Celtics first trimester scouting report card

I was planning a first-quarter report card, but Jaylen Brown played an inspired career game against the Warriors, and then came Thanksgiving, so the Al Horford feature I was working on got pushed into last week, and all of a sudden Friday marks the final game of the regular-season’s first trimester. So, here we are. All players are graded against our expectations for them.

Al Horford: A

• Plus: I can’t offer more effusive praise than what I wrote last week. Horford ranks among the NBA’s top five bigs in 3-point shooting (45.6 percent on 3.3 attempts per game), drives (3.5 per game), pick-and-roll scoring (1.26 points per possession), assists (5.4 per game), defense(opponents shoot 5.4 percent worse than their averages against him) and rebounding (grabs 70 percent of rebounds in his vicinity, excluding deferrals to teammates).

• Minus: If anything, you wonder why Horford hasn’t commanded the ball more. It’s a criticism the C’s have often levied against him, insofar as they consider unselfishness a criticism. His usage rate is 18.2 percent, meaning he uses less than one-fifth of the C’s possessions when he’s on the floor, which rivals his lowest usage rates since the first two seasons of his career.

• Teacher’s comment:

“He’s done so much for us for so long. Nothing that he does on the court surprises me.” — Brad Stevens

Kyrie Irving: A-

• Plus: Irving has rivaled LeBron James as the NBA’s best clutch scorer this season, scoring 74 points on 62.2 percent shooting in 46 minutes when the score is within five points in the last five minutes of a game. (LeBron has scored 76 points on 59.2 percent shooting in six more minutes). And Irving’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the clutch (10-to-0) is the league’s best this year. All of which would translate into the best offensive game anyone has ever played, only in constant high-pressure situations. Not bad.

• Minus: Maybe some of it was adjusting to a new system. Maybe some of it was a desire to appear overly unselfish and appease his new teammates. And maybe some of it was playing with a broken face. But even as Irving warranted early MVP discussion and the Celtics rode a double-digit win streak, his scoring efficiency was nowhere near his career averages. His 20.3 points per game over the first month of the season came on just 42.9 percent shooting from the field and 31.9 percent shooting from 3. In the nine games since? He’s averaging 28.1 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the field and 42.2 percent shooting from distance. He’ll be all right.

• Teacher’s comment:

“I say all the time how spoiled we are to coach players at this level, and he’s certainly one of the most gifted scorers in the game. And, you know, he can do things just with a tiny amount of space and make it look easy. And it’s really, really tough. … He just has a special ability.” — Brad Stevens

Jayson Tatum: A-

• Plus: Tatum started 4-for-4 from distance against the Bucks on Monday night, lifting his 3-point percentage above 50 percent — the highest mark in the NBA. Yup, he’s the league’s best 3-point shooter a quarter of the way through his rookie season, and he doesn’t turn 20 years old until March 3. He’s started every game for the Celtics and reached double figures in all but three outings. First-year players aren’t supposed to be the this efficient this consistently. He’s one of the most polished rookies I can ever remember.

• Minus: Well, pretty much the only rookie “flaw” — and I use that word loosely — is Tatum’s passiveness. And that’s not a bad thing. But the Celtics need shot creators beyond Marcus Morris in lineups without Irving and/or Horford on the floor, and Tatum has the ability to be that guy. So, be that guy. It’s rare that you have to tell a shooter to shoot, but let it fly, young gun. It’s like watching Luke Skywalker before he really knew how to use the force.

• Teacher’s comment:

“When he came in for his workout, he made a lot of shots, and it looked effortless. And that’s usually a pretty good sign. It didn’t look like it was just one of those days where he was hitting everything. He would miss two in a row, and it wouldn’t dissuade him from hitting the next one. He had no thought about making the next five; he just kept shooting it. And for a guy with his frame, he shoots it effortlessly. … He’s going to be a heck of a shooter.” — Brad Stevens

Jaylen Brown: A-

• Plus: The Celtics groomed Brown to assume Avery Bradley’s two-way wing role, and the results have been as good as they could have imagined:

2016-17 Bradley: 16.3 PPG (54.8 TS%), 6.1 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 BPG/SPG

2017-18 Brown: 14.8 PPG (55.3 TS%), 5.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 BPG/SPG

The Celtics’ defense is also almost 10 points per 100 possessions better with Brown on the court this season than it was with Bradley a year ago. Bradley is the better on-ball defender — maybe the best in the league — but Brown’s length (he’s got five inches of height and five more inches of wingspan on AB) wreaks havoc in passing lanes and allows the C’s to switch him on both guards and bigs, which benefits team defense even more.

• Minus: It’s hard to ask Brown to always be the guy he was against the Warriors — a man channeling inspiration — but once you’ve gotten a taste of it, you want more. There are nights, like his 1-for-6 effort against the Pistons, when you wonder where that guy is, and that’s probably because he relies so much on others to score his points. He’s as athletic as advertised, a better shooter than he was billed to be, and once he’s able to create his own shot on the dribble, Brown is going to be another matchup nightmare.

