BOSTON -- Forty-eight hours after Boston Celtics rookie Jordan Mickey posted the first triple-double of his pro career while on assignment with the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League, Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested that Mickey was "closer to ready than ever before" but stressed that Boston's frontcourt logjam clogs the immediate path to NBA minutes.
Mickey put up 13 points, 13 rebounds and 10 blocks during Maine's 119-112 win over the Texas Legends on Thursday and continues to thrive in the D-League. In 16 appearances for Maine, Mickey is averaging 18.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and a league-best 4.8 blocks over 34.8 minutes per game. Given the way the 21-year-old has played, Stevens was asked Saturday if he's curious to get a look at him with the parent squad.
"I’m really curious, but we do have a [frontcourt] logjam," said Stevens. "That’s the reality of our situation. And, to his credit, he’s made the most of it by staying in a rhythm by playing up there and I think he’s done a lot of good things. Some things that will really be able to translate, I think. And some things that he just needs to continue to improve upon. He’s closer to ready than ever before because of his continued work."
Mickey's D-League numbers are impressive, as Maine has a net rating of plus-6.2 points per 100 possessions during his floor time (103.5 offensive rating, 97.3 defensive). Synergy Sports data reflects positively on Mickey, too, as he is averaging 1.032 points per play on offense (ranking in the 79th percentile among all D-League players). Despite the gaudy block numbers, the defensive numbers aren't quite as glossy with Mickey allowing 0.837 points per play (57th percentile), according to Synergy's data through his first 14 appearances with Maine. Mickey, at an undersized 6-foot-9, is still learning how to compete in the post, something that will be even more daunting at the NBA level.
But there's an undeniable buzz about his overall play (and, sorry naysayers, no need to reference Fab Melo's fleeting triple-doubles here). Fellow rookie R.J. Hunter was in Maine on Thursday for his first assignment of the season and got an up-close look at Mickey's triple-double.
"I’ve been saying since the summer that I thought Jordan was special," said Hunter. "He just plays hard. He protected me on a few blow-bys [Thursday], just beating it off the glass, running the floor. Jordan’s going to be special, man. It’s exciting to see him in that environment, too."
The Celtics snagged Mickey with the 33rd overall pick in the 2015 draft (Philadelphia's pick via Miami) and then signed him to a creative four-year, $5 million deal that put him under the team's long-term control. There's a hope within the organization that, in a league that's embracing small ball, that, with proper development of an obvious skill set, the forward can eventually carve out a rotation role.
But Mickey is roadblocked a bit at the moment because of Boston's overstocked frontcourt. Stevens is already struggling to find the proper minutes balance for a team that has five rotation-caliber bigs in Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, David Lee and Tyler Zeller. What's more, Boston likes to go small with the likes of Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko at the power forward spots.
And it's that logjam that is Stevens' more pressing concern. Boston's five bigs haven't made things easy on their coach with inconsistent play that's often left Stevens mixing and matching based on how those bigs are playing on a given night.
Sullinger, who started fast and elevated to a starting role, is in a terrible offensive funk. After averaging 11.1 points per game on 43.7 percent shooting in November, he dipped to 7.8 points per game on 35.9 percent shooting in December (while shooting a cringe-worthy 15 percent from beyond the 3-point arc). Johnson has been steady, albeit in small doses (23.5 minutes per game) and is battling a case of plantar fasciitis that has hindered him at times recently.
The bigger issue lies in those behind Boston's starting duo of Sullinger and Johnson. The Celtics would clearly like to lean heavier on Olynyk, but his effort level has been inconsistent and it's reflected in playing only 19.5 minutes per game. What's more, while most players' minutes remain consistent regardless of game's outcome, it's hard not to notice that Olynyk is playing 21.7 minutes per game in wins and only 17 in losses, which is by far the most pronounced win/loss split on the Celtics team (while also stressing both the impact Olynyk has when he stays on the floor and how much Boston tends to struggle when forced to fill his void with others).
During Saturday's head-shaking loss to the Nets, Olynyk got a quick hook in the second half. Less than five minutes after subbing in during the third quarter, Olynyk got a quality 3-point look in transition. The shot found iron and the rebound bounced almost directly back to him. But Olynyk was haphazard tracking it and Shane Larkin, lingering behind him, out-hustled Boston's big man to the ball and Stevens immediately subbed Jerebko in place of Olynyk, who did not return until Boston went offense/defense in the final three minutes of play.
The Celtics need more effort and consistency from Olynyk, if for no other reason than to limit the amount of time that Stevens must lean on someone like Lee (who, even when he's seemingly playing well, has struggled to positively impact Boston's team numbers). Advanced numbers suggest that Boston's best second unit frontcourt pairing might be an Olynyk/Jerebko combo, though backcourt health woes have made it difficult at times for Stevens to fully embrace going small.
Stevens seems uncertain which direction to go with the frontcourt. Zeller got some first-half action Saturday and looked intriguing if not rusty from the lack of game action since early November. With Boston needing offense in the second half, Lee got a chance and went scoreless over 5.5 minutes before Stevens simply went small.
If Boston continues to struggle, there will be increased pressure on the front office to consider making a move to alleviate the big-man logjam. Stevens has pledged to reassess his team's play while noting they've been much to passive lately.
Boston's bigs need to help him out. There needs to be more effort, more energy. Boston bigs have to distinguish themselves and make it easy for Stevens to determine who is on the floor.