- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- In his role as Secretary of Defense for these new-look Boston Celtics, Avery Bradley needed just one training-camp practice before proclaiming that Brandon Bass would be the team's defensive quarterback and the player tasked with the impossible chore of replacing Kevin Garnett on the back line.
Most scoffed. Bass had put up some solid defensive numbers while paired with Garnett in Boston's starting frontcourt the past two seasons, but, without Garnett, most figured Bass would be exposed.
After all, Bass doesn't fit the typical anchor mold. He's not 7 feet (he's generously listed at 6-foot-8). He's not particularly vocal (certainly not to Garnett's amp-on-11 level). And because he's often paired with some inexperienced frontcourt players, few believed Bass could perform to that level.
It has been only five games -- and Boston has just one victory -- but Bradley's prediction looks sage at the moment.
Bass is allowing a minuscule 0.528 points per play (28 points on 53 possessions), according to individual defensive data logged by Synergy Sports. Consider this: Of players with more than 40 possessions defended entering Thursday's action, Bass ranked first in the NBA at that mark (out of 120 qualifiers). What's more, opponents are scoring on a mere 22.6 percent of total possessions again him, the best mark in the league by nearly 3 percent.
For comparison's sake, it's worth noting how Bradley was among the NBA leaders last season, allowing 0.697 points per possession and with opponents scoring just 31.8 percent of the time against him during the 2012-13 campaign. Bass' initial numbers will undoubtedly rise, but it's an encouraging early-season glimpse.
What's more encouraging is the team's defensive performance when Bass is on the floor. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 95 points per 100 possessions with Bass on the court. That's 4.1 points less than the team's season average, and that number skyrockets to 106.3 when Bass is on the bench.
Bass hasn't been perfect, but when you consider some of the frontcourt talent that Boston has encountered early in the year, and the fact that he has often shared the floor with rookie centers in Vitor Faverani and Kelly Olynyk, it only makes what he's doing all the more impressive. Maybe even surprising.
Well, to everyone but Bradley.
"I could sense it the first day of training camp," said Bradley. "He was a [returning veteran], but not only that, he wanted to be the leader, more than anything."
In Boston's log-jammed frontcourt, Bass is a bit of an afterthought. There's a gaggle of young talent (Faverani, Olynyk, Jared Sullinger), plus a veteran in Kris Humphries who has gotten more attention for not playing than Bass has for his contributions.
That's fine by Bass, who typically shuns the spotlight.
After scoring a team-high 20 points in Wednesday's win over the Utah Jazz, Bass seemed surprised to see a collection of reporters gathered around his locker. Sullinger laughed and dabbed Bass' head with a towel during his Q&A as the camera lights seemingly made Bass sweat more than he did on the court.
It's on the floor where Bass feels most comfortable, and never has that been more obvious than this season. Despite some ups and downs last year, including losing his starting job to Sullinger at one point, Bass came on strong late in the year while Garnett was injured. Former coach Doc Rivers showered Bass with praise for his playoff efforts.
For the second consecutive postseason, the Celtics tasked Bass with guarding the opposing team's best player, often matching him with Carmelo Anthony during a first-round series with the Knicks (the season before, he drew LeBron James in the final games of the Eastern Conference finals).
Late in the 2013-14 preseason, first-year coach Brad Stevens called Bass into his office to watch some film and told him he wanted him to be that defensive anchor for Boston's frontcourt, echoing what Bradley had predicted about his potential for the new season.
"I think it's more natural for a 7-footer to be a defensive anchor than necessarily a 6-8 guy, but he is the most experienced guy who's playing the most minutes on our front line," said Stevens. "He's able to see some things, he's able to do some things. The thing that he gives us is versatility to switch [on pick-and-rolls], which is huge in this league, and it's enormous. It's so much different in college. In college, you can switch a lot. One through 3, 1 through 4. Here, you can hardly switch 1 and 2 most games.
"Bass is a guy that can guard a number of different positions. I really think Vitor and Kelly have had great moments in helping anchor our defense. I think Kelly will just get better and better at that; Kelly's so smart he's picked it up really, really quick. But Brandon is clearly the leader of that group."
You'd expect Bass to struggle in pure post situations because of the size he gives up, but teammates have often marveled at his strength. Bass is an ox on the court, able to muscle centers with more size and weight. Stevens gaped a bit on Wednesday night when Bass caught the ball on the left elbow, pivoted, then backed 6-foot-10 Derrick Favors all the way to the basket before putting in a little hook.
"He just kinda put [Favors] in the basket right in front of our bench," said Stevens. "I was like, 'Wow.' It's hard to put those guys in a basket."
It's fair to wonder what Bass' future is here. The 28-year-old has one more season remaining on a three-year, $19.4 million extension inked in July 2012. If Boston's frontcourt of the future is built on the Sullinger-Olynyk-Faverani combo, Bass could potentially be a trade asset in February.
In typical Bass fashion, he'll ignore that noise and just focus on the task at hand. Asked this summer about a murky future as Boston navigates a rebuild, Bass offered simply, "I'm going to come in being the best Brandon Bass I can be, and that's all I can take care of."
In the first week-plus of the season, Bass has seen some incredibly talented front lines (whether it was Detroit's Greg Monroe-Andre Drummond combo, or Memphis' Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, or Utah's mix of Favors and Enes Kanter). Boston's front line has to do a better job of rebounding and limiting second-chance points, but Bass & Co. have been stout on defense, with Boston ranked 10th in the league in defensive rating (and fifth in points per possession allowed) despite a 1-4 record.
Bass has emerged as the team's defensive anchor early on, even if few suspected he would.
It's still early, but Brandon Bass is shaping up as an elite defender.