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Why It's Too Early for Boston Celtics to Worry About James Young's NBA Future

Michael Pina@@MichaelVPinaFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

Boston Celtics' James Young wipes his face during an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Aaron Gash/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS—This has not been an ideal summer for Boston Celtics guard James Young. He entered the offseason 20 pounds heavier than the day he was drafted. Stronger, faster, more focused and athletic.

It understandably led to unreasonable expectations heading into Boston's participation in the Utah Jazz and Las Vegas Summer Leagues. Would Young’s new body manifest effortless 25-point bombs on a nightly basis? Was the 17th overall pick in last year’s draft (who many believe has lottery talent) evolving into something special much sooner than anyone anticipated? 

The answers? Nope! 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Salt Lake City was a nightmare. Young couldn't buy a basket or affect other parts of the game when his outside shots didn't fall. He didn’t defend all that well or display much offensive depth outside of catching a ball and immediately letting it fly. For all the talk of his bulked-up physique, Young grabbed six rebounds in 60 minutes.

It ended with a hip injury that kept him out of Boston’s first three games (all wins) in Las Vegas. His debut finally came Thursday night in a narrow win over the Portland Trail Blazers—a game that was overshadowed by Marcus Smart's two dislocated fingers. Young’s stat line: Nine points, two rebounds and one assist in 22 minutes of action.

“He looked rusty,” Micah Shrewsberry, the Celtics head coach in Las Vegas, said afterward. “But he didn’t really try and force anything. He took good shots.”

Winslow Townson/Associated Press
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In a setting where games matter, “didn’t really try and force anything” is a compliment. But in summer league, prospects known for their shooting should probably be as aggressive as they can—health issues notwithstanding. But in his first bit of game action in over a week, Young still wound up with eight shots and five free-throw attempts. On defense he did a solid job staying attached to his man, fighting through screens on and off the ball.

“It felt good,” Young told Bleacher Report. “I wasn’t as winded as I thought I’d be. So it was good to get up and down.”

The spotlight has been on Young to place his developing skill set on a stage. Four games in, it’s very difficult to spot exactly where he’s improved, or project whether he’ll be a crucial piece in Brad Stevens’ rotation next season. Is this a problem? Is he behind the learning curve? Should Boston trade him? Um, no.

Against Portland, Young challenged shot-blockers in the paint, attacked the offensive glass and effectively spaced the floor; on one play he drew a shooting foul 15 feet from the basket, using a crafty ball fake and precise footwork more commonly found in a veteran’s repertoire.

“He’ll be fine,” Shrewsberry said. “We’ll get in, practice again [Friday], another chance for him to get more shots and get his rhythm back. He’ll be OK. We’ll need him. Marcus will be out. James’ offense will be key for us.”

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Young hasn’t looked much different from the guy who battled confidence issues when the Celtics sent him back and forth between Boston and their D-League affiliate in Maine a year ago. But four games is hardly a sample size large enough to identify any trends or extract hard evidence.

Two facts that absolutely can't go overlooked when criticizing Young's summer: 1) He's 19 years old(!), and 2) it's the summer league, where players have two minutes to meet new teammates, learn new sets and coalesce into something that sort of resembles a basketball team. Over half of the league’s participants are playing with a literal job on the line, meaning box score stats are more important than wins.

Young may have one NBA season under his belt, but he’s still a teenager trying to get comfortable in his own skin. The Celtics brought nobody younger to Vegas. When asked what area of his game he most wants to improve in the weeks ahead, Young bypassed a cliched response about his jumper, handle or ability to see the floor. 

“I feel like it’s more mental for me. I feel like I just think too much in the game [instead of] just letting it come to me,” he said. “It’s just something I’ve got to work on in the offseason.”

Much of Young's on-court struggle has little to do with not knowing where to be. He has feel, but is still maturing on and off the floor. Right now he’s almost too aware of where everybody is, what he’s supposed to do and how he can best put his fingerprint on the game. 

“I try to do everything perfect for everybody,” he said. “Instead of just playing my game and knowing what I can do, I just try to please everybody else.” 

Matt York/Associated Press

Realizing this is an issue is important. Admitting it in public is impressive. Young’s talent isn’t a question. He averaged 21.5 points per game in the D-League last season, shooting 44.2 percent from behind the three-point line with the league’s eighth-highest usage rate (26.9). 

These numbers don’t guarantee NBA success—and Young is far from perfect—but they confirm an ability to produce much more than a cup of summer league coffee can verify any weakness. There are still so many more reasons to be optimistic than down on Young as a promising prospect.

Now isn't the time to panic about his progress. The Celtics drafted him with the long game in mind. He has ideal size, isn't a slouch on defense and has the type of upside that's justifiably worth a first-round pick. Young hasn’t looked like a star this summer, but the clock on his career just started. 

It's not what people like to hear, but be patient.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina is an NBA writer who lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.

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