Avery Bradley is one of three or four central building blocks on a rebuilding Boston Celtics roster. With his frightening defense and rugged intensity, he’s valuable to his team both today and in the future as either a (hopefully) better version of himself, or as bait used to catch a bigger fish.
Bradley turns 23 at the end of November, and two years ago he found the goodwill that comes with contributing on a championship contender. The Celtics love him. The fans love him.
But is he getting better?
Bradley’s game ran over numerous potholes last year. His offensive development stalled out, and the intensity of his defense leveled off.
Some of Bradley’s troubles can be attributed to playing out of position—akin to a movie studio casting Danny McBride as the lead in a 200-minute dramatic period piece—which makes it difficult to draw distinct conclusions about his current play. He is not a point guard, yet he began the season as one.
After an 0-4 start, Celtics coach Brad Stevens realized this was a mistake and made Jordan Crawford the starting point guard. He then inserted Phil Pressey into the rotation.
We’ve seen enough of Bradley to know he’s best creating chaos rather than thriving in it. He’s far more effective in the open floor or controlling the pace with cagey on-ball defensive intimidation than functioning as a setup man in the half court. The less he’s asked to do with the ball, the better he’ll be.
SportVU is a neat tool in part because it’s cutting-edge, but this very element creates a shortcoming. We’re stuck comparing players in the 2013-14 season as opposed to how they’ve done in the past. So on top of us having such a small sample to work with, we also can’t be sure which numbers are particularly impressive or who’s improving and who’s regressing.
According to this new resource, Bradley possesses the ball 3.7 minutes per game, more than Dwyane Wade, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony (via NBA.com). His 58.1 touches per game lead the Celtics.
It's early, but this type of data hints at why Bradley’s turnover percentage is up 5 percent from last year, according to Basketball-Reference.
You see the trouble in possessions like this one. Bradley can't enter the ball down to an open Kelly Olynyk. It's great that he doesn't turn it over, and the angle here isn't very favorable, but most guards in the league should still be able to fit a lob in over the top. Instead, Bradley gives up and swings the ball back to Brandon Bass.
Seconds later, Boston turned the ball over.
As a scorer, Bradley has shown increased confidence in his ability to score in the pick-and-roll, though not in his ability to create for others. According to mySynergySports, he's the sixth-most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler in the league, often pulling up to shoot immediately after coming off the screen instead of making his way to the rim.
Shooting off the dribble is more difficult than catching the ball and letting it fly. The former can leave a shooter off-balance, unable to square his shoulders towards the basket. But this is how most of Bradley's offense has come this season, with defenders going underneath the screen and giving him an open jumper.
He’s shooting 38.5 percent on 3.7 pull-up shots per game, and he has yet to attempt one from behind the three-point line. It’s difficult to tell if that’s on purpose.
Here his toes are barely on the line, and this season there have been roughly a dozen moments just like that one—he shoots a long-range two instead of a three. It’s possible Bradley's aware he’s sacrificing the more efficient shot for a look he’s more comfortable taking, but that’s not clear after only a handful of games.
Regardless, they're shots that should be eliminated as options early in the shot clock, which is when a majority of them are happening.
What we do know is Bradley isn’t attempting as many threes as last year, and the early returns suggest he should stick with what he can handle. According to Basketball-Reference, so far 17 percent of Bradley's shot attempts are threes, down from 26.4 percent last season, and he's currently making just 20 percent of them.
If he's not going to take as many threes, that's fine. But he needs to find a way to score at the rim and get to the free-throw line, because the long twos aren't going to cut it in the long run.
Again, there's only so much we can learn from numbers early in the season. But what we can see on the court tells us more.
Here's Bradley on a fast break with LeBron James on his heels.
Watch as he slows down and draws contact with LeBron's massive body before calmly laying it in. In years past, Bradley would've tried to outrace the world's best player (a mistake made by many) and gotten his shot smacked against the backboard.
While his offense is in need of improvement, Bradley's defense seems be getting even better this year, if that's physically possible.
Here he is performing an exorcism on Orlando Magic rookie guard Victor Oladipo in the scariest way possible. The full-court pressure is relentless.
The Magic opened that game attacking Bradley in the post with the larger Arron Afflalo, thinking they had a mismatch on hand. They did not.
This is the versatility Bradley would bring any team in the league. He can defend both guard positions and small forwards who lack a complex low-post game.
A few possessions after this block, Afflalo tried bodying Bradley again and picked up an offensive foul for his trouble.
Elsewhere, Bradley's been asked to help Boston’s short front line. He's drifting towards the glass more than ever before, and career-best rebounding percentages on both ends of the floor show it (via Basketball-Reference).
Bradley’s impact on the defensive end forever makes him unquantifiable, both on the floor and financially. The Celtics chose not to give Bradley a rookie contract extension before the deadline earlier this season, which is more a statement on the league’s economic landscape than Bradley’s skill or the stabilized strides he’s making in his development.
Only six players in Bradley’s class signed deals with their respective teams, and it’d be a modest shock if the Celtics weren’t willing to match whatever offers Bradley receives this summer—if he even entertains any.
It’s plain to see Bradley’s offensive game is a work in progress; trouble intersects when his coaches cut him in an ill-fitting suit and play him out of position.
But given his age, the snippets of progress he’s already shown with the ball in his hands and the constant control he has on defense, there’s no reason to think Bradley has leveled off. He may never read a defense like Rajon Rondo or shoot the ball like Klay Thompson, but Bradley’s strengths reside in other areas of the game. And it’s in those areas where he’s setting himself up to shine.