Do the Celtics have a problem developing young talent?

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics react after a call from the official during the fourth quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 25: Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics react after a call from the official during the fourth quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at TD Garden on December 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

Over the past few years, the Boston Celtics have benefited greatly from having a number of talented youngsters on their roster. However, their contributions have not always been consistent, nor have these players met expectations, leading to the very relevant question, “do the Celtics have a problem with player development?”

The Boston Celtics count themselves amongst the most fortunate franchises in the NBA for a plethora of reasons. There’s the record seventeen championship banners, the rabid fanbase, a dedicated ownership group, and the first-class city to which the team calls home.

In recent years another blessing of the team’s has been its collection of young talent…

It didn’t take long for the Celtics to retool after general manager Danny Ainge shipped out Celtics’ greats Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets during the summer of 2013.

During the 2014 NBA Draft, using its own pick, the Boston Celtics selected future NBA First-Team All-Defense member and NBA hustle award recipient Marcus Smart with the sixth overall pick.

In the following year’s draft, with the 16th overall pick, Boston added talented combo-guard Terry Rozier.

Then in 2016 and 17’, respectively, phenom forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were each taken third overall by the Celtics, with some of the picks acquired from the Nets.

All of these players have had a tremendous impact on the Celtics’ recent history of success. In 2018, it was on their backs the Celtics almost shocked the world by dethroning King James in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Based on their stellar performances in the 2018 playoffs, NBA pundits projected Tatum, Brown, and Rozier all had what it took to take the the leap from good to great the following season. Whereas a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were expected back in the fold, the Celtics became many’s pick to get over the proverbial hump and reach the NBA Finals.

Some were still more bullish on the Celts’ chances for success. For instance, NBA Hall-of-famer turned talking head Tracey McGrady predicted Boston would win the championship over the vaunted Golden State Warriors.

But during the season which was supposed to see Boston’s return to glory, everything that could go wrong did, including none of the aforementioned, talented young Celtics coming anywhere close to reaching the heights forecasted for them.

Things would turn out so poorly for Tatum, Brown, and Rozier that in many ways, not only did they not improve, they regressed, particularly Rozier.

Can we blame this all on the toxic impact of Irving? Or do the Celtics have a much bigger problem, one not specific to just last year, and which could hamper the organization for the foreseeable future?

This brings us to the topic of player development, arguably the most important component of what constitutes a winning franchise — aside from signing the next disgruntled super-star in free-agency, of course.

A team can acquire all the young talent it wants via the draft and/or trades, but if it does a shoddy job of either recognizing a player’s potential, or nourishing it with sufficient opportunity, said team isn’t likely to experience much in the way of success.

A perfect example of this is the Celtics’ greatest rival, the Los Angeles Lakers.

What if I told you, Celtics fans, that just a few years ago the Lakers, in successive drafts, would select a player who would last year average over 21 points per game, seven assists, and be selected to his first All-star team; as well as another player who averaged over 21 points per game, nine-ish rebounds, and shot well over 50% from the field?

And then what if I told you neither of these players was still on the Lakers’ roster?

Sadly for the LA fanbase, I’m not making up this nightmare scenario.

The Lakers cast off the first player, D’Angelo Russell, in a trade to the Nets in 2017 and allowed the second, Julius Randle, to walk away to the New Orleans Pelicans in free-agency the following year.

Taken together, these gaffs represent a complete failure by the Lakers’ organization to identify and develop talent within its own ranks. If it weren’t for the lure of Hollywood having attracted LeBron James and Anthony Davis, there’s no telling how long the losses of Russell and Randel could have set the Lakers back.

Likewise, the Boston Celtics’ organization has had its own struggles handling its young talent, albeit not as catastrophic as those of the Lakers.

Throughout the 2018 offseason, no one in the basketball universe could stop talking about the Celtics’ young trio of Tatum, Brown, and Rozier. Tatum was proclaimed a slam-dunk guarantee to become a perennial All-star; Brown was thought to have All-star potential of his own; and while there was less certainty about what Rozier’s future held, there was no shortage of optimism.

Why is it then each player failed so dramatically to meet expectations during the 2018-2019 season?

As it turns out, many Celtics youngsters in recent history have failed to live up to the hype, not just Tatum, Brown, and Rozier. Some of the most noteworthy examples include players James Young, Jordan Mickey, RJ Hunter, and Guerschon Yabusele. Each was a first round draft pick, aside from Mickey, but the team valued Mickey so highly it awarded him the most lucrative rookie deal ever given to a second-rounder. Yet none of this group showed even the slightest signs of improvement while with Boston.

All of this points to lackluster player development, the blame for which falls squarely at the feet of Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens.

Now, I wholeheartedly believe Ainge, Stevens, and the Celtics’ coaching staff as a whole are capable talent evaluators and teachers of the game of basketball.

What they have utterly failed to do, however, is create opportunities for young talent so that it might flourish.

Thus, this might come as somewhat of a surprise to Ainge, Stevens, and company, but as it turns out, the best way to get better at basketball, is to actually play basketball. Meaningful basketball.

It’s wholly unreasonable to expect any young player to improve his game while sitting on the bench or relegated to being nothing more than a spectator while on the court. But this is the very challenge almost all of the Celtics’ young players have faced over the past few seasons.

Say what you will about whether Young, Mickey, Hunter, and Yabu had what it took to eventually establish themselves as NBA players. But, how could we really know? It’s not as if we ever had the chance to see them, you know, play in games or anything…

Tatum and Brown received their fair share of playing time this past season, but they were ultimately marginalized by Stevens having allowed Irving and others to steal their shots and touches. Rozier, for his part, hardly even saw the court.

Who knows how good Tatum, Brown, and even Rozier could be right now had more of an emphasis been placed on developing them instead of kowtowing to Irving and his every whim?

It’s this shortsightedness which makes last season a lost year in every way imaginable.

And while it’s still very early on in the process for talented young big-man, Robert Williams, is it possible the Boston Celtics are in the midst of committing another player development misstep with him? Williams played only sparingly last year, despite his otherworldly start to the season, when it seemed he was blocking everything this side of Worcester.

Looking ahead to 2019-2020, it seems opportunities will again be scarce for Williams, with the team having signed NBA journeyman “big” Enes Kanter and EuroLeague veteran center Vincent Pourirer this offseason, while keeping on board power-forward/center Daniel Theis.

What’s most concerning though is how the signings of ball-dominant, score-first point guard Kemba Walker, and the black-hole on offense which is Kanter, who the team seems intent on including in its starting lineup, will affect Tatum and Brown.

There are no two more valuable Celtics’ assets than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. However, even with the departure of Irving to the Nets, Tatum and Brown might still find themselves playing the role of on-court cheerleader with Walker and Kanter now in tow.

Yet if just one of Tatum or Brown weren’t to realize his full potential while with the team, Boston’s future will assuredly be a lot less bright. Thus, the Celtics must this very instant begin prioritizing their developments above all else.

It’s about time Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens learned winning takes a lot more than simply hoarding the largest collection of talent available. At least as important as amassing talent is affording opportunities to deserving young players commensurate with their abilities and potentials, so that they might grow and help their team in the long-run.

Next. Kyrie proves why Isaiah Thomas was so special in Boston. dark

You would think Ainge and Stevens would have had this lesson seared into their minds after last season, when aside from Smart, all of the team’s talented youth failed to meet expectations.

But unfortunately for Celtics fans, Boston’s offseason moves indicate they have not.

Thanks for reading.

(Special thanks to Harwood Houdini commenter Hughie Johnson for the suggestion on what to write about this week.)