The Forging of 'Team Shamrock'
While most NBA players were riding out the dog days of the 2019 offseason, four core members of the Boston Celtics were hard at work building something special.
Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and C’s newcomer Kemba Walker spent six weeks together training and competing on one of basketball’s biggest stages, as they proudly represented their country on Team USA at the FIBA World Cup in China.
For those four players, earning a spot on the United States men’s national basketball team was a multifaceted blessing. Not only did it allow them to get in shape for the 2019-20 NBA season, but it also enabled them to develop chemistry as a group – a group that became known around the basketball world as “Team Shamrock.”
For more than a month, Brown, Smart, Tatum and Walker traveled together, ate together, conversed together, and competed together in adverse situations. All the while, they were able to pick the brains of a hall of fame-caliber coaching staff and a roster full of world-class players.
Although their team ultimately did not medal at the tournament, Team Shamrock returned home to Boston with something far more valuable than a piece of hardware draped around their necks: they returned with a sense of solidarity. Their roots had become intertwined, and they had blossomed into a four-leaf clover.
Like any plant, this one strives to keep on growing toward the golden sunlight – or in this case, toward the golden touch of the next Larry O’Brien trophy. While Team Shamrock’s journey with the red, white and blue is over, its journey with the green has just begun.
When Team USA’s preliminary 20-man roster was announced in mid-June, there was only one Celtics player on the list: Tatum. Walker had earned a spot as well, though, at the time, he was still a member of the Charlotte Hornets. That soon changed, however, as the free-agent point guard left Buzz City for Boston during the first week of July.
The newly paired colleagues knew that a special bonding experience lay ahead of them, but what they did not realize was that they’d be sharing it with two of their other Celtics teammates as well.
During the first few weeks of July, several of Team USA’s players deflected their selections. That opened the door for other NBA players to fill in, and one of the first to receive a call was Smart. As someone who had always strived to represent his country on the national stage, the 25-year-old guard didn’t hesitate to accept.
“This is something that, as a kid, you dream of doing,” Smart said after joining the team. “Everybody has their reasons for why they didn’t play, but we can’t focus on that. My name was called, and I got to step up to the task.”
A few days later, another Celtic had his dream come true as Brown earned his call to the squad. All four would eventually make the final 12-man roster, which officially set the record for the most players from one NBA team on the same national squad.
That prompted Smart to coin the catchy team nickname. “Might as well call us Team Shamrock,” he tweeted July 26.
The team got to work on Aug. 5, as they convened alongside the USA Select Team in Las Vegas for training camp, before moving on to Los Angeles for a few scrimmages and exhibition games. After a couple of weeks of practicing on their home turf, the squad boarded a plane on Aug. 17 and flew 17 hours to Australia for more exhibition play, before heading up to China for World Cup play.
Once they were away from home, the true bonding experience began.
By the time Team USA crossed the Pacific Ocean to Melbourne, its players and coaches had gotten to know each other quite well. After all, 17 consecutive hours in a plane is a lot of time spent in close quarters.
Head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t want that closeness to dissipate once landing on foreign soil, so he made it a point to plan group outings on a regular basis.
“It’s great,” Popovich said two days after arriving in Melbourne of his team’s willingness to stick together off the court. “We go to dinner without phones, people actually talk to each other, ask questions and learn about how each other grew up, that sort of thing. Because it is a brand-new basketball team, you have to start not skipping steps and trying to learn about people, and you get as far as you can in a short period of time.”
Those team excursions in Australia and China were some of Brown’s favorite elements of the trip, as he got to know the personal sides of his NBA peers.
“When you’re outside in the world, and you’re outside your comfort zone halfway across the world, you see things come out in people that you would have never expected over a glass of wine and stuff like that,” Brown said after a team practice on Aug. 20. “People are interesting. Everybody’s different. Everybody has their own swag, and it’s pretty cool being up close and seeing that.”
As cool as it was for Brown to learn about the lifestyles of his NBA peers from teams outside of Boston, it was even more intriguing how much knowledge he gained about his current Celtics teammates.
“Even guys I’ve been playing with for two, three years now, I’m still even learning more about them, so it’s been a good experience,” he explained. “I’ve been learning more about Marcus. I’ve been learning more about Jayson Tatum and getting to know Kemba.”
The four of them visited tourist attractions together, they played video games, they went out to dinner, and they even held a Boston Tea Party in China.
Jayson Tatum described it best after returning to Boston, likening it to “a big AAU trip.”
Integrating Walker into the group was the most critical part of the bonding experience. Being the new kid on the block is always a challenge, but the three Celtics mainstays helped to make Walker’s transition easy. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he’d fit in with them just fine back in Boston.
“Being around them has been enough for me,” Walker confirmed. “Real cool guys, super down to earth and they are making it easy for me. I’m very comfortable. Now I’m thinking, as we do get to the regular season with the Celtics, I’m thinking it will be an easy transition because I’ve been around these guys for quite some time now. They have just kind of welcomed me with open arms, so it is pretty cool.”
Building strong relationships with his teammates is all the more important to Walker given his expected role with the team. As the starting point guard, he will be responsible for orchestrating Boston’s offense, so he needs to establish as much trust as possible with his colleagues.
“For me, I’m all about the camaraderie, I’m all about the togetherness,” the three-time All-Star claimed in mid-August. “I’ve always felt that your off-the-court relationships translate on the court. I’ve always felt that way, I’ve always been big on that, so that’s why I’m trying my best to get acclimated to those guys as best I can.”
As for the on-court relationships, Walker did a fine job of establishing those as well. He was Team USA’s most consistent player throughout the World Cup, as he led the squad in scoring (14.4 points per game) and facilitating (5.4 assists per game). He also displayed a phenomenal work ethic, as he would pick up full-court on defense, take charges and do all of the little things that contribute to winning.
