An Ode to Avery Bradley: His NBA Trajectory and Why It’s Unique
Posted by Brian Robb on Dec 24, 2012
The following article is a guest post from Romy Nehme. Romy can also be found at 2 girls 1 ball
My, how the little brother has grown.
Remember that time Bradley took the ball coast-to-coast and desecrated the rim as Durant tried to disrupt the surprisingly forceful cram? It was February 22nd, 2012. At that point, fans knew Bradley as the merciless hound he was, a defensive specimen that regaled fans, terrorized opponents and piqued the curiosity of analysts nationwide. ”If only he could add a 3pt shot” they said, “he might just carve out a career for himself the way Bruce Bowen did”…
As Bradley’s return draws near(er), it’s funny to think about how the size of his body of work and impact seem somewhat incongruous; it also bears reminding fans that his surge from irrelevancy wasn’t some time lapse chronicling a player’s evolution over a year. It unfolded in real time, in little time, and documented a progression no one saw coming. At least I didn’t. It transformed Bradley from a specialist into someone who was now making roaming defenders pay with baseline cuts, fulfilling Rondo’s longings for an up-tempo companion and nailing corner 3s like he was #20.
But Bradley’s most impressive achievement? Quietly putting an end to the Big 3 era long before Allen packed his bags and took his surly ankles to South Beach.
Wait: How the hell did this happen?
Learning curve with a capital “L”.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the “tweener” or “undersized” label can in some cases accelerate rather than hinder a player’s learning curve. Consider a player like Paul Millsap: faced with the option of retro-fitting his game with the team’s system, or, toiling in the no man’s land that gobbles up so many of his kind, Millsap worked hard, but more importantly, smartly, to focus his game and steer its outputs towards very specific team needs. (This usually entails relegating one’s post game to the backburner in favor of developing a laser-precise mid-range game like so many of Gomes’ diminutive ilk have done.)
When it comes to the kiss of death “combo guard” stigma, however, what we more often see are shooting guards, who, asked to forgo what made them marquee players at the collegiate level and bear the brunt of learning the more intricate PG position, never quite find that aptitude/fit sweet spot. You need only look as far as Austin Rivers to appreciate the very real and unavoidable trials of a player who, despite his sizzling first step and family pedigree — is being forced to play out of position by quarterbacking his team into a cohesive offensive unit, something that’s already proven to be treacherous terrain for Rivers. Bradley and his shaky (for now) handle might have been headed for that cliff if it wasn’t for Allen’s injury thrusting the young’n into the greenlight.
Aided by that stroke of luck that shifted him back to his more natural SG position, Bradley was allowed to flourish. In the process, he managed to quickly cement his role in the NBA for the next decade: One that’s more multifaceted than you think, and despite a career trajectory that’s been anything but linear. An oddity, truth be told. Let’s explore why.
Three is a charm.
A few weeks ago, Barkley boldly stated  that there’s no reason why an NBA player should not have established himself as the kind of player he’s going to be for the rest of his career by Year Three. And while that first seems like a reasonable statement, it’s far from being a given in the NBA.
Think about it: most rookie seasons are up and down, the “sophomore blues” is an expression for a reason, and having vanquished both those uneven seasons, expectations are usually calibrated and roles sorted out by the third. Despite that, many household names that are revered around the league are sometimes well into their second contracts before a clear silhouette of their games emerge.
LeBron James? It took him 8-9 seasons before tacking on a deadly post game to his already lethal locomotive offense. Amar’e? We have yet to see the fruits of this summer’s labor intensive with Hakeem The Dream manifest, but we can surmise that the combination of nagging pains in his knee and the nostalgia of a once PnR dynasty partnership receding from memory nudged him to add polish to his offensive game. DeAndre Jordan? It only took him 5 seasons to realize he was never going to play in crunch time without developing at least one go-to offensive move, which if you’re wondering, is that little baseline jump hook that’s been working wonders so far this year.
