BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was discussing James Young's most recent D-League scoring outburst Sunday morning when he offered the words that the rookie's clamorous fan club has so desperately yearned to hear.
"I think we’re going to see him sooner rather than later for us," Stevens said of the 19-year-old Young. "A lot more than we have."
Stevens has steadfastly stuck to a belief that playing time must be earned not delivered. But in the aftermath of in-season trades that recently sent out Boston's top offensive threats, the Celtics endured a month of January in which they ranked 22nd in the league in offensive rating while averaging a mere 99.2 points per 100 possessions. Boston's effective field goal (16th) and true shooting (18th) percentages were both in the back half of the league.
And after a brief flicker of playoff hope after winning some nail-biters out west, the Celtics have dropped three straight, which included running out of gas on the road against league-worst Minnesota before turning in two absolutely putrid first halves back home when they should have been super motivated to build off their successes.
Four games this week will help dictate exactly how the team proceeds from here. The team plays four opponents with a combined winning percentage of 0.355 in the basement-dwelling Knicks and 76ers, along with the Bucks and Nuggets. Another flurry of wins might encourage the team to keep some of its veteran pieces, particularly if they can't be cashed in for future assets at the trade deadline, and see what's possible over the final 32 games of the season in an Eastern Conference that's begging teams to accept a playoff invite.
Regardless of the path that Boston navigates, we're likely to see more of the No. 17 pick in June's draft. Yes, he's more likely to see increased time if the Celtics ship out the veteran bodies in front of him on the depth chart (Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince), but he's shown enough in the D-League to justify a longer look with the parent squad.
Which is why Young received his first first-quarter playing time of the season Sunday as Boston struggled to put points on the board early against Miami. Young ended up playing a mere nine minutes, scoring three points on 1-of-2 shooting with three rebounds. Even with veteran Prince unable to play due to a hip flexor, Stevens leaned on his core rotation when Boston rallied behind some inspired second-half defense.
Young had erupted Saturday for 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting, which included tying a Maine Red Claws single-game record with nine 3-pointers. Maybe the most encouraging part of the performance was how some of the triples came. While Young has shown an ability to hit spot-up 3s when defenders wander, he also worked for others during Saturday night's game against Fort Wayne. He created space coming off a screen for one triple, shot off a handoff on another. Young put the ball on the floor before an above-the-break 3, then got another off a simple inbound screen action.
Teammate Andre Dawkins, who knows a thing or two about quality 3-point shooting, was on assignment in Maine with Young and was asked his thoughts on Young.
"He can really score the ball," said Dawkins. "He got hot from behind the line, but he can do other things as well. He probably would have had a couple more assists if I had made a couple more shots. He's really impressive. Obviously, he's a little young so he's got a lot of time to improve and get better. I'm looking forward to seeing his progress."
Asked to assess Young's 3-point abilities, Dawkins added: “It’s effortless and it's a very smooth stroke. It’s one motion. And he’s tall, so he’s able to get up and shoot over top of guys. It makes it a little bit easier for him to get a shot off. Even when guys are right there, he can still get his shot off and it's not really bothering him that guys are right there."
In nine games with Maine this season, Young is averaging 23.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.6 steals over 33.8 minutes per game. He's shooting a ridiculous 51.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc, which ranks second among league qualifiers. Young is also second in true shooting percentage (70.1) and second in effective field goal percentage (68.9). He's ninth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating (23.4).
The challenge, of course, remains defense. Young is allowing 1 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data, which ranks him in the 15th percentile among all D-League defenders. Drill down to players with at least 70 plays defended in the D-League this year and Young ranks 153rd out of 171 qualifiers in points allowed per play.
Masked by all the highlights of his 3-point exploits in that Fort Wayne game is his defensive struggles. Opponents, particularly larger forwards like 6-foot-8 CJ Fair, go right at the basket against him and Young offers little resistance. He has a tendency to ball watch and loses track of his man at times on cuts or kick outs, he struggles to fight through screens.
Stevens remains convinced that Young will learn to be a serviceable defender at the NBA level and the team has tried to keep him matched on smaller 2s to exploit his length during his NBA infancy.
"Offense is never going to be an issue and I don’t think defense is once he gets strong enough," said Stevens. "I think the biggest thing right now is that there will be some guys that he will struggle to guard, just physically, but once he continues to work the way he’s working, he’ll be good on both ends of the court. Defensively, he’s had some real moments and -- a lot of times they’ve been in games or moments where the other team might not quite be on point, just because of the score or whatever -- he’s had some moments late in games where he has made great defensive plays, especially on smaller guards, so that’s been a real positive to see."
Young averaged 10.1 minutes per game in seven appearances for Boston in January. Take away his 13-point showing against Charlotte on Jan. 5 and it was otherwise a quiet month, one in which he was sidetracked by the flu. Young has had some tough setbacks in his rookie campaign, from the pre-draft car accident that cost him summer league, to a hamstring injury that robbed him of much of his exhibition season, to a shoulder injury that derailed him a bit in December, and then a bout with the flu last month.
But Stevens seems committed to giving him a chance to prove himself at the NBA level moving forward.
"I thought last week when we threw him in there, he looked a little bit more tentative, and that could easily have been coming off the flu, too," said Stevens. "He was sick for a good four or five days, so he didn’t have a lot of reps, even in practice time. Hopefully he’ll continue to play well when he gets those opportunities up [in Maine], and then when he gets his opportunities here, continue to grow and build and show good things."