For the past six seasons, the Boston Celtics have harbored grand visions of deep playoff runs into the early days of summer. However, with the team in full-fledged rebuilding mode, the midsummer games hold significant meaning now. The Celtics' summer league roster no longer consists of camp bodies but prospects who could see legitimate playing time come the fall.
Over the first four days, numerous players showed flashes of potentially useful NBA skills. Though Boston will have a fairly cluttered roster following the Brooklyn Nets trade, that could change quickly based on the market for mid-level contracts like Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and others. Some sort of trade seems likely, as the Celtics need to dip under the luxury tax threshold at some point to avoid repeater penalties.
With the Celtics seeking youth for new coach Brad Stevens to develop, a handful of NBA Summer League standouts should receive ample opportunity during training camp. Besides first-rounder Kelly Olynyk, who is a lock to make the roster, here's a look at five players who could contribute this regular season.
This spot would have gone to third-year pro Nolan Smith, but his injury likely knocks him out of roster consideration. Thus, Celtics fans once again get to examine the exploits of second-year center Fab Melo, who appears as raw as ever.
That's not to say he hasn't improved at all from his rookie year. He's been unusually adept at drawing charges, which indicates improved body positioning and awareness. And his rebounding has improved from a season where he averaged just six rebounds a game in the D-League.
Unfortunately, Melo still seems to have no idea how to play cohesive team basketball. He's routinely out of position on rotations, which was a constant issue last season. And offensively, he still looks frightened when he catches the ball in the post.
Melo's weak finishes have been the subject of derision at CelticsHub.com, and it's fair to wonder how much work he really put in.
Melo's status as a first-rounder means his contract is guaranteed. That unfortunate provision could grant him an undeserved advantage when considering players on the roster bubble. The Celtics could still start him out in the D-League again, but unless he demonstrates significant improvement, Boston may want to send him out the door—though that could be a problem for Melo as well.
The former Marquette star has shown some scoring prowess, which could be important for a Celtics team desperately seeking perimeter scoring. DJO's best game came in Boston's 30-point blowout win over Detroit, when the 6'2" guard led all players with 22 points.
The performance earned DJO quite a bit of attention, as he imposed his athleticism on a fairly unstable Pistons roster. Jordan White of ESPN's TrueHoop blog praised not only Johnson-Odom's scoring, but his overall offensive awareness:
Boston annihilated Detroit, and DJO was one of the main reasons for said destruction. Johnson-Odom’s athleticism, and his mastery of that skill, was on fully display, as several of his 22 points were born from dashing, contorting forays to the rim. The box score shows only two assists for Johnson-Odom, but that doesn’t tell the full story of how well he moved the ball. The former Laker made several nice dump-off and kick-out passes after he penetrated into the lane.
Though Johnson-Odom is apparently taking his talents to Vegas to play for the Denver Nuggets' summer league team, that doesn't preclude him from receiving a training camp invite from the Celtics. If he does make his way back to Boston, he's someone to keep an eye on in the preseason.
No, not the Tony Mitchell from North Texas whom some had pegged for Boston in the first round. This Tony Mitchell was the D-League rookie of the year last season and has shown impressive skills in Orlando.
Mitchell's talent was usurped by off-court issues, as the 6"6" guard was dismissed from Alabama for undisclosed reasons. However, upon latching onto the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last season, Mitchell demonstrated the talent that made him a likely draft pick, averaging 21.9 points and 6.4 boards per game.
Mad Ants coach Duane Ticknor had nothing but praise for Mitchell's on-court game. Though Mitchell did not cause any issues, Ticknor did have periodic concerns about his immaturity, per Don Kausler Jr. of AL.com:
Sometimes his body language was bad. But usually it was because he was mad at himself, or he was mad that the team wasn’t playing well. I talked to him all the time about how, "People in the NBA are looking all the time for reasons to mark you off the list. Every time you do that, you’re digging yourself in the hole a little bit deeper."
He got a lot better at that type of stuff as the season progressed. But every few weeks, I had to have a little talk with him to remind him of what his goal is.
As a fringe roster candidate, Mitchell won't earn the benefit of the doubt if his enigmatic behavior continues. But his athleticism is undeniable, and his youth means his ceiling is still rising. If Mitchell keeps his act together, he could be a worthy development project for Stevens and the coaching staff.
Second-rounder Colton Iverson plays as rugged as he looks. Iverson will never provide offense like the more famous Iverson did, but the Celtics bought his rights because of his defensive and rebounding potential.
Considering the skill overlap with Melo, Iverson is probably competing with the 2012 first-rounder for a roster spot.
Thus far, Iverson is undoubtedly the more impressive of the two. Though he does not come with Melo's athleticism or shot-blocking promise, Iverson demonstrates better instincts, especially when it comes to rebounding. Most encouragingly, he gives maximum effort on every play, unlike the often-loafing Melo.
Jay King of MassLive.com captured the hulking Iverson's relentless motor:
The first thing you notice about Iverson: He's huge. He dwarfed Magic big man Andrew Nicholson in the post, both in height and weight. The second thing: He's active. During one spurt, he traveled out of his area to chase down two offensive rebounds in a row (approximately as many as the Celtics grabbed all last season). The third thing: He's big and active at the same time ("no kidding, Jay," I can hear you muttering as you read this). On one play he rotated across the paint, put his hands straight up and held his ground to try stopping Oladipo. The powerful guard bounced off Iverson like he ran straight into an approaching car.
Danny Ainge admitted he had his eye on Iverson for some time, according to Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston, and it's easy to understand why. Plenty of big men have made a 10-year career out of good defense and constant hustle. With Boston having virtually no frontcourt depth to speak of, Iverson is a good bet to be on the roster this season.
Other than Olynyk doing his Dirk Nowitzki impression, Phil Pressey has probably been the most impressive player this summer. The Celtics' had their eye on Pressey before the draft, and his summer league performance has justified their optimism about having the former Missouri Tiger as a backup point guard.
Following Rondo's injury, the Celtics never really had a true ball-handler. Though Pressey has struggled at times with turnovers, he consistently demonstrates NBA-caliber court vision and passing. Additionally, for someone who will likely play against second units, his defensive issues aren't as concerning. His 5'11" frame won't help, but he does have the quickness to stay with most point guards.
Recently, Tom Westerholm of CelticsHub.com had a highly informative breakdown of Pressey's summer league campaign to date. In his article, Westerholm notes how Pressey could be an offensive boon if his impressive shooting holds up, given his pick-and-roll ability:
One of the concerns for Pressey coming out of college was whether or not he could score at the NBA level. In three games so far, Pressey has shot 12-23 from the floor and 3-7 from 3-point range. These are not awe-inspiring numbers by any means, but he clearly has some shooting touch and he has shown a variety of shots both from long-range, mid-range off pick-and-roll plays and floaters around the rim. If he can continue to improve his offensive game, Pressey’s passing and ball-handling should make him a serviceable point guard on offense.
For a Celtics team that will trend younger in the coming seasons, Pressey's veteran-like composure and confidence would be a welcome addition. Of all the summer League players not named Olynyk, expect Pressey to make the most significant contributions in Boston this season.