Green, Bradley Find True Positions in Boston
BOSTON – It wasn’t always smooth drives and swished jumpers for Jeff Green and Avery Bradley. Their paths to NBA success required individual transformations.
You can thank the game of basketball for that.
Positions in this sport are not arbitrary. They’re well-defined roles based upon an individual’s size, skill and athleticism. You don’t choose your basketball position. It chooses you.
This is just how the sport works, and to its credit, basketball’s pigeonholing usually works like a well-oiled machine. But every now and then there’s a hiccup in the formula.
Some men need to break free from the position with which they’ve been branded in order to reach their full potential. Green and Bradley are two of those men – the hiccups, if you will – and they’re currently starring for the Boston Celtics this season.
“I think with both of them you see great improvement,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge says. “They’ve both shown that they’re capable of being great against the best teams at times as well.”
Both players are going against the basketball grain while they showcase their improved abilities. This game thought it had Green and Bradley figured out years ago. This game, as it turns out, was wrong.
Green, at 6-foot-9, was not a power forward. Bradley, at 6-foot-3, was not a point guard. These two players were destined to make their mark with the Celtics at different positions on the court – their natural positions.
Jeff Green entered the 2007 NBA Draft Combine as a power forward, a position he had played for the majority of his life. He had starred as a big man at the University of Georgetown for three seasons and many expected that trend to continue in the NBA.
Green’s measurements at the Combine did nothing to dispel that notion. Instead, they strengthened it. Green was measured as being taller than 6-foot-9 and a tad less than 230 pounds, with a wingspan greater than 7-foot-1.
All of those numbers are right on par with, or in some cases far better than, the average measurements by power forwards during the Combine’s history, according to DraftExpress.com. It may come as a surprise that most of Green’s measurements are nearly identical to those of Kevin Love, Jared Sullinger, David Lee, Carlos Boozer and many others who have become impactful NBA big men.
Green’s measurements were intriguing, but when they were combined with his elite athleticism, teams became enamored with him. Green projected as a unique power forward who could change the game down low with his superior speed and leaping ability. The Seattle SuperSonics, who became the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2008, acquired Green’s unique skill set in a 2007 draft-day trade that landed Ray Allen in Boston.
“Jeff Green is a player that doesn’t need the ball to be effective,” then-SuperSonics general manager Sam Presti said after the trade. “Those that have seen him play in venues other than the Georgetown system have a better understanding of what this guy brings to the table.”
The transaction put Green alongside the No. 2 overall pick of that same draft, Kevin Durant. Durant was viewed as a potential superstar at the small forward position, a billing he quickly lived up to. Seattle played the young duo alongside each other for nearly three seasons of basketball after slotting Green in as the team’s starting power forward.
“I think it was a great opportunity for Jeff to get to play at a young age and to play some significant minutes,” Ainge says of Green’s time with the Sonics and Thunder. “It was a good situation for Jeff, the way he was developing in Oklahoma City.”
Green quickly became an impact player with the Sonics and Thunder. He was an immediate double-digit scorer in the league, providing both low-post scoring and the occasional 3-pointer. The team was regarded by many as one of the NBA’s up-and-comers.
All was great on the outside, but on the inside, Green felt constricted by his role.
“When you have a coach who pinpoints the places you’re at most of the time you’re on the court, you sort of become a player that’s stuck in this box,” Green remembers from his days in Seattle and Oklahoma City. “How much can you grow on the floor? That’s who I was my first [four] years.”
Green knew as well as anyone that nothing would change with Durant by his side. As long as the duo was in Oklahoma City, Green was stuck at power forward, playing off of the ball and around the basket as a second or third option.
Despite his uncomfortable role, Green continued to excel. He averaged more than 15.0 points per game in his final three seasons with the franchise before Boston reacquired him in an unexpected, trade-deadline deal on Feb. 24, 2011.
Prior to the trade, Ainge had been watching Green with a keen eye for years. His thoughts aligned with Green’s in believing that the youngster was trapped by a position that wasn’t truly his. Ainge saw Green’s destiny on the basketball court when no one else did.
“I’ve always pictured him as a wing from the first time I saw him play,” Ainge declares. “Jeff was a 4-man most of his time in Oklahoma City before he came here as a 3-man who could play some 4, as opposed to a 4-man who could play some 3. We saw it the other way around.”
And so the transformation began.
