SALT LAKE CITY -- James Young probably shouldn't be playing in a summer league. Former first-round picks prepping for their third NBA season typically have distinguished themselves by this point. But with the Boston Celtics overflowing with recent draftees, including seven first-round picks and 12 total selections over the past three drafts, Young is out west this week, trying to build some job security.
The No. 17 pick in the 2014 draft, Young is, well, young. He won't turn 21 until August. He's only 14 months older than 19-year-old rookie Jaylen Brown, and is the third-youngest player on Boston's summer squad. Injuries limited his participation in summer league before each of his first two NBA seasons, so Young agreed to join Boston's squad competing in Utah and Las Vegas this month.
Through two games, Young is averaging 12.5 points in 25.5 minutes. He has made seven of 17 shots, including six of the seven 3-pointers he put up. Young isn't dominating the way a player of his experience level might be expected to, but on a team thin on shooting, he's going to get every opportunity to prove he's making the strides necessary for the team to continue to invest in his development.
Over two NBA seasons, Young has played only 531 minutes in 60 appearances, or less than nine minutes per game. Last season he didn't even reach 200 minutes and scored just 29 points in 29 games. The Celtics often leaned heavier on 2015 first-round picks Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter at the guard spots, including when Boston's depth was depleted in the postseason.
Rozier, the No. 16 pick in 2015, looks like a player ready to elevate to a rotation role. His ballhandling, speed and playmaking abilities will give him a chance to inherit some of the minutes opened by Evan Turner's departure.
Young hasn't proven he can consistently make shots (shooting 25 percent beyond the 3-point arc in 92 attempts), and while he has good size and length for his position, his defense is a work in progress.
Some Celtics fans are ready to cut bait with Young. The Celtics can be a bit more patient until there's a roster crunch. Still, Young absolutely needs a strong summer -- if only to build confidence, not only in himself but in those who will dictate his playing time next season. And Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has admitted that it's time for Young to step forward.
"Listen, you have to earn a roster spot," said Ainge. "There are some exceptions, like James Young is an exception. He was drafted at 18 years old and we have to be patient with him, but now it’s time. But competition is a good thing. It brings out the best in these guys."
Asked what he's looking for from Young, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, "Just continued progress and growth. I think the bottom line is, and we showed this on film the other day, James has a feel for what we're trying to do on defense and offense. He is clearly playing more instinctual than he was before. And more instinctual than a lot of young guys because -- or maybe 'young guys' is not the right way to put it, but our other new guys. That's a positive."
Assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry, tasked with leading Boston's summer squad in Utah, wants Young to believe in himself.
"I think the main thing is staying positive with himself," he said. "Young guy, he's really hard on himself. He puts in time, he works at it, then, like other people, when you do that and you see it and you don't quite see the results, you get down on yourself a little bit.
"Him making those [3-point] shots, it's big for his confidence. Like now he goes in and the next day he's not even thinking, he's just playing. Like having that positive momentum is big."
Being in Utah is only a reminder of the sort of ground that Young has to make up. During a break in Boston's summer league game against the Jazz on Tuesday night, the giant video screen at Vivint Smart Home Arena showed Rodney Hood observing from the crowd. Hood, selected six spots after Young in 2014, started 79 games for Utah last season and is a key part of the Jazz's young core.
Young is known for his occasionally Westbrookian outfits and seems to be constantly changing his hairstyle. He has been wearing a piece of tape over a nostril during summer league games because he recently pierced his nose. Despite his somewhat flashy style, Young remains quiet and a maybe a bit guarded with the media. To his credit, after a strong performance in Tuesday's win over the Jazz, he deflected most questions about himself and tried to keep the focus on the team's victory.
Before the Celtics trekked out west this week, Young was asked why he even considered playing summer league again.
"I barely played the first two [seasons] I was here, so why not come back for a third and play a full?" said Young. "So that’s why I’m here. Just go out there and play basketball."
Young has to embrace this opportunity. Any opportunity for him to be on the court against competition is a chance to distinguish himself.
Asked what differences he has seen from Young this summer, Rozier said, "He's more serious about his grind-time performance. You could tell he wanted it more. He's relaxing [on the court], you can tell he's taking it more seriously. When you see that growth, it shows he's maturing."
After launching one corner 3-pointer against the Jazz on Tuesday night, Young could be heard yelling at his defender, "Cash, boy!" before it even splashed through. He needs to bottle that confidence.
"I've been putting a lot of work in, so it's just starting to show off," Young said. "I'm just going to keep working until I am where I need to be."