Leaders in the NBA normally possess one of two qualities: Incredible talent relative to their peers or years of experience. The most effective ones have both traits—think Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki—and the teams that employ them are almost always in a position to succeed.
These players act as commanders on the floor. They are the select few who demand the ear of teammates as if they’re coaches. Leaders in the NBA are respected for surviving in a league that’s constantly cycling through talent and churning out veterans in exchange for younger, less-expensive talent.
Until Rajon Rondo returns to action, Gerald Wallace is the leader of the Boston Celtics. He's the team's only All-Star player and the only one with at least 10 years of experience. By contrast, the Miami Heat have five such senior statesmen while the Brooklyn Nets have Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko.
The only other current Celtic with as much experience as Wallace is Keith Bogans, a below-average 3-and-D journeyman.
The various ways that Wallace has already influenced the inexperienced Celtics are perceptible.
Wallace is coming off a terrible season with the Brooklyn Nets in which he shot less than 40 percent from the field, 30 percent on threes and 65 percent from the free-throw line (an inept shooting line matched only by Lamar Odom). Wallace's value in the NBA was at an all-time low when he was traded to Boston—and that was before taking into account the three years and $30 million that was left on his contract.
But the situation in Brooklyn wasn't a good fit, and Wallace has done everything he can this preseason to prove that Boston is the right fit for him. He's an up-and-down player, who is more effective in the open court than in a slow-paced, half-court offense.
The Nets averaged 91.23 possessions per 48 minutes last season, making them the third-slowest attack in the NBA, and Wallace looked out of sorts. He was used primarily as a spot-up shooter, which was not great since he can't shoot.
In his six preseason games with the Celtics, Wallace has averaged 11.5 points in just 26.6 minutes—four more points per game in four fewer minutes than last season. The numbers, however, rarely tell the full story with Wallace, especially when he's flying around the court at top speed on every possession, diving for loose balls, barking out defensive assignments and beating his man to the glass. Those were things he stopped doing towards the end of last season, when defenses began sagging off of him to allow an open shot. That experience was demoralizing, but on a feisty Celtics team that's already shown it loves to run, Wallace has fit right in.
As impressive as he's been on the court, Wallace's play isn't what has earned him the respect of his teammates so much as how he reacted in the fiery aftermath of Boston's 104-89 preseason loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 20. He could have sat back and done nothing, collected his paycheck and accepted his new, unfortunate situation as the Atlantic Division rival that just traded him, the Nets, geared up for a legitimate run at an NBA title.
Instead, Wallace spoke out, establishing himself as the Celtics rightful spokesman. Nobody's words in Boston's locker room would've carried the same weight as Wallace's because nobody on Boston's roster has ever held that same leadership role and the responsibility that comes with it. Wallace, who led the Charlotte Bobcats so for several seasons, called out his teammates in a public forum and it worked.
A day after Wallace vented, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens informed reporters, via Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston, that Boston's following practice was their best of the year. A cry for more effort and determination was answered.
For a young Celtics team that's searching to establish a firm identity and progressive culture, Wallace is a fantastic veteran to follow. His fearless style is one which every player on Boston's roster should mimic this season and beyond, as they set forth on their individual maturation.
Rondo may be Boston's best player, but until he's back on the court, it's Wallace who needs to lead the way.