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C's Tip Off Season with Ainge, Stevens and Tatum Discussing New-Look Team

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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BOSTON – Tuesday marked a strange beginning to the 2020-21 NBA season, as players and coaches were made available to the media for season-opening comments despite the fact that only four players are allowed in a given practice facility at one time, and are only allowed to participate in individual workouts.

The Boston Celtics marked the start of their season by making president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, head coach Brad Stevens, All-NBA wing Jayson Tatum, and center Daniel Theis available for season-opening conversations with the media.

The discussions covered a broad range of topics, including Tatum’s freshly-signed contract extension, Kemba Walker’s health, and the free-agent signings of Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson.

Tatum’s extension was the hottest of all topics. Tuesday marked the first time he, Ainge and Stevens spoke publicly since the fourth-year pro signed his deal back on Nov. 25.

“I wanted to be here,” he said. “It’s a dream come true. I’m extremely grateful and thankful for that. I don’t take that for granted or take that lightly. It’s a big deal. I’m excited I get to be here five more years.”

The Celtics are even more excited to see what type of player Tatum could develop into over those five years.

Tatum last season was selected to the All-NBA Third Team during this third professional season. He was one of 12 players in the league to garner an MVP vote. Yet, he and the team both believe that he has plenty of potential that has yet to be fulfilled.

“My game is really young, so I think every part of my game can get better,” Tatum said. “From an efficiency standpoint, continue to get stronger, extending my range, being able to increasingly shoot off the dribble, off the catch and finish through better through contact and become even more of a defensive presence. I think that’s a big goal for me.”

The same can be said of fellow wing and budding star Jaylen Brown, who will play the first year of his rookie extension this season. It must be noted that every time Ainge or Stevens spoke about Tatum, they also mentioned Brown in the same light.

“There’s a lot of unfulfilled potential,” Ainge said of the young duo. “So keeping their heads right, keeping them humble, hard-working, and continuing with the desire to improve, which I, at this moment in time, have zero doubt in those two guys.”

Stevens added. “Now the challenge is to continue to grow, continue to get better, to – as we’ve said before – not only become some of the better players in the league, but also some of the better leaders in the league. I think they’re both exceptionally capable of that and have already shown that both on and off the court.”

Another key leader of the Celtics is Walker, who in early October received a stem cell injection in his left knee, it was announced Tuesday morning. Walker was put on a 12-week strengthening program to prepare for the season and will likely see a similar ramp-up to game action as he did for last season’s restart inside the NBA bubble.

“I think if we were starting games in January, he’d probably be starting right along with us and I don’t know if we’d even be talking about it,” said Stevens. “So I do think that it’s very similar to what I said when we got to the bubble: This is about making sure that he feels great, strengthening appropriately moving at the right pace, and hopefully playing his best basketball late.”

Ainge added that the fact that multiple specialists from across the country came to the same conclusion about the knee gave Walker “a great peace of mind” moving forward.

While the Celtics may not have Walker at full strength – or available at all – at the start of the regular season, they can rest comfortably knowing that they have a reserve point guard who is more than capable of filling Walker’s All-Star shoes.

Boston on Monday signed Teague to a free-agent contract, giving the team its most established backup guard since the 2008-2009 seasons, when Sam Cassell helped the C’s win a title and when Stephon Marbury signed on for a potential title run the following season. Teague, like Cassell and Marbury, is a former All-Star, but this guard still has plenty of “juice left,” as Ainge stated Tuesday.

“(He) had a couple of 30-point games last year,” Ainge added of Teague. “And we still feel that he can step in, especially early on, to bridge the gap until Kemba comes back ready to go, but also play a significant role off the bench or in a starting role.”

Stevens, who has been a fan of Teague since the speedy point guard was coming up the high school ranks in the Indianapolis area in the mid-2000s, believes the former All-Star’s skills will fit in well with Boston’s preferred style of play.

Said Stevens, “I think Jeff puts pressure on the defense in transition, he can get to where he wants to go on offense, and he can pressure the ball on defense.”

The coach has a similar view of how Thompson will fit in with the Celtics. Thompson, too, joined the Celtics Monday as a free agent and provides the team with something they lacked last season: a versatile big who is known for his physicality at both ends of the court.

“The combination of lateral mobility, strength and motor gives him a chance to guard a lot of people,” Stevens said of Thompson. “So we thought that it was obviously important to add to our team.”

Thompson and Teague are important veteran additions to a talented core that features the likes of Tatum, Brown, Walker and Marcus Smart. That crew, along with the rest of the incumbent roster and incoming rookies, will have the next three weeks to bond together as a team before their first regular-season game arrives.

Tuesday marked the strange beginning to what’s sure to be a very strange NBA season. Regardless, the Celtics and the NBA are officially back, and this new Boston team is gearing up for another run at a title.