“I enjoyed playing with him,” Tatum reflected after the tournament. “Spent quite a bit of time on the floor together, and he’s as good as advertised.”
While Walker’s greatest gain from the Team USA experience came in the form of team-building, his younger teammates – Brown and Tatum in particular – benefitted mostly from a developmental standpoint. Such is bound to happen for two rising stars while playing under the tutelage of a coaching staff that includes a five-time NBA champion in Popovich, an eight-time NBA champion in Steve Kerr (three as a coach, five as a player) and a two-time NCAA champion in Jay Wright, among others.
"They all have their own style and coaching traits,” Brown explained the day after camp began in Vegas. “It’s like different teachers have different ways of explaining and teaching.”
Those great coaching minds came together and were able to tap into Brown and Tatum’s skill sets in brand-new ways. In Brown’s case, the coaching staff took note of his strength and decided to experiment with him in the frontcourt. Suddenly, the wing was running pick-and-pop sets with the point guards on the offensive end, while guarding 4s and 5s on the defensive end.
Popovich even matched Brown up against 7-foot-1 France center Rudy Gobert, and Brown, the 6-foot-7, jack-of-all-trades held his own. Brown even scored a couple of buckets in the paint against the two-time defending NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
“Jaylen, he’s just a hard-nosed player,” Popovich said Aug. 26 after Brown had scored a team-high 19 points on 72.7 percent shooting during an exhibition win over Canada. “He understands what has to be done. He doesn’t care about anything, except playing with his teammates, winning, playing aggressively all the time, and he’s consistent in that regard. He does it all the time. He’s confident in his shot. He’s tough underneath.
“He’s a strong player,” Pop continued. “For his size and strength, he moves well. He can really penetrate. He can catch and pull or get to the rim. He's unselfish and will find other people. He works on defense. He’s just kind of an all-around player.”
Popovich also took great interest in helping Tatum grow, as he implored the wing to be more aggressive, while also being patient in his approach.
“The thing that I talked about with Pop a lot was being able to dominate and to have an impact on the game without scoring,” Tatum said after returning to the States. “Everybody has off nights, but how can you still find a way to be super dominant and affect the game in a positive way. Just making quick decisions, playing faster, getting to the basket more. Not trying to settle.”
Though Tatum was limited to just two games in China due to an ankle injury, he still made a significant impact as he averaged 10.5 points, a team-leading 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. During those two games, he also displayed the poise of a 10-year veteran. His composure was especially impressive during Team USA’s group stage game against Turkey, as he made multiple buckets down the stretch, including a pair of free throws at the end of regulation which sent the game into overtime.
Together, Tatum and Brown impressed the coaching staff to no end from Day 1 of Team USA camp, all the way through to the final day of the tournament.
"I just know that those two guys are great players,” Kerr emphasized five days into training camp. "They’re entering their third and fourth years, so they’re still very young, still blossoming, but they also have a great coach and a great organization.
“They’re on a hell of a path, and they’re only going to get better.”
Although Team USA fell short of its goal to win gold at the FIBA World cup, its players didn’t come home empty-handed. The memories that they created and the bonds that they forged will last a lifetime, and they will forever cherish those six weeks spent together during the Summer of 2019.
“It was really unfortunate that we couldn’t go out and win a gold,” Walker said upon returning to Boston. “But I had an amazing time, with some amazing people, great coaches. Coach Pop was amazing, and it was an honor to get the opportunity to play for him and USA basketball as well.”
Walker believes that their seventh-place finish had a silver lining, as there were lessons to be learned that can be carried into the upcoming NBA season.
“As far as what I've taken away, I think the sacrifices, you just have to make sacrifices when you're on a team like that with a whole bunch of players who are really good,” Walker explained. “And a lot of guys did. I think that's something that we’ll bring here. Guys have to make sacrifices, you have to sometimes be uncomfortable, you have to adjust sometimes to help your team win. You have to take on different roles that you might not like to. So there is something that we can bring here.”
They’ll also bring back the tools that they acquired and the attributes that they enhanced. Tatum, for example already looked like a much more confident player during Boston’s first preseason game, as he logged a game-high 20 points during 23 minutes of action, while making four layups and three 3-pointers.
“I see a different way, a different assertiveness in the right things,” C’s coach Brad Stevens said of Tatum’s play through the first week of training camp and preseason. “He’s practiced really hard, made a conscious effort to take the right shots and not be any less aggressive. He’s still really aggressive. And he’s defended - really defended. He’s made nice strides. I thought the U.S. stuff would benefit all those guys, but you can really see it in him.”
Another benefit is that each of those players who competed at the World Cup showed up to training camp in tip-top shape. That also includes Daniel Theis, who competed for Team Germany, and rookie Vincent Poirier, who suited up for the bronze-medal winning France squad.
But most important of all was the fellowship that was forged among those four Team USA members who represent most of the Celtics core.
“It feels good just to build that camaraderie right now, early on before the season even starts,” Smart had told NBC Sports Boston back in early August. “When it comes time to strap it on for the season, we kind of already have a hint of what everyone wants to do and a feel for everybody.”
Any team that hopes to contend needs a sense of camaraderie, and it’s always productive to form that chemistry before the season begins. The 2008 title-winning team was the perfect example, as it spent training camp in Rome where it formed the foundation of its championship identity.
“Everybody knows that when championship teams, when contenders are really great teams, they’ve got a special ‘mmmph’ to them, where you look and you’re like, 'Those guys, they’ve been together for a while,' or, 'Those guys, they really play well together,'” Smart said. “And that’s what we’re trying to build.”