No one truly knew what Avery Bradley was on the basketball court, but they knew he was something good. In 2009, during Bradley’s senior year of high school, many scouting lists placed Bradley as the top guard in the nation, ahead of eventual No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
Some of those lists referred to Bradley as a point guard. Others referred to him as a shooting guard. His position was up for debate as he headed to the University of Texas.
Bradley was expected to soften the Longhorns’ blow of losing starting point guard D.J. Augustin, who was chosen with the ninth pick of the 2009 NBA Draft. Rick Barnes, Texas’ head coach, would eventually use Bradley as a combo guard. Bradley finished his one and only season with Texas as the team’s second-leading scorer and third-leading assist man.
Following his successful freshman season, Bradley declared for the NBA Draft and was regarded by most as a surefire lottery pick. Still, though, the questions surrounding his position lingered as he attempted to make the jump from college ball to the pros.
“When I first came into the league there were a lot of big guards,” Bradley says, remembering why many questioned his ability to play shooting guard in the NBA. “Obviously the length difference was a big difference because players were taller. I was like, ‘Dang, these guys are like 6-foot-7.’ Length is an advantage in this league, and in my first game, I noticed that it’s a big difference.”
It’s not a surprise that Bradley felt undersized. He is, after all, just 6-foot-3. That height is most typical of an NBA point guard, while shooting guards are usually two to three inches taller. Bradley admits that because of his lack of size, even he wondered what position he would play at the next level.
“I really didn’t know,” he recalls with a hint of frustration. “I played point guard when I was younger, and then once I got to high school I started playing 2-guard, because I was just strictly a scorer and a defensive stopper. I’m not a traditional point guard, but I’m not a traditional 2-guard at all.”
The book of basketball, however, says differently. Bradley is 6-foot-3. He is a point guard in the NBA.
Circumstances only added to that argument once the Celtics snagged Bradley with the 19th overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. Boston intended to use Bradley, who slid to the C’s on draft day because of a severely sprained left ankle, as Rajon Rondo’s backup.
“He has to learn how to be a point guard,” former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said shortly after Boston selected Bradley. “So with Rondo in front of him, he’ll be a good teacher.”
Bradley spent nearly all of his first two seasons in the league playing behind and learning from Rondo. That process wasn’t always pretty. Bradley’s assist-to-turnover ratio over his first two seasons was slightly better than 1-to-1, which is subpar for any player, let alone a point guard. However, Bradley battled through the struggles and put in the necessary work to progress on the court.
It was clear to anyone who watched the speedster play that his increased playing time meant increased productivity. Bradley improved his points, rebounds, assists and assist-to-turnover numbers in each of his first three seasons as he learned how to be a point guard and an impact player at the NBA level.
His progression put him on the border of Boston’s starting lineup, and he finally broke through in March of 2012 when Ray Allen began to experience unbearable pain in his right ankle. With Allen sidelined, Bradley excelled as the team’s starting shooting guard. Not even Allen could reclaim his starting spot.
Unfortunately for Bradley and the Celtics, his ascension as a shooting guard was short-lived. Bradley went down with a left shoulder injury during the 2012 playoffs, just 29 games after replacing Allen. Bradley underwent double-shoulder surgery in the 2012 offseason and did not return to game action until January of 2013.
Bradley’s return to the lineup helped a struggling Celtics team win six of its first seven games with him in the lineup. That was with Bradley at shooting guard, but by the end of the month, he was right back in familiar territory.
The Celtics were dealt a substantial blow to their title hopes when Rondo went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Jan. 25, 2013. With nowhere else for Boston to turn, Bradley was forced to leave his comfort zone and serve as the team’s starting point guard for the remainder of the season.
Bradley’s substitute performance was admirable, but no matter how well he played as Boston’s point guard, something didn’t feel right. It was impossible to block out thoughts of Avery Bradley the shooting guard, who was dominant the season before.
“When he goes in for Ray Allen [in 2012], he stepped right in and was playing outstanding basketball,” Ainge says. “He shot the ball well and really brought some enthusiasm and energy defensively to our team and to our crowd. You saw a lot of hope with Avery. A lot of talent, athleticism, energy, character, at a very young age.”
All of those characteristics were on track to improve as Bradley notched more NBA minutes under his belt. But the secret was already out. No matter how badly the game of basketball wanted him to be a point guard, Bradley was ready to excel off the ball.