Avery Bradley stood on the sidelines as he watched his teammates run through practice. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Shaquille O’Neal executed offensive schemes Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers had put in motion, making it look easy after years in the NBA.
The 19-year-old rookie quietly observed his veteran teammates with a looming thought on his mind.
Don’t call my name.
“I didn’t even want to get in,” Bradley told CSNNE.com. “I couldn’t get in practice, but at the same time, even if I could I would have been like, ‘Oh!’ We would do a play, no defense, you’d do a play, a play, a play. I didn’t want to get in because I didn’t want to mess the plays up. I did not want to go over the plays at all. It was just walking through the plays basically and I didn’t want to.”
It’s a surprising statement from the country’s former top-ranked high school player, a first round pick in the 2010 NBA Draft out of the University of Texas, and, this season, a 10-game starter who runs the point position for the Celtics with confidence and poise.
Bradley, 21, has grown up since just last season. There is a sense of confidence about him. Not the kind that comes from cockiness, but rather from experience and hard work. His delivery is stronger in interviews and he appears more comfortable addressing the media. He doesn’t seem like a teenager anymore.
Now Bradley is calling plays for the same teammates he was once nervous to practice with. He credits them for making his second season in the NBA more comfortable, which in turn allows him to help the rookies who are currently following in his footsteps.
The son of a high-ranking Army official, Bradley he is not one to showboat or act out of turn. On the contrary, he is reserved and polite by nature, listening before speaking and respecting those who have come before him. Combine his demeanor with the understandable nerves of being a teenager on a championship-contending team and you had Bradley trying to find his place in the pros.
Bradley was one of three rookies on the Celtics at the start of last season along with Semih Erden and Luke Harangody. They went through the ups and downs of their first NBA experience together, running rookie errands together and adjusting to life in the league. While last year’s trades were noted for the separation of best friends Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo, Bradley also lost a close friend in Harangody when he and Erden were traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers last February.
“It was hard because me and Luke were close as far as being both rookies,” he recalled. “It was hard for the simple fact that I had nobody to really hang out with. As the season started going on, obviously I got closer, but after the trade it was tough because you’re the only rookie. You’ve got to do everything by yourself. You don’t really have anybody to make the mistakes with you. So it’s like everything’s on you, the spotlight’s on you, it’s all magnified.”
Just as Bradley was left as the lone rookie on a veteran squad, his teammates made sure he never felt alone. He felt hesitant at times to speak to them but they never held back on reaching out to him.
“I wasn’t star struck, but well, in a way I was because I was kind of like I don’t know what to say, I couldn’t read them,” he said. “Now I know the personalities, what makes them mad, I know all that stuff now. Last year I was kind of just sitting back and figuring people out. I didn’t really talk at all.
“But the good thing about our team, we have good teammates that want to help the young guys. Last year they would literally call my room and be like, ‘Let’s go to dinner.’ Who does that? That’s like the perfect teammate that just wants to take you. They can see that you’re not talking to anybody, not hanging out, so that’s what they would do.”
Bradley is quick to credit all of his teammates for making him feel comfortable. He developed an especially close bond last season with Ray Allen, who became his go-to for veteran advice during his rookie year.
“I think the biggest thing that he does that I’ve noticed is, he always seeks out my advice or attention, if I can use that word, not like he needs my attention but like if there’s something going on on the floor or something that the coaches may have said,” Allen told CSNNE.com. “He’ll always come to me and ask me what I thought about it or how did I perceive it. When the game starts off, he’ll ask what do I see out there on the floor, what’s going on out there. You can tell he watches, he observes, he asks. Instead of formulating his own opinion, he gets opinions and then tries to determine how he feels about certain things.
“For me, that’s a very smart vantage point because he’s learning. He’s not necessarily saying he agrees with what I feel or what I think, but he’s developing his own based off my opinion, and I’m sure he does it for other guys. For a young guy, that’s definitely a very wise and smart approach to take.”
In addition to getting acclimated with NBA life off the court, Bradley still had issues to tackle on the parquet. He underwent surgery on his left ankle the summer prior to his rookie year and rehabbing the injury was a priority -- and a concern.
With limited opportunities for playing time, the Celtics assigned Bradley to their NBA Development League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws last January. Bradley averaged 17.1 points in 32.2 minutes throughout nine games, a confidence booster that went a long way.
