a blessing. I had the (back) injury and was out for a long time. So to come back and make an impact on the court, it has been fun. Just have the opportunity to be an NBA player and get some extended minutes for the first time, it’s a true blessing. I’m just looking to get better every game.”

MORE NBA NEWS:

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Is Jaylen Brown on a Kawhi-like path to NBA stardom?

Is Jaylen Brown on a Kawhi-like path to NBA stardom?

LOS ANGELES — As one former Boston Celtics star now based in Brooklyn liked to protest, comparison is a thief of joy. But, in sports, it’s simply part of the game. We yearn to identify players with similar body types and/or skillsets, and try to glean what we can about the possible career trajectories.

With all the necessary asterisks — including that no two players are exactly the same and that development is far from linear — we’ve found ourselves fascinated with trying to gauge the future potential of Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown. And the name we invariably fall back to is Kawhi Leonard.

This is unfair for many reasons, not the least of which is that Leonard might just be the best player in basketball. To suggest that Brown should reach that same level because of early-career production is not the goal here. We’ll allow the reader to determine the appropriate level of optimism to derive from the comparisons made.

What drove us here is something Brad Stevens noted during the playoffs last year. With Brown and teammate Jayson Tatum under a harsh season-long spotlight given the perceived struggles to build off the success of the 2018 playoffs — something we know now was largely a factor of the Celtics’ roster makeup including that guy who doesn’t like comparisons — Stevens implored reporters to examine the success that Boston’s two young wings were having at such a young age and compare that to established stars at similar stages of their career.

So it sent us scrambling to compare Tatum to scorers like Kobe Bryant, and Brown to wings like Leonard. What we found is that Boston’s young players were indeed producing at levels comparable to age-similar players that would eventually blossom into some of the league’s top players.

Again, that’s not to suggest that we can make any firm conclusions on either player’s ceiling. Plenty of players enter the league and put up quality numbers but never make strides forwards. Situation matters, too, and some players get stunted because of injury or otherwise. Just ask Brown and Tatum about last season.

Comparing Brown and Leonard during their age 22 seasons — both players’ third year in the league — showed similar base offensive production, but Brown did lag behind in areas like shooting efficiency, rebounding, and assists. But those are all areas that Brown has made great strides in at the start of 2019-20 season, so in advance of Wednesday’s Celtics-Clippers showdown, we decided to compare the data from age 23 seasons.

What you find is that Brown is on pace to rival Leonard’s stat line in nearly every aspect except some defensive areas like steals and blocks where Leonard’s game will likely always be more advanced. A glimpse via Basketball Reference.

Leonard is a much more impactful defender with his freakishly large hands and wingspan. What this exercise aims to hammer home, though, is the advancements Brown made this offseason have shuffled his offensive numbers closer to Leonard’s production at similar stages of their career.

Brown is operating with more offensive aggression this season, attacking the basket relentlessly and taking quality 3-point looks. Entering Wednesday’s games, he’s averaging career bests in field goal (49.7) and free throw (74.4) percentages. His 3-point percentage (39 percent) is near his career-best mark (39.5) of two seasons ago.

A year ago, Brown averaged a mere 5.1 drives per game and he settled for the perimeter shots that came his way. This year, he’s averaging 10.1 drives per game. That has helped his free-throw attempts increase by more than an attempt per game, and he’s parlayed that into more confidence at the stripe. 

What’s more, Brown looks far more comfortable finishing with either hand at the basket, unleashing an array of left-handed finishes early in the year. That he’s getting himself to the rim stems from his increased ball-handling work with assistant coach Tony Dobbins. Brown said he’s made ball-handling a daily chore with a goal of being able to better create opportunities for himself and others.

Brown's playmaking has spiked because of that confidence and better court awareness. Brown is averaging a career-best 2.3 assists per game. His usage rate has spiked to 24.2 percent, but his turnover percentage has dipped from double digits to a mere 8.7 percent this season. 

Maybe the most staggering increase has come on the glass, but some of that is simply a factor of Boston’s undersized lineups requiring the team’s wings to rebound more aggressively. Still, Brown is grabbing 17.2 percent of all available defensive boards and 9.9 percent of boards overall. Only Gordon Hayward has better marks among non bigs.

The strides that Brown has made should garner him some All-Star consideration. Muscling onto the team will be more difficult though, because teammates Kemba Walker and Tatum are going to get heavy consideration as well. Leonard, it should be noted, didn’t make his first All-Star squad until his age 24 season (he already had a championship ring at that point).

The big question with Brown and his ceiling is simply whether he can elevate his defensive play the same way that he’s made offensive strides. The NBA’s defensive tracking data has Brown limiting opponents to 38.8 percent shooting this year, or 6.5 percent below their season averages. Even as he plays more at the 4-spot, Brown is holding opponents to 43.5 percent shooting inside of 10 feet, or 12.3 percent below average. 

Brown has routinely defended bigger players this season, including Pascal Siakam over 5:35 of matchup time (Siakam put up 12 points but on 5-of-12 shooting with a turnover in their matchups). Brown’s other two most common matchups this season: Julius Randle (2-3 FG, 4 points) and Kristaps Porzingis (0-3 FG, 0 points). He’s also logged ample time on the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Luka Doncic, and Draymond Green. Which is to say that the Celtics aren’t afraid to put him on tough matchups.

Brown might never generate steals or blocks the way Leonard does, but he isn’t afraid to take on those matchups. It used to be that teammates would point out his defensive lapses but Brown has been far more consistent this season. There are still strides to make on that side of the ball.

But the advancements that Brown displayed already this season suggests that it’s not unfair to dream big on his ceiling. It’s why the Celtics delivered a four-year extension that could be worth up to $115 million.

Is he the next Kawhi? There might not be another Kawhi any time soon. But Brown certainly has the potential to be a key piece in whether the Celtics ever claim a title of their own in the near future.

LISTEN & SUBSCRIBE TO THE ENES KANTER SHOW:

 

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Clippers, which tips off Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

 

Kawhi Leonard injury: Clippers star reportedly expected to play vs. Celtics

Kawhi Leonard injury: Clippers star reportedly expected to play vs. Celtics

All signs are pointing toward one of the NBA's top-five players playing in Wednesday night's showdown between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard has missed the last three games with a left knee injury, but ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk and Adrian Wojnarowski have reported the two-time NBA Finals MVP is expected to play versus the C's.

Leonard has played in nine of the Clippers' 14 games this season. Whether he's actually injured or just using load management to keep himself fresh for the playoffs, it's exciting that he's likely to play against a Celtics team with championship aspirations after a strong start to the campaign.

Boston leads the Eastern Conference standings with an 11-2 record and owns the sixth-best defensive rating in the league. Celtics guard Marcus Smart was named to the NBA's All-Defense first team last season, and he's making a compelling case in 2019-20 to be the Defensive Player of the Year award winner. Smart likely will be tasked with guarding Leonard, and that matchup will be awesome to watch. 

Leonard is averaging 26.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and six assists per game this season, and the Clippers are 7-2 with him in the lineup. He's not the only superstar forward the C's must stop, though. Paul George is back after missing the first few weeks of the season. He's averaging 29.3 points in 24.3 minutes over three games.

Marcus Smart reveals his pick for NBA's most unstoppable player>>>

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Clippers, which tips off Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.