Paul Pierce started laughing the moment Avery Bradley walked into the locker room. The Boston Celtics were in Charlotte in February 2011, and Bradley had just been recalled from the NBA Development League for emergency depth. The rookie's hair had grown out while on assignment, and Pierce howled at the sight before asking Bradley, "Are there no barbershops in Maine?"
The laughing stopped a couple of days later. Bradley, his confidence rebuilt after a nine-game stint with the team's minor league affiliate, was having an eyebrow-raising practice. The Celtics were in 5-on-5 half-court drills late in the session when Bradley attacked the basket and threw down a dunk over center Kendrick Perkins.
Coach Doc Rivers blew his whistle and ended the practice on the spot. A walk-off dunk.The veterans just stared at Bradley, wondering what had gotten into him.
Sitting inside the locker room at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine, earlier this week as the Celtics prepared for an exhibition game in conjunction with the Red Claws, Bradley shook his head while reflecting back to the series of events that helped jump-start his NBA career.
"I was a completely different person when I came back from Maine," Bradley said. "I remember I came back, and I hadn't got a haircut, and they called me a 'man on a mission.' That first practice, when I dunked on Perk and Doc ended it, from that day on, I felt like I belonged in this league."
The 23-year-old Bradley is entering his fifth season with the Celtics. He signed his first big-money extension this past summer, and he's the second-longest tenured player on the team behind only Rajon Rondo. That assignment to Maine feels like a lifetime ago, as does a short stint playing overseas in Israel soon after while the NBA navigated a lockout. But both trips to the basketball hinterlands were instrumental in shaping Bradley as a person and as a player.
Bradley, the 19th overall pick in the 2010 draft, struggled mightily in the early stages of his pro career. A chipped bone suffered in a pre-draft workout with the Oklahoma City Thunder contributed to his draft-day slide to the Celtics, and his recovery lingered into the start of the season, setting back the 19-year-old. His game reps were limited, and he struggled with his shot when trash-time opportunities did come. By mid-January 2011, the Celtics assigned Bradley to Maine in order to get him much-needed game reps and to restore his sagging confidence.
It's impossible to know how long Bradley might have lingered in Maine if not for a freak spine injury to teammate Marquis Daniels that led to Bradley's recall in early February with the team thin on bodies as it trekked to Charlotte.
"It's sad that it happened, but I came up when Marquis had his injury. It's crazy how everything happens," Bradley said. "I came up, got my opportunity, and from then on -- that practice is when I gained my teammates' confidence. Not only their confidence, but their respect. Because at first I think they thought, 'He can't really play.' I was hurt, I didn't practice. It was like, 'He's not ready.' Then when I came back, they were like, 'He might actually have a chance.'"
Make no mistake, Bradley wasn't an overnight success. He played only 162 minutes in 31 appearances during that rookie campaign, and few were raving about him by season's end. He shot 34.3 percent from the field overall and missed all five 3-pointers he attempted. But behind the scenes, he was making progress. Rivers vehemently defended Bradley when reporters inquired about the rookie's shooting woes, and Rivers insisted his shots would eventually fall.
Rivers was vindicated by the end of Bradley's sophomore campaign when he supplanted Ray Allen as the team's starting shooting guard, showcasing both a defensive tenacity and an improved perimeter stroke. Only injuries have slowed Bradley ever since, but he acknowledges that there's still progress to make.
This week's trip to Maine simply afforded him an opportunity to savor how far he's come.
"When I have basketball camps and I tell kids my story, they're like, 'You played in Maine? In Israel? You did this and that?' I experienced a lot, and I feel like it made me not only the person I am today, but the basketball player I am."
Bradley shrugs off the idea of increased expectations that might come after signing a four-year, $32 million extension this offseason. Coming off his best offensive season of his career, he's focused on re-establishing himself as one of the league's elite defensive presences -- he yearns to be an NBA All-Defensive first-teamer this season -- while searching for the proper balance to consistently impact the game at both ends of the floor.
The arrival of rookie Marcus Smart ought to help push Bradley. Smart plays a similar brand of defense with maybe a bit more physicality given his size. The two have the potential to disrupt opponents as part of a three-guard rotation with Rondo when he's able to return from a hand fracture.
Smart will be a rotation player, but it's fair to wonder if fellow first-round pick James Young could end up on a Bradley-like trajectory. Young slipped a bit to Boston at No. 17 in June after a pre-draft car accident might have left teams leery. The injuries he sustained in that minor crash, coupled with a hamstring strain, have limited his game action at the pro level.
While Young has said he'd rather stay with the parent club this season, Bradley believes his experience is an example of how the D-League can help a young player.
"I was able to learn a lot up [in Maine]," Bradley said. "I didn't take it as punishment at all. That's one thing I do remember. At first I was disappointed, and being a young guy, it's kinda overwhelming at first [in the NBA] seeing all the superstars, all the guys you watch on TV, and now you're practicing and I had the injury. I got down on myself a lot, but the D-League gave me a chance to get that confidence back."
Does Bradley envision the D-League as being a good experience for Young?
"It's not my place to say anything like that, but the one thing I can say is that, from personal experience, it did help me out a lot," Bradley said. "And it did help me gain that confidence within myself and, not only that, it let my teammates know that I'm not scared to play at the next level. It was really, really big for me."
With that, Bradley's focus shifted back to the present. He's ready for the next chapter in his NBA journey. His hair is short again now, but he's still a man on a mission.