Believing in Bradley

BOSTON -- After watching second-year guard Avery Bradley match his career high with 23 points in Wednesday's win over the Orlando Magic, teammate Keyon Dooling quipped how the Celtics might have to consider changing the nickname of their core to the Big Five.

Jest or not, let's stop and let that notion sink in for a minute.

Two months ago, that idea was utterly laughable. Sure, Bradley had shown glimpses of being a potential rotation player with his gritty defensive efforts while filling in for both Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen in the latter part of January, but his minutes dipped upon their return, culminating with a DNP -- Coach's Decision (one of only two this season) against the Lakers on Feb. 9. It wasn't until Rondo earned a two-game suspension right before the All-Star break that Bradley's minutes began to climb again.

Even a month ago his play came in limited chunks, topping 15 minutes in only one of the eight games on Boston's extended road trip starting in mid-March.

But when both Allen and Mickael Pietrus went down later in the month, Bradley kicked in the rotation doors, not only establishing himself as an essential player but taking over the starting shooting guard role that he's relinquished for just one game since.

Over the past 16 games, Bradley has averaged 14.8 points, while shooting 54.5 percent from the floor (96 of 176) and 56.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (18 of 32). Defense remains his calling card, but his offense is quickly catching up, which seemed impossible given his woes shooting the ball early in his career.

As Kevin Garnett gushed: "Avery is playing as good as any other player in this league.... high confidence right now and we're loving it, we're fueling it. We fuel everything in this locker room with confidence."

Confidence is all Bradley needed. Now, he gushes it. It's still subtle, but Garnett has taken notice of it.

"Man, he's playing with a free mind, playing aggressively, attacking the rim," said Garnett. "On top of other things, he's hitting 3-pointers, chest-bumping, and having his own little swag, if you will. I love it."

Sounds an awful lot like another young guard who bided his time in his rookie season before asserting himself as the quarterback of the offense. It was Rondo's confidence (or maybe stubbornness) that endeared him to the veterans.

Pretty soon the Big Three morphed into the Big Four. So maybe it's not entirely preposterous to think that Bradley might some day be regarded in the same breath if he continues to develop as he has in his sophomore season.

What's amazing lately is that his offensive exploits have slightly masked his continued excellence in the defensive end. But make no mistake, that's his bread and butter.

"He's really carved out a niche on our team," said Dooling. "You can talk about the offensive part with Avery, [but] he's the best perimeter defender in the league. If you poll around the league, if you ask point guards who they hate playing against the most, everybody would probably say Avery Bradley. You know he's a special player."

Bradley is still acclimating to the role of budding star. For much of his first two seasons, he was able to dress quickly after games and be one of the first players out of the locker room, undeterred by the microphones waiting for the likes of Garnett, Rondo, or Paul Pierce. Now, there are cameras waiting near his stall after each game.

At first he'd do his interviews sitting down, but the soft-spoken Bradley couldn't be seen or heard from the back of the pack, so he'd have to deal with the media in waves, keeping him cemented at his locker answering questions for long periods. With some coaching from the media-relations staff, he's learned how to make the postgame sessions easier on himself and reporters.

He's also let his personality shine through more and more. Like most young players, he can be guarded with his responses, leaning on familiar lines and coachspeak. But as he's grown more comfortable, he often smiles and offers playful responses.

It's easy to forget he's still just a 21-year-old kid, but Bradley's clearly growing up on the court and off.

And Garnett can't stop gushing about him. So much so that he made not one, but two pushes Wednesday night for the Celtics to consider locking up Bradley long-term in the near future.

"Just from seeing where he's come from to where he's at now, it's beautiful man," said Garnett. "I hope they are able to reward him with some longevity and loyalty, something long-term. But I've always said to him, 'Continue to work,' because that's what it starts with.

"I saw it in [Bradley] from Day 1, from the defensive standpoint, and I told him if he continued to work, I thought that he had the tools and the ability to be something special in our league. In our system it's kind of different, because you have a role and you have to play that role. We're a defensive team first, so it was like natural for him to slide into a defensive set and let that be what he is. He's embraced that role. Now he's gaining confidence on the offensive end, being able to make a shot, have confidence in his own game, to come out and run our system and understand his place here... I hope in the end, it pays off and they take care of him. "

The Celtics have Bradley under their control for the foreseeable future. After picking up his 2012-13 option at the end of last season, Bradley is set to earn $1.6 million next year. The team also holds a $2.5 million option for his 2013-14 campaign and he'd be a restricted free agent (with a $3.6 million qualifying offer) the following year.

That's a steal if Bradley continues to play at his current level. It will be interesting to see if the Celtics heed Garnett's advice and try to lock up the star-in-the-making before his value skyrockets (think Rondo inking a long-term, reasonable-money extension in October of 2009).

The Big Five? OK, that's probably a bit premature. But Bradley's play suggests he'll definitely be a big part of how this team evolves moving forward.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.