ORLANDO — Moments after being bypassed in last month’s NBA draft, Phil Pressey, who was feeling unsettled since he passed on his final year at the University of Missouri, received a call from Danny Ainge about playing for the Celtics.
Boston brought in Pressey twice for workouts, an indication of Ainge’s interest. He worked out against other point guards, including Miami’s Shane Larkin and Texas’s Myck Kabongo, and fared favorably.
Pressey’s most noticeable characteristic — his lack of size — is what may have scared NBA teams. He did not inherit height from his father Paul, who played 11 seasons in the NBA as a 6-foot-5-inch small forward. The younger Pressey is listed at 5-11 but looks more like 5-9, yet he has flourished this week at the Orlando Summer League, providing hope for a Celtics team desperately seeking young talent.
Boston’s need for a legitimate backup point guard has been glaring for years, and it appears from talking to those close to the situation that Pressey will be part of Brad Stevens’s first training camp. Stevens and summer league coach Jay Larranaga are lumping in Pressey with Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson as rookies who will be in the mix this season. Nothing is official, but Pressey is making the most of his opportunity.
In three games, he is averaging 11.3 points on 52.2 percent shooting with 13 assists. He struggles at times with his decision making, hence his 11 turnovers, but he has displayed enough potential to be embraced by the organization.
“I like Phil, I like Phil,” Stevens said, repeating himself for added emphasis. “There are some things that Phil can certainly get better at. He’ll work hard to do it. Right when I got the job, I sent him a text message that night and he called me about a minute after I sent the text and I think he really wants to be good. He’s very dynamic with the ball and I think if he continues to do that and make shots, he’s going to be in good shape.”
The road here has been bumpy for Pressey. He was 5-3 as a high school sophomore but developed into one of the nation’s top point guards before committing to Missouri. He played three years for the Tigers but Missouri was abruptly eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Norfolk State and Colorado State in consecutive years and Pressey took the brunt of the blame. He left school after his junior season for a fresh start but the NBA evaluation procedure was taxing, until the call from the Celtics.
“The whole draft process was stressful but as soon as I found the perfect fit for me, the team that I can actually go out there and prove myself, it was smooth sailing from there,” he said. “[Being undrafted] just humbled me. It just told me `Work even harder.’ I was in the gym the next day getting up shots. I started working out. I know I’m good enough to play at this level and just when the opportunity presents itself, I have to be ready.”
A unique wrinkle in Pressey’s summer league experience is the presence of his father, Paul, a veteran NBA assistant coach for several teams, including the Celtics. Phil played his freshman and sophomore seasons at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham and also played with the BABC AAU team coached by former Celtics scout Leo Papile.
Paul Pressey has three children who played Division 1 sports, and he is allowing his son to experience his quest for professional basketball while he serves as an observer.
“Phil is a young, talented player that has always been excited about having the dream of making it in the NBA,” Paul said. “He’s putting himself in the position to have a chance. All I told my kids is all you want is a chance and he’s there right now. I’ve done my part as far as raising him to be a young man who respects his peers but at the same time, shoot for your dreams.”
On Tuesday, Pressey collected a key rebound that led to a Olynyk layup in the fourth quarter against the Pacers and then he sank the go-ahead free throws for a 76-74 win. He finished with 11 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals.
“I knew their [rebuilding] situation and they really were interested in me,” Pressey said. “I knew right after the draft, I was going to get that call. I’ve had a basketball in my hand my whole life. It’s what I do, there’s no pressure. It’s what I love doing.”
What the Celtics have on their hands is a fearless sparkplug, a true point guard who could give Rajon Rondo a breather. The Celtics are adopting a workmanlike philosophy with unheralded and overshadowed players, and Pressey fits that profile perfectly.
“I feel like guys out there tie their shoes up just like me, they bleed just like me, so there’s no reason for me to be scared,” he said. “I’ve been thinking that way since forever. Guys since I was younger think they can bully, push you around but I feel like I’m just as quick, just as athletic, just as strong. They’re just a little taller than me.”