- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ten of the NBA's top sophomores (yes, Jeremy Lin included) will convene in Orlando on Friday night to kick off All-Star weekend with the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge (the rebranded version of the rookie/sophomore game).
Celtics second-year guard Avery Bradley was not one of the sophomores voted in by NBA assistant coaches, which certainly wasn't a surprise, but Friday's game seems like the perfect opportunity to spotlight Bradley's emergence this season.
After an injury-riddled rookie campaign that limited his ability to even get on the floor, Bradley has seized the opportunity presented this year by injuries (and suspension) to Orlando-bound All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, and Bradley has responded by carving out a growing role as a top backcourt reserve for the Celtics.
Bradley's emergence has featured a handful of breakout-type efforts, including Wednesday's pre-All-Star finale in Oklahoma City in which he chipped in 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting with five assists, three blocks and a steal over 35 minutes of floor time in place of Rondo. What's more, his night was highlighted by a trio of dunks, including a stiff-arming poster shot over Kevin Durant in transition.
Bradley, Boston's team leader in games played at 30, is averaging 4.3 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists over 17.4 minutes per game this season. Those numbers hop up to 7.8 points, 3 rebounds and 2.8 assists over 32 minutes per contest in 10 appearances as a starter.
Those stats can't quite quantify what Bradley brings to the floor as a defense-first guard who is earning a reputation around the league as a real pest, often applying full-court pressure to opposing point guards for the duration of his floor time.
It's been the 21-year-old Bradley's offense that has been slow to reach the NBA level, but he has shown an ability to get to the rim and has growing confidence in his jumper. That was on full display Wednesday and it surely caught the attention of his teammates.
As Celtics captain Paul Pierce noted: "We already know what he can do defensively, but each game he has gained a lot of confidence in his offense, the way he is knocking down shots and getting out on the break; his overall game is improving."
That might be an understatement. Back at the end of January, Celtics coach Doc Rivers went out of his way to defend Bradley's jumper because he was shooting so poorly from the perimeter. In fact, over the first 50 NBA appearances, Bradley was a mere 20-of-94 (21.2 percent) on shots beyond 3 feet (essentially anything not at the rim).
Even as his minutes dipped with Rondo returning from a sprained right wrist, Bradley's confidence has only continued to climb. Over the last three games, he's 9-of-16 shooting from the mid-range (16-to-23 feet), according to HoopData, highlighted by a 6-of-7 effort in a loss to the Mavericks on Monday. There's no hesitation for him lately and you can just see the confidence as he catches the ball with space. At times without Brandon Bass in the lineup, Bradley has been the only reserve confident enough to pull the trigger (maybe outside of Mickael Pietrus beyond the arc).
Bradley is still climbing out of the offensive hole he dug himself early in the year when he ranked among the league's poorest contributors. Now he's averaging 0.769 points per play, climbing to the 25th percentile, according to Synergy Sports data.
The number that's harder to ignore is that he's averaging a rather ridiculous 1.6 points per play in transition (32 points on 20 plays), ranking in the 98th percentile. Of players with at least 10 transition plays this year, Bradley is sixth in the NBA, sandwiched comfortably between Tyson Chandler (1.588) and Blake Griffin (1.613). To put it another way: Rondo ranks 183rd overall at 1.062 points per play.
Yes, it's clear that Bradley has identified how to thrive on this team: Bring that elite-caliber defense, then find his spots on offense by going hard to the rim. Bradley is shooting 60.8 percent (31-of-51) at the rim, but that mid-range shot is climbing slowly, now at 44 percent (22-of-50).
Oh, and that defense? Bradley is limiting opposing players to 0.699 points per play, which ranks in the 91st percentile, according to Synergy. Opponents are shooting a mere 30.2 percent against him and turn the ball over 10.2 percent of the time. He's still finding his way in battling through pick-and-rolls, but Bradley thrives in spot-up and isolation situations (opponents averaging a mere 0.41 points per play and shooting 21.9 percent in the latter).
Back in early February, Rivers was asked if Bradley deserved a spot in the Rising Stars game. In a humorous moment, Rivers bumbled his words for a second before admitting he didn't even know they still had a rookie/sophomore game. Rivers then offered a serious vote of confidence for Bradley given his inspired defensive play this season.
When a reporter pointed out that a defensive-minded player in an All-Star Game was a bit of an oxymoron, Rivers couldn't help but agree.
Bradley's defense isn't going to earn him a spot in any Rising Stars games, but make no mistake: Opposing coaches and point guards are taking notice of his development. So is his own coach.
Bradley is making a strong case to be a potential rotation player even when rotations tighten up later in the season and into the playoffs. His skill set has pushed him ahead of rookie E'Twaun Moore and Keyon Dooling as the top backup behind Rondo (his point guard skills remain a work in progress and the team seemingly scrapped the idea of moving him to more of a 2-guard this season).
Yes, playing in Orlando to kick off All-Star weekend would have been nice for Bradley. But, say the Magic and Celtics cross paths in the playoffs. Playing in Orlando in May would mean a whole lot more and speak even greater to his development this season.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.