AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — During the painful second half of the Celtics season, coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge have been able to evaluate those players who could contribute following this stressful rebuilding.
The Celtics picked up Jerryd Bayless from the Grizzles in early January to rid themselves of the two additional years of Courtney Lee’s contract and to take a look at Bayless, a scoring guard who had played with four previous clubs.
Bayless is a free agent this summer. He got off to a slow start but has become the team’s most dependable scorer.
Bayless took his time to blend into the Celtics’ system, seemingly trying too hard to distribute the ball instead of being a volume shooter, which is his true calling. And while the Celtics have lost eight consecutive games, a handful of those in heartbreaking fashion, Bayless is making a case to come back because he gives Boston the streaky shooter it has lacked since Eddie House was traded.
While the games seem meaningless at this point, with every loss helping the Celtics to a better draft pick in June, they are serving as auditions for players such as Bayless and Phil Pressey, who also has picked up his play of late.
Bayless, who missed the pivotal 3-pointer in the Celtics’ 115-111 loss to the Pistons Saturday night, has been sparkling since the All-Star break. In 16 games with the Celtics before the break, Bayless averaged 8.1 points and shot 39.6 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from the 3-point line. Since the break, Bayless is averaging 12.1 points, shooting 43.8 percent from the field, and is a blazing 44 percent from the 3-point line.
One overlooked aspect of Bayless’s game is his fearlessness. He did not hesitate to launch that potential go-ahead 3-pointer Saturday night, and he has seized his opportunity to score when his teammates have been inconsistent, such as Jeff Green, who scored 19 points in the first half Saturday night and 4 in the second half.
“There’s no hesitation, I’m going for it,” Bayless said of taking significant shots. “That’s one thing Brad presses at. He said if you have a good shot, to let it go.”
Stevens was forced to play Bayless as the backup point guard for a stretch while Rajon Rondo was working his way back after knee surgery. But Bayless has been able to move back to his natural shooting guard position because Rondo is getting more minutes and Stevens has trusted Pressey more to spell Rondo.
Pressey notched his first NBA double-double Saturday night with 12 points and 11 assists, playing with confidence not present earlier in the season. As an undrafted free agent, Pressey had to begin from the bottom, proving himself worthy of an NBA contract with an impressive summer league.
He has grown in the role as Rondo’s primary backup, and Saturday night he handled the team flawlessly until the offense broke down in the final quarter. Transition seasons such as these are perfect for players such as Pressey to show he can play at this level. That’s taking place, and Pressey said he will spend the summer working on his perimeter shot and ball-handling.
“The more you play, the more confident you get,” he said. “It’s been a long season and it’s been up and down but I continue to work and live in the moment. It’s been a good season so far.”
Pressey has stuck on an NBA roster after leaving the University of Missouri a year early, and while he has spent the year getting drinks for his veteran teammates, carrying their bags and withstanding their jokes, he also has become a voice of reason for two of his former Missouri teammates who made the difficult decision to forgo their eligibility and enter the draft.
Tigers guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown each called Pressey last week to get his opinion on their decisions to go pro. For Pressey, the change in roles from uncertain NBA prospect to role model has been stunning.
“I told them before they made the decision, whatever decision you make, just be honest with yourself, be confident in what you do, and have no regrets,” he said. “I wish them the best and I know they were going to do all right. Any kid’s dream is to want to play in the NBA and in the position they’re in, they have a great chance to get drafted. I can’t blame them for their decision.
“This year went by pretty fast. It’s pretty good that I can look back and talk to those guys and tell them my experiences and what I went through to get to where I am at now.”
While this Celtics season will be viewed mostly as forgettable and a necessary part of rebuilding, there have been some positives. Watching Bayless and Pressey develop into more productive roles has been one of them.