• Teacher’s comment:

“We have high expectations for Jaylen. I think that he’s a good player. I think he’ll continue to grow on both ends. But we’re going to ask him to do an awful lot.” — Brad Stevens

Aron Baynes: A-

• Plus: What did you expect? I’m guessing it wasn’t 13 starts and 18 minutes a night for the NBA’s best defensive team. In 432 minutes with Baynes on the floor, the C’s have allowed 91.2 points per 100 possessions, topping the best single-season defensive rating by any team since the institution of the 3-point line. In 725 minutes with Baynes on the bench, that mark rises to 103.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, which wouldn’t even rank among the top 10 defenses in the league this year. So, yeah, he’s been a big help.

• Minus: Baynes hasn’t shot worse than 50 percent from the field or 75 percent from the free-throw line since he began earning significant minutes for the Spurs a few years back, so his 48 field goal percentage and 66 free-throw percentage are well below his career averages. The C’s offense with him on the floor is hovering right around Sacramento Kings levels (bottom two in the NBA), which means they’re not outscoring opponents by as much as you would like when you’re pulverizing them into oblivion defensively.

• Teacher’s comment:

“If you look at statistically, when he challenges shots vertically at the rim he’s really, really good. He’s hard to score on. He’s a big strong guy now, and he is very capable shooting the ball as well.” — Brad Stevens

Daniel Theis: B+

• Plus: Be honest. When the Celtics signed Theis over the summer, you figured he likely wouldn’t make the team and definitely wouldn’t be a contributor. Well, here are the German’s statistics per 36 minutes: 13 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. And those minutes are coming at crucial times, like when he helped keep the Celtics in the game against the Pistons last week. There’s risk in projecting anyone over a starter’s minutes, but these are the players who have played at least 200 minutes and are averaging that same 13-11-2 line per 36 minutes this season: Joel Embiid, Hassan Whiteside, Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Kyle O’Quinn and Theis.

• Minus: It’s hard to knock a guy the Celtics found on a minimum salary, especially when he’s already proven capable of filling a role for years to come. He’s 25 years old with German national team experience, so he came with some polish, but his one rookie quality is his foul-prone play. Those per-36 averages also include 6.6 fouls. The next phase of his game beyond not biting on so many shot-fakes is building confidence in what’s a good-looking 3-point shot. Then? Then the per-36 projections become reality.

• Teacher’s comment:

“He just has a good motor to him. He’s always in good position. Never quits on plays. He’s got good balance, and he’s awfully long, so even when he doesn’t get it, he tips it, kind of keeps it alive. … He’s certainly done a lot of good things for us.” — Brad Stevens

Marcus Smart: B

• Plus: Of the lineups that have played at least 20 minutes together for the Celtics, Smart is on the top five, all of which are outscoring opponents by better than 20 points per 100 possessions. He’s played 408 minutes with Horford, and they’re a plus-179 together — the best of any two-man combo on the team. This is the mark of Smart, winning plays personified, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s averaging a career-high 5.4 assists as a backup point guard. He might warrant Sixth Man of the Year consideration if traditional statistics didn’t play such a big role in consideration for the award.

• Minus: It’s just hard to get beyond those shooting percentages, which are sitting at 32 and 30 percent from the field and 3-point range, respectively. Even with Smart’s current five-game stretch of shooting 56 percent from the field, the only guard shooting worse than him is Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, who’s been historically bad and barely worse than Smart. It’s remarkable that Smart’s an overwhelming plus player, given those numbers, and you just can’t help but imagine how impactful he would be if he could shoot.

• Teacher’s comment:

“I expect him to just keep making the right basketball plays, and the shot will go down. He puts in a lot of time, we believe in him, and we want him to shoot and take and make those open ones.” — Brad Stevens

Terry Rozier: B

• Plus: If you’re like me, and you figured taking Rozier with the 16th pick in 2015 was a wasted pick, given the logjam in the backcourt, you’ve been pleasantly surprised to see him develop from Hey, this guy might actually be good to Actually, this guy is good. He’s averaging career-highs across the board, including an above-average clip from 3-point range (37 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game). He’s disruptive on defense, an exceptional rebounder from the guard position and capable of carrying an offense for stretches, like his 23-point outing on 11 shots against the Magic.

• Minus: It’s hard to be consistent off the bench, but you’d like to see the valleys not fall so far down the mountain from his peaks. Rozier has scored in double figures nine times this season, and he’s been held to five points or fewer on seven occasions. He’s shot better than 50 percent just five times all year, and he’s taken nine or more shots in four of those games, which might suggest this microwave takes a little while to heat up. He could help himself by finding the net more often in the restricted area, where’s shooting just 41.5 percent — the second-worst clip among all guards who get to the rim more than 1.5 times per game, behind only Smart.

