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Young and hungry?

15h
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics own four picks in next month's draft, but nothing inside the lottery, which, barring a trade to move up, leaves some observers skeptical about whether the team can add the sort of player that will contribute immediately and help this team take another step forward in its building process.

Maybe that's why some Celtics fans have taken a more optimistic approach and suggested that, maybe in a way, Boston does have a lottery pick in guard James Young.

The line of thinking is that Young, snagged last year at No. 17, would be a lottery pick this summer if he had stayed for his sophomore season at Kentucky. It's impossible to know exactly how Young's stock might have shifted with another year at college, but here's what we do know: After Young's injury-detoured rookie season spent largely under the cloak of the Development League, the Celtics are hopeful the 19-year-old can display the sort of progress necessary to catapult him toward a rotation-caliber player next season.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who hinted last summer that he had Young among his lottery-caliber players heading into the draft, recently used him as an example of the difficulty young players face while making the early jump to the NBA.

"We had our interviews in Chicago [earlier this month] at the combine and we interviewed 18 guys. A pretty consistent question is, ‘Do you understand how hard this is going to be?’" Stevens said last week during a stint as guest co-host on Mike & Mike. "It’s a hard transition -- 82 games in and of itself is a monster.

Added Stevens: "They may have an idea -- like I had an idea [jumping from the college level] -- but it’s different. It’s really difficult. We had a 19-year-old this year in James Young, who we think is going to be a fantastic player, whose work ethic is good, who comes to the gym every day, who’s getting better -- and he didn’t always get that validation of how much better he’s getting by playing time. That’s a hard position to be in because you’re going through the mundaneness of everyday work and not getting the reward of playing time.

"Ultimately, over the course of time, [Young is] going to be ready, sooner rather than later."

Young never really got his rookie season on track. A predraft car accident limited his workouts, contributed to his slipping to Boston at No. 17 and sidelined him for all of summer league. Young tweaked his hamstring in his preseason debut and missed nearly all of the team's exhibition slate. A shoulder injury set him back in December, and the flu hounded him in January.

Young appeared in 17 games for the Maine Red Claws, averaging 21.5 points over 32.9 minutes per game while shooting 44.2 percent beyond the 3-point arc (the 10th-best mark in the D-League last season). Young logged 31 games for Boston, getting considerable minutes during a stretch from late February to early March, but played sparingly as Boston made its playoff surge behind help from some trade-deadline acquisitions (with Luigi Datome biting into Young's playing time).

The question now is whether Young made the sort of progress necessary to compete for a rotation role. It's undeniable that the Celtics need more 3-point shooting, especially from the small forward position, and Young could be a needed marksman. Ultimately, that might hinge on whether he can expand his offensive arsenal and whether his defense has progressed such that the team can trust him at both ends of the floor.

"He’s talented for sure -- there’s no question about that," said Chris Babb, who spent much of the season alongside Young, both as teammates in Maine then later when Babb was signed at the end of the season by the Celtics. "I think the biggest thing for [Young] is just playing the game, getting a chance to go out there and improve and show what he can do. Being comfortable in the system, that’s the biggest jump between college to the NBA, just getting comfortable with your system and having the confidence to go out there and do it."

Young hit enough of his 3-pointers (35.3 percent) last season to suggest he's going to be fine shooting the ball from distance; he simply has to learn how to create shots beyond typical spot-up opportunities. Defensively, his advanced numbers were less encouraging (though the eyeball test suggested he showed some improvement by season's end). Synergy Sports had Young allowing 0.937 points per play, which ranked in the 21st percentile among all league players. The NBA's player-tracking data suggested that Young's opponents shot 4.1 percent higher than their season average against him, including 10 percent higher on all 2-point shots (Stevens often noted that Young's length gave him the ability to disrupt smaller 2-guards beyond the arc but that he still had to improve his overall man-to-man defense).

The best-case scenario for Boston might be that Young follows an Avery Bradley-like trajectory. When Bradley slid in the draft because of a chipped bone in his foot suffered during predraft workouts, Boston picked him at No. 19 in 2010. Bradley also appeared in 31 games his rookie season and, while he had NBA-ready defense, he couldn't make shots and never carved out a role on a veteran team. By the end of his sophomore season, Bradley had supplanted Ray Allen in the starting lineup and emerged as a defensive pest with a blossoming offensive game.

It's on Young to embrace the opportunity he has now. While surely frustrated at times by his lack of playing time during his rookie campaign, he has an opportunity here to show he's ready for an increased role. Young must embrace the ability to grow during the offseason.

Our first glimpse of his advancement will come at summer league, and he should get plenty of time to showcase himself during stints in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

So while the chatter over the next month will center heavily on who the Celtics might add at Nos. 16, 28, 33 and 45 in June's draft, the team's best bet for adding an impact player might already be on its roster.