BOSTON (CBS) — Let’s have a little fun. After all, this year’s incarnation of the Boston Celtics projects to be a blast to watch.
The new-look Green tip-off the NBA’s regular season Tuesday night in Cleveland following a 4-0 preseason campaign and a number of things appear clear, at least barring significant injuries: this group’s longer, faster, more athletic, versatile, and talented, and ventures to shoot better. And, through the eyes of this observer, Brad Stevens’ squad will be superior on the boards to last year’s 27th-ranked, routinely shattered effort on the glass.
So, with the new season hours away, it’s the perfect time for predictions – but not the ridiculous kind. The focus here is on bold, yet realistic prophecies for each member of the team, young and old. We’ll go in alphabetical order, just to keep things neat.
Aron Baynes – We already know Baynes is all of Australia, but all of New England will quickly become fans of the big in the middle. The vet averaged eight points and 4.3 rebounds over a mere 14 minutes in three preseason games and represents the most physical inside presence Boston’s had since Kendrick Perkins. Expect Baynes to reach a new career-high in minutes (17-plus) and rebounds (five-plus) in his sixth NBA season after spending the previous five years with the Spurs and Pistons.
Jaylen Brown – The sophomore had an up and down rookie year, but finished strong in the playoffs and carried the momentum into Summer League play. Brown averaged 10 points and shot 42.9 percent (only 18.2 percent from 3-point range) in the preseason. As a rookie, he started 20 games and played 17.2 minutes with 6.6 points per. This year, the wing will start at least 60 games, play 25 minutes, and approach 15 points a night.
Gordon Hayward – At 27, Hayward’s barely into his prime after wrapping up seven years in Utah and his first All-Star campaign. First of many if he remains in Boston. Hayward had a quiet preseason (nine points per game in 23.2 minutes on 39.3 percent shooting), but he will be an All-Star again in the easier East and again average 20 points. Clearly, the wing doesn’t bring the offensive explosiveness new teammate Kyrie Irving does, but he’s more gifted defensively. For that reason, Hayward will popularly be regarded as the best all-around member of the Celtics.
Al Horford – Ten years in the Association, but it’s never too late to set a new career-high. If you’re waiting for Horford to average 20 points and 10 rebounds, that’s not him. Get over the contract. But, Horford’s magnificently unselfish and the C’s de facto captain will average six assists (and around 7.5 boards) for the first time in his career in an offense that will be majestically fluid on the nights it’s gelling. Horford only started feeling comfortable in Boston and in Stevens’ system near the end of the last year and his impact in the playoffs was visible even to his critics. Get ready for a full season, All-Star celebrated display.
Kyrie Irving – Most seem to expect Irving to settle into Boston and match the 25.2 points he averaged in his farewell season in Cleveland. He won’t. The All-Star will buy in and become more of a facilitator, which means the points will dip a bit but still exceed 22 while the assists will climb near seven. Irving averaged 5.8 dimes last year while taking a career-high 19.7 shots per. Efficiency will be the name of the game this season and it will garner All-NBA attention. We got an encouraging taste of what’s to come in exhibition play when Irving averaged 15.3 points and 5.3 assists in just 23.8 minutes over his three games. Now tack on another 8-10 minutes a night.
Shane Larkin – The journeyman point guard’s already had stops in Dallas, New York, and Brooklyn before going overseas, and he left a lot of money on the table to return stateside. Larkin will be a serviceable backup when he sees minutes, but he won’t be a consistent member of the rotation and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him finish the season elsewhere.
Marcus Morris – Like Baynes, Morris is a tough, physical presence, but this former Piston is more talented. He’s averaged 14 points and 4.8 rebounds over 34.1 minutes the last two seasons since moving into a starting role and, in six seasons, the forward’s a 42.8 percent shooter (35.5 percent from three on 3.6 attempts per). Though Stevens will feature a lineup often geared toward matchups, Morris will start more often than not – 55-plus games – but I’d expect a decrease in points and minutes from his time in Detroit.
Abdel Nader – The reigning G-League (then D-League) Rookie of the Year will be a depth wing in Boston to start the year, but it’s just a matter of time before the tough-minded Nader finds himself back in Maine to continue developing his game. It’s a numbers game and there’s a lot of depth at similar size and positions on this Celtics roster, even in the spirit of “positionless basketball.” Nader won’t appear in more than 20-25 games in the NBA this season.
Semi Ojeleye – The Celts are very high on their second-round pick out of Southern Methodist. So high, in fact, that Stevens proclaimed back in Summer League that Ojeleye could be a defensive contributor right out of the gate. There’s a lot of youth on this roster, but this versatile, bulked up forward won’t spend a single day in the G-League. He’s in Boston to stay, will play 10 minutes a night, and have Leon Powe-level support from fans.
Terry Rozier – This emerging fan-favorite took a big leap forward in his second year in the league and there’s no reason to think that will stop now. Rozier will average up to 20 minutes and his shooting averages of 36.7 percent overall, 31.8 percent from three, and 77.3 percent from the line will all improve in Year Three as a consistent, impactful reserve. He’ll even get a couple starts.
Marcus Smart – A Defensive Player of the Year hopeful, Slim/Skinny Smart dropped 20 pounds and, at least in the preseason, found his 3-point shot. It wasn’t a fluke. Well, shooting 58.3 percent from long-range was – that won’t happen over more than short, few-game spurts – but this is the year Smart will pair his offense with his tenacious defense. You heard it here first (or at least on my twitter the last several weeks): Smart will shoot at least 36 percent from beyond the arc in his fourth year. Yes, I know he’s a career 29 percent from that distance. If a Kyle Lowry comp is realistic, we’ll find out soon, and it’s going to cost ownership a healthy chuck of change next summer. In the meantime, he’ll settle for Sixth Man of the Year.
Jayson Tatum – Paul Pierce, anyone? There’s an awful lot of hype surrounding Danny Ainge’s third overall (would-be first overall) choice out of Duke and his performance in camp coupled with Morris’s knee soreness will land him a spot in the starting rotation right out of the gate. Fittingly, he’ll be the first Celtics draftee to start his pro debut since Pierce on Feb. 5, 1999. The Truth scored 19 points and collected nine rebounds that night in a loss to the Raptors. Don’t expect those totals, but you should anticipate the offensively mature Tatum to average about 20 minutes – more if his defense keeps him on the floor – and up to 8.5 points.
Daniel Theis – If you don’t love already Theis (pronounced TICE), you will. The polished-looking German big averaged 4.8 points and six rebounds over just 14.9 minutes in his four preseason tilts, and he’ll see regular minutes in the frontcourt this season. Like Ojeleye, Theis has a real chance to be a surprisingly significant member of the C’s rotation. There isn’t a lot of size available, and he has it – along with the skill to spread the floor.
Guerschon Yabusele – Similar to Nader and perhaps others, the Dancin’ Bear will split the season between Boston and Portland, honing his talents in the developmental G-League. Yabusele’s shown several encouraging flashes of skill and he’s nimble for his stature, but he’s still getting comfortable offensively with the pro game.
Finally, a team prediction: The Celtics will win 52 games (my heart has 55), a slight step back from last year’s 53, and they’ll return to the East finals in a rematch with the Cavs. Unlike last spring, we’ll get a compelling, competitive series, but it will again be won by Cleveland – in seven games.