• Teacher’s comment:

“Terry is not a loud guy by any means, but he is without a doubt extremely competitive and extremely driven. And you see it every day. The way that Terry leads is really by example, and he’s been like that from Day 1. Even when we drafted him, we knew that. Everybody says everybody is that way, but he’s really driven and really competitive.” — Brad Stevens

Marcus Morris: B-

• Plus: Morris brings a toughness, which isn’t always quantifiable, but it’s something the Celtics need behind two somewhat finesse stars. The C’s have made high-character players a priority, and beyond Smart, that had resulted in a little less grit. Jae Crowder took some with him, but Morris is different, in a sort of I don’t know what this guy is capable of way. That wields power, even in a league full of tough dudes, and Morris knows it. He’s also consistent, when healthy, averaging 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds, shooting right around league average, and he’s yet another guy capable of switching defensively and locking down an opponent when engaged.

• Minus: You take the bad that comes with the good from that don’t-give-a-f*** attitude. Mainly, his contested long jumpers, which are the least efficient shot in all of basketball. And he seems to love them. He’s been a good mid-range shooter this year, but almost a quarter of his jump shots are coming against “tight” or “very tight” coverage (defender within 4 feet), and he’s shooting 6-of-27 on those attempts, which is decidedly not good. Also, the Celtics are getting crushed when he’s replaced Baynes in the starting lineup, which is a little unfair, since he’s been thrust into a role Gordon Hayward would otherwise be filling, but it’s still something the C’s have to sort out.

• Teacher’s comment:

“We really need his scoring, and he’s a really good player who is continuing to get comfortable playing here. Having missed the first couple weeks of the season, I think that’s been quite an adjustment … but ever since he’s stepped on the court, he scores. That’s a pretty special trait, and we’re going to need him to continue to be a good scorer for us, because he can stretch bigger guys and post smaller guys.” — Brad Stevens

Semi Ojeleye: B-

• Plus: The guy is a second-round pick, and we learned almost immediately that he has a place in the league as a 3-and-D contributor. That isn’t normal. Ojeleye is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds and built like a brick. In the second game of the season, he absorbed Giannis Antetokounmpo’s contact as if the Bucks star were a scrawny middle-schooler, stopping him dead in his tracks and forcing a couple failed jumpers in the fourth quarter. Celtics coach Brad Stevens thinks Ojeleye can be a top-flight defender, if he isn’t already, and he’s shooting a respectable 8-of-22 (36.4 percent) on corner 3’s.

• Minus: It’s hard to complain about a second-rounder who’s contributing right away, so Ojeleye’s focus should just be continued development. Emulate Jae Crowder — find 3-point shots he’s comfortable taking and use his toughness to muscle to the rim. There aren’t many minutes in a crowded swingman rotation, but if Ojeleye pairs an inside-out offensive game with his already stout defense, Stevens will find more room for him in the rotation.

• Teacher’s comment:

“I think Semi’s got a chance to be one of the better defenders around. He’ll get more comfortable with where his spots are offensively, too.  … And we knew that coming in, that he was going to have that ability. I think that his lateral ability is just so impressive for a guy his size.” — Brad Stevens

Shane Larkin: C

• Plus: He’s been a steady hand at the point when the Celtics need one beyond Irving and Smart, and he’s impacted a couple wins as a change-of-pace playmaker when the offense looks listless. He takes command, never tries to do too much, almost never turns the ball over, and he’s a plus-36 on the season. You can’t ask for more from a minimum-salaried third-stringer.

• Minus: His signing seemed strange, considering Rozier can also play some point, so it’s not like we expected much from him. He’s looked overmatched against good teams, like when he helped the Celtics turn a five-point lead into a six-point deficit in a matter of three minutes against the Spurs. And he’s gone extended stretches without ever being able to find the basket.

• Teacher’s comment:

“You know what he’s going to be able to do. When he goes in, he can change the tempo. He can get into people on defense. He can drive, he can shoot. He misses a couple of 3’s, and then he has the moxie to make the next one. Like, he’s a good basketball player. When we got him, to me it’s all about: games where it’s not going great, he can change the tempo of that, and nights where you don’t have all your bodies, you feel great about him with the ball.” — Brad Stevens

Guerschon Yabusele: D

• Plus: The Celtics keep telling us Yabu can be a Draymond Green type — an undersized big through whom they can eventually run the offense. They see him in practice every day, and we’ve only seen him for 32 NBA minutes, so maybe? He’s been sent on a couple assignments to the Maine Red Claws, where he’s shown flashes of that potential, averaging 21.5 points, 5.5 boards and 3.5 assists while showing off a 3-point shot. They must feel like that will eventually translate to the big club. At least he knows how to celebrate:

• Minus: He’s looked lost on both ends, and I haven’t seen anything that tells me he’s going to stick, outside of the head of steam he gets from coast to coast as a 260-pound man. He’s only appeared in six games and never more than seven minutes, mostly garbage time, so maybe he just hasn’t gotten an opportunity to show what he’s capable of? But if Ojeleye has proven anything, it’s that Stevens would be playing Yabu if he deserved the chance.