Bradley’s trajectory, on the other hand, can only be likened to the spread of a wildfire (and a welcome departure from the failed Giddens and Co. player development  experiments). Just like wildfires spread faster uphill, Bradley seemed to feed off the uphill battle of piercing a veteran rotation, passing fallen young Celtics players along the way who’d failed, trying.
As slice of humble pie.
Ranked as the top high school player in the country ahead of John Wall by ESPN, Bradley had a largely average if not disappointing freshman season at Texas (which is not uncommon when playing for the sometimes confused Coach Barnes). He declared for the draft, then promptly suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of draft workouts — the perfect storm leading him to drop to #19 on draft night. Unable to partake in Summer League or training camp action and asked to assume backup PG duties, Bradley clung to his only NBA-ready skill, his uncanny defensive ability, while his barely ZogSports caliber J had us wondering what the fuss was all about.
Just like Rondo did with Allen, Bradley was smart enough to inhale every ounce of hall-of-fame influence whirring in his vicinity. It’s no secret that players steal parts of other players’ games to patent their own. Shaq admitted to admiring, and plucking elements from Robinson and Ewing. Allen Iverson ripped his quintessential move, the crossover, from Georgetown walk-on Dean Berry, whereas Tim Hardaway was inspired by Pearl Washington, and so on so forth. Bradley’s influences are less clear (although Ray Allen was cited as a mentor of sorts last year). But incorporating them into his repertoire was clearly a conscious calculus; how else would he have assimilated them during the short time he spent learning away from the cameras?
Avery Bradley 2.0.
In Jessica Camerato’s terrific article, Bradley describes experiencing a sort of second epiphany while mending his torn shoulder ligaments. Adopting Rondo’s film rat habits and a pupil’s openness, he likened the basketball lessons that suddenly revealed themselves to him — the ones that had eluded him in part due to the fact that he’d been playing catch up since Day 1 — to that moment when Magic Eye puzzle fragments synthesize into a clear image. I can’t imagine what the rehab process must have been like with two limp shoulders and no third one to favor, but Bradley was too busy identifying patterns about the game to dwell on his setback. How much he initially shies away from contact when he comes back is yet to be seen, but what’s almost certain is that we won’t be seeing any of those timid glances that betrayed Bradley’s early deference.
The Bradley guarantee.
Out of all the Celtics’ 2011-2012 possible quintets that played 100 or more minutes together, it’s the Rondo-Bradley-Pierce-Bass-KG combination that was the most productive. The kicker is that it wasn’t just more efficient defensively, but offensively too.
What are the immediate benefits of his reinsertion into the lineup? For one, Rondo will be relieved to slide over to the off-guard position defensively (and so will the Celtics’ back-line). I’m also predicting that a less obvious by-product of his return will be an uptick in the Celtics’ historically brutal rebounding numbers, courtesy of Bradley’s superglue presence minimizing the costly defensive breakdowns and rotations — both on isolation and PnR plays — that have forced bigs out of position in the early portion of the season.
So … who’s better, #18 or #19?
Just when you start to take Bradley’s defense for granted, you catch wind of another anecdote illustrating just how unconventional his full court pressure really is: “If it wasn’t me, it was Jason Kidd, and Bradley would literally pick us up full court”, Terry said. “One time I asked him in the middle of the game,“Come on, young fella, you’ve got to back up a little bit”. The following may well be a defensive reaction to a player getting a ton of acclaim while another considers how to position his arm while sleeping upright, but with all the clamoring and eye-rubbing that’s accompanied watching Eric Bledsoe play this season, it’ll be nice to remind people that Bledsoe isn’t the only baby-faced Dwayne Wade killer out there
As we witness Kevin Love come back a full month before schedule and other precocious recoveries, there’s no reason to expect that Bradley will be anything less than what he was before he limped off the court in palpable agony, contrary to what ESPN’s panel forecasted prior to the season.
NBA guards, you’ve officially been put on notice: the days of prancing into the lane against the lackluster Celtics are over — feast on their apathetic defense while you can because you’re soon liable to become Bradley’s prey.
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