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Boston’s youth conundrum

2019 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2021 Celtics would be a historically young contender.

After his team’s hard-fought win in Game 7 of the second round playoffs against the then defending champion Toronto Raptors, Brad Stevens couldn’t help but marvel at just how young his Eastern Conference Finals-bound group was. “We have three 30-year-olds. We’re like basically a college team with a couple of guys.”

And Stevens wasn’t wrong – the Celtics were the third youngest conference finalist this century (by weighted average age – which allows us to account for teams that did not play their young guys at all), trailing only the 2011 Thunder and 2018 Celtics.

This year, after replacing Brad Wanamaker and Gordon Hayward with veteran Jeff Teague and rookie Aaron Nesmith, the Celtics are down to just two thirtysomethings. An already historically young team for a contender is now…even younger.

With Kemba Walker set to miss the opening portion of the season, the Celtics will be fully leaning in to the youth movement, as rookie Payton Pritchard should get some minutes at the backup point guard spot behind Teague at the start of the year. Romeo Langford is also still recovering from an injury, so Nesmith also figures to be one of the first two wings off the Celtic bench.

But the problem with relying on rookies for rotation minutes is that, put bluntly, players are just usually not very good in Year One. While the nightmares of Heat rookie Tyler Herro hitting jump shot after jump shot in the Eastern Conference Finals still keep the Boston faithful from getting a full night’s sleep, his outlier performance shouldn’t skew one’s opinion of what rookie years truly look like.

As Seth Partnow noted for The Athletic recently, less than 1/3 of draft selections have played at least 500 minutes while contributing at above -2.0 PIPM (Player Impact Plus Minus, -2.0 is considered replacement level). Less than 10% reached “above-average” levels of play and a large portion of those players are high-draft picks.

 Seth Partnow, The Athletic

Of course, all this data holds true in a normal season, one in which draftees have a couple months to get into their team facilities and work with strength and conditioning coaches before a full-length training camp. This season, for so many reasons, is obviously not a normal year. This year, Pritchard and Nesmith will have a grand total of 35 days between hearing their name called at the draft and Game 1 against Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks.

This is not to say that it’s all necessarily going to be doom and gloom for the 14th and 26th picks this season. Pritchard is a high IQ, four-year player out of Oregon who should be able to push the pace and knock down open shots, while Nesmith is a sharpshooter – a skill that should translate to the NBA immediately. It’s more than possible that both will turn into solid role players in the next few years, and, in fact, it may actually be beneficial for their long-term careers to be thrown into the fire at the start of this season as they’ll both be able to play through their mistakes. But expecting them to provide productive rotation minutes and help fix Boston’s bench problems in their first year is an unfair expectation and relatively unrealistic in the context of rookie history.

Nesmith and Pritchard can serve as long-term solutions to surrounding Brown and Tatum with solid, complementary pieces. Given the Celtics will be relatively cap strung in the coming years with Tatum’s extension kicking in next summer alongside Brown and Walker’s deals, internal development was always going to be the best way to find cheap talent, and both Pritchard and Nesmith look to be the kind of players that will fit well alongside Boston’s young core going down the line.

It’s also worth noting how expectations have shifted with Jayson Tatum’s emergence as a bona fide star. Most Celtics fans would have been quite happy to reach the conference finals at the start of last season, having lost Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, and Marcus Morris. But Tatum’s eruption at the start of 2020 moved the goalposts.

But, as currently constructed, this Celtics team is simply too young around the edges to be true contenders. According to my rough distribution of minutes for the year, this Celtics team could be the youngest team to ever make The Finals.

They would be just clear of the 2012 Thunder – who were also led by a 22-year-old superstar in Kevin Durant. After falling to Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks in 2011, the Thunder retooled the following season with largely the same roster, adding veteran 38-year-old Derek Fisher late in 2012. Fisher had been in difficult playoff situations countless times before, and his experience – both on and off the court – played an important role in helping that Thunder team get over the hump and into The Finals.

So, given how young this team is, if Danny Ainge believes that the Boston core is ready for a championship run this season, then he must use the trade exception acquired from Charlotte before the deadline to pick up a vet. This Celtics squad has largely the same core that reached Game 6 of the Conference Finals last season, with Hayward injured throughout Rounds 1 and 2 and hobbled when he returned at the end of Round 3. While they added one player with championship experience in Tristan Thompson, an addition on the wing who could contribute both in the locker room and on the court could be the key in raising Banner 18. More likely, if Ainge feels the group is still a year away, letting Nesmith and Pritchard (and Grant Williams, Robert Williams, and Romeo Langford for that matter) learn through their mistakes may be the most fruitful path.