• Teacher’s comment:

“One of the things that Guerschon really can do for us is play in the seams and pass the ball, and he’s a really good playmaker. He’s a very capable shooter, and one of the things that I told him was I really want him to think about filling that role of being able to play through him, kind of like an Al Horford, with the ability to make the next right pass. He’s had a couple moments here early on that the game was moving pretty quick, because it’s a brand new game for him, and he was out for four months. … So, we like him a lot. We think he’s going to be a really good player.” — Brad Stevens

Abdel Nader: D

• Plus: He was the D-League Rookie of the Year last season, and FIBA AmericaCup coach Jeff Van Gundy told us over the summer that he felt like Nader could be a rotational player on a good team right now. He does look comfortable when he’s on the floor, and he moves with NBA pace — not too hyped and not trying to cram too much hero ball into limited minutes.

• Minus: But he’s not a rotational player on this good team. Stevens gave him a shot early in the season, playing him a dozen minutes in the second game of the season and a handful of minutes in the first two games of the winning streak, when they were without both Smart and Morris. But he didn’t contribute outside of knocking down a couple shots, and Stevens isn’t much interested in guys who aren’t giving you anything beyond a spot-up jumper.

• Teacher’s comment:

“Like a lot of guys that are playing in the NBA for the first time, there’s a lot going on and you’re trying to just kind of keep up day-to-day and everything else. And he’s putting in a lot of work. He’s an exceptionally hard worker, and we think really highly of him.” — Brad Stevens

Jabari Bird: INC

• Plus: His last name is Bird.

ˆ• Minus: He’s not Larry.

Gordon Hayward: INC

• Plus: In an effort to still feel part of the team during his rehab, Hayward has been breaking down film and shooting from a chair. That second part that intrigued me. The thought crossed my mind that shooting from a chair might cause him to develop some bad habits, so I asked a longtime NBA assistant who worked with Paul George during his comeback from a broken leg, and he said it’s quite the opposite. So long as you’re not attempting shots from distances where you have to strain your shoulders, sitting in a chair actually forces you to concentrate on your mechanics. He made me try it, and he’s right. There’s so little movement elsewhere that you almost can’t help but shoot with proper form. (You’re trying it right now, aren’t you?)

• Minus: The guy’s ankle practically fell off six minutes into the season.

***

Brad Stevens: A+

• Plus: The Cavaliers are riding a 13-game win streak, and they still trail the Celtics by 3.5 games. The C’s own the best record in the NBA, thanks to a defense that leads the league by a significant margin, and since mid-November their offense ranks among the top six. Did I mention they lost their best player six minutes into the season, they’re starting a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old, they’ve got three rookies in their 10-man rotation, and they incorporated 11 new players onto their roster. Oh, and they’re 13-4 in games that are within five points in the final five minutes. Stevens is the runaway choice for Coach of the Year a third of the way into the season.

• Minus: I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t yell enough?

• Student review:

“That’s the best thing about having a good system and a good coach: He puts us in the place we need to be to succeed. When we go out there and try and take it upon ourselves, that’s not how we look good. When we go back to moving it, that’s when good things happen, and that’s when we start to have fun. I keep preaching, but the more you live within the system, the better we all look and the more fun we all have as well. That’s a credit to Brad.” — Aron Baynes

Danny Ainge: A

• Plus: Ainge wasn’t much of a home run hitter when he played for the Blue Jays, collecting just two homers in 665 career at-bats, but he crushed every move he made this summer. Isaiah Thomas, Crowder and a pick for Kyrie? Jacked onto the Mass Pike. Markelle Fultz for Tatum and a pick? Off the Ted Williams seat. Baynes for the mid-level? Into the black tarp beyond the triangle. Ojeleye in the second round? Opposite field into the bullpen. Theis from Europe? Wrapped around the Pesky Pole. Even Larkin for the veteran minimum? Inside the park. Time for a curtain call, Danny.

Minus: Bradley for Morris and the cap space to add Hayward? OK, maybe we’re not entirely sure about this one just yet, but you can’t really hold it against him. It’s like he accidentally fouled off an inside pitch on a check swing. It came down to dealing either Bradley or Smart to make room for Hayward, and Smart’s been pretty damn good. A couple of Ainge’s other recent first-round picks are also rounding into form (Brown and Rozier), but we’re still holding out hope Yabusele isn’t the next James Young.

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