“It gave me confidence to play and it let me know that I deserved to be in the NBA,” he said. “When my ankle was hurt, I was like man I’m not playing, I’m nervous to even play, nervous to hurt yourself. That’s how you feel. Then once I went to the D-League I was confident in myself, like, ‘Ok, I am as good as I thought I was.’ It made me feel a lot better then and the team I was playing on in the D-League, it was great. When I got there it was like they didn’t look at me like I’m coming in there -- we all wanted to get each other better. We all want to see each other succeed, so I went to the perfect team.”
Bradley carried that confidence with him throughout the remainder of his rookie campaign. He scored 20 points off of 10-for-16 field goal shooting against the New York Knicks in the Celtics regular season finale.
“I just think after I came back from the D-League, I was a different person,” Bradley said. “Not to say I wasn’t already working hard, but I took it to another level. Even my teammates could see that, like I was going hard. I just started feeling more comfortable, not worrying about mistakes. And at the same time you’re still a rookie so you’re going to make mistakes. I was just going into practice like, ‘Man, this is how I've got to prove myself. I’ve got to go in here and make my teammates better every day.’ That was my focus. If I'm not playing, I’m going to help my teammates get better every day.”
When his rookie season concluded in May, Bradley was already looking forward to his sophomore year.
“Toward the end of the year last year, I wanted to get in at practice,” he laughed. “I was pulling on people’s jerseys, ‘Hey, let me get in some plays!’”
The NBA lockout put those plans on hold. After participating in the Impact Training Competitive Basketball Series in Las Vegas, he signed overseas with Hapoel Migdal Jerusalem. Bradley was thousands of miles away from his family in Seattle, Washington, testing his inner strength. While there were times he contemplated returning to the United States, ultimately his desire to improve pulled through.
“I could have easily just been back here just working out everyday, but I wanted to play in game situations, get better,” he said. “It was tough being over there. I wanted to come back some days. Just being away from your family, you might think, ‘I really don’t have to be doing this.’ That’s how you think about it. But my whole mindset was, I’m getting better for my team so I know I need to be over here.
“For me it was kind of tough (last season) because I had my injury so I wanted to be prepared for my teammates. That was my thing, I wanted to come in this season and show my teammates I know the plays and I wanted to show them that I worked on my games over the summer. I wanted to show them that I improved. When I came here, I was so excited. I tried to do everything I could do so I could become a better player for my teammates.”
Bradley returned to Boston in December ready to play. This time there were three new rookies on the Celtics (JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, and Greg Stiemsma), but Bradley wasn’t in the clear of constructive criticism.
From the very start of the season, Rivers pushed Bradley to be better. Not because Rivers wasn’t happy with him, but because he saw potential. If Bradley was going to be more effective, he had to speak up. There was no room for nerves or shyness on the court. As a point guard on the Celtics, he had to make himself heard.
“Doc would challenge me at the beginning of the year to speak up,” he said. “The point guard has to be a leader, so you want someone that’s going to be loud. That’s what I try to do. I talk a lot more. … As a player, you just think your coach is getting on you, and you don’t really see it until you see that he’s only getting on you because he’s helping you be a better player. That’s how I always looked at things. Sometimes I’d get distracted and think that a coach is trying to get on me and not help me, but Doc is a great coach and he’s always trying to help me. He challenges you and I think that’s what a coach is supposed to do.”
Bradley has risen to the challenge this season, emerging as a bright spot amid the Celtics struggles. He stepped into the starting lineup in place of an injured Rondo and impressed many with his defensive intensity.
During his third start, he made his own decision to play full-court defense the entire game against the Orlando Magic. He stifled Jameer Nelson, holding him to just five points and turning heads as a serious defender.
“Last year, when he was first coming in he thought -- and most young players think -- scoring is what you have to do to get on the floor and you've got to show the coaches you can play,” said Allen. “But he's learned that he has a different approach towards being successful out here and how he gets on the floor. He's starting to stick to that and then he scores in the meantime."
While proving that he can contribute on offense (he averaged 7.8 points as a starter), Bradley is pleased to be making a mark with his D.
“I think that just comes from the team that I’m on,” he said. “Our energy level sometimes is down. That’s my thing, when I go in the game I tell myself I’m going to play hard the whole time I’m in. That’s what I tell myself, that I’m going to go hard until when I go on the bench I’m going to be tired, and that’s my main thing. I just always try to focus on playing defense because I know, like I always tell people, you can have an off offensive game but I feel like you can never have an off defensive game.”
He has also dedicated extra time to learning the Celtics playbook. The increased repetitions in practice and during games have helped, and he has spent more time outside of the gym studying the X’s and O’s.
His performance has been well-received by his teammates, whose advice he still seeks out this season. Even with a year behind him, Bradley is still the youngest member of the Celtics and appreciates any suggestions the veterans have for him.
He laughed when sharing his teammates tease him for how intensely he listens to their stories. But surrounded by future Hall of Famers, he doesn’t want to miss a single word.
“I don’t know what they see in me, but I think it’s just me wanting to listen to them,” Bradley said. “I’m not thinking I’m too good or anything. I’m just always open to learning new things and I feel like if you have that type of personality, if you want to learn things, they’re going to teach you things.”
He continued, “The person who brings the aggressiveness out of me is Rondo. When I check in, he tells me, ‘Be aggressive, do this, do that, run the floor. When you’re in movement just run, go play hard.’ And that’s what I do. He’s the one who always tells me to be aggressive because sometimes I’m just so focused on not making mistakes, but you’re going to make mistakes. It’s basketball. Who doesn’t make mistakes? It’s hard to learn, but Rondo’s the one because he’s been through it. To have someone be able to tell you stuff like that just shows that they care about your development and he cares about me as a person. I really respect him for that.
“This year Rondo helps me out a lot and Paul (Pierce), 24/7. He just builds my confidence every single day. Like every single day he tells me, ‘You can be this good if you do this. You’ve got to keep working hard.’ He works hard and when I see that it makes me want to do the same thing.
“I’m always open to listening and I want to know these things so I can become a better player to help my team out. The reason I think they do that is I think that’s what they would want us to do for when we’re in their positions, like when we’re vets on teams to help the younger guys. Like KG (Kevin Garnett), he does a lot of little things. He’s like one of the best teammates I ever had, like the little things he does that people don’t know. He does it so you can do it for your rookies and stuff like that.”
Bradley is doing just that for the trio of Celtics rookies. He immediately formed a bond with them and has shared his experiences from his first season in the NBA. With a condensed training camp, he realized their transition to the pros could be challenging.
During the stretch in which Rondo was injured, Bradley called Moore over to his locker to watch game film on a computer. It’s little actions like that that can make a difference.
“The rookies, they kind of get treated like how I was treated last year,” Bradley said. “I try to make them feel more comfortable because when they first got here, I told them everything, what they would expect. I just wanted them to not have to go through anything I went through.
“Like JaJuan, I know he was nervous sometimes. I told him, “Man, just go out there, don’t be nervous. I was nervous too. You’re going to make mistakes, Doc’s going to get on you, but that’s what he’s supposed to do. You’ve just got to correct your mistakes.’ That’s what I had to do and that’s what they do. Those guys, we both help each other out. They’re older than me (Johnson and Moore are 23, Stiemsma is 26), they teach me things too. We all teach each other things.”
The rookies appreciate Bradley’s welcoming gestures and advice.
“It’s been really good, just him being able to share his experiences with us,” Johnson told CSNNE.com. “He kind of lets us know about things before they happen so we can prevent ourselves from looking bad. He’s showing us the ropes on what the guys are like, what they expect from us, and what the coaches expect out of you.”
This season Bradley sat in the Celtics locker room talking to Rondo and Keyon Dooling. Shortly after, he turned his chair the opposite direction and engaged the first-year players in conversation.
No longer a rookie but still learning from the veterans, Bradley is continuing to grow his game while sharing his knowledge with others. It is the way he was taught basketball in the NBA, and it’s an approach he will continue throughout his career.
“It just shows how much you improve when you hear from the older guys, ‘Your time will come,’ or, ‘I’ve been through that,’” Bradley said. “[When you’re younger] in the back of your head you’re like, ‘I don’t want to hear this,’ but at the same time it’s so true because I can see me in the future telling somebody else, ‘You’ve got to go through this to do that.’ Some people come into the league and are on teams where younger guys are able to score points, but some aren't. You’ve got to go through it to become a better player and a better person.”