ORLANDO — Just 12 months ago, Phil Pressey entered the Orlando Summer League as an undrafted free agent, his father Paul, an 11-year NBA veteran, watching attentively as his son began the arduous journey from draft night afterthought to an NBA roster.
Pressey entered Saturday’s summer league opener against the Miami Heat with a sense of confidence and urgency. While NBA news is dominated by the decisions of free agents Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, there are other decisions that must be made.
While Pressey signed a three-year contract with the Celtics last summer, the package didn’t offer much job security. Pressey’s deal is guaranteed for next season only if he remains on the roster by July 15, and the same deadline would loom next year.
That means that Pressey’s performance this week is as critical as last summer’s. The Celtics drafted Marcus Smart sixth overall to play point guard and just re-signed Avery Bradley to a four-year extension, while Rajon Rondo will enter training camp fully healthy after recovering from knee surgery.
So space is tight in the Celtics’ backcourt, and Pressey has responded to the challenge by reporting to summer league more muscular and taking more of a leadership role. He bested Heat rookie and NCAA Tournament hero Shabazz Napier in the Celtics’ 85-77 win Saturday, finishing with 9 points, 7 assists, and 3 rebounds.
Perhaps the Celtics have already made their decision to retain Pressey for this season or perhaps these next four games could be a determining factor. He is taking no chances.
“Just having Kelly [Olynyk] out there as well, we’re going through the same thing,” Pressey said. “It seemed like we were here just yesterday and just having a whole year of experience under your belt and coming back here helps out.”
Pressey realized he took a major risk by leaving Missouri a year early, and going undrafted threw him into the large pool of players just looking for work. The summer league is filled with players who made hasty decisions to leave school and are now fighting for a training camp invitation.
Pressey played 75 games as a rookie, averaging 2.8 points and 3.2 assists in 15 minutes. He shot 30.8 percent from the field, one of the team’s major concerns.
He was 3-for-9 shooting Saturday but said he’s going to continue to shoot the open jumper, as encouraged by coach Brad Stevens.
“I thought he was really, really good defensively and he’s worked so hard,” Stevens said. “He’s done a great job. I’m really, really happy for him for where he is.
“I thought he was tough [Saturday] and I think he’ll just continue to get better.”
Stevens said Pressey, and all his teammates, are being evaluated.
“It’s not only about how they play but it’s about how, when [the media] all takes off, how they go about their business,” Stevens said. “When we start drills, what they look like in walkthrough, how they look in film, how alert and attentive they are to be able to change things from film. You take it all into account.”
Stevens said Pressey’s six turnovers against the Heat was a byproduct of a blitzing defense that the Celtics had not prepared for last week. And Stevens pointed out that Pressey’s assist-to-turnover ratio was impressive last season. In the final 26 games, Pressey committed just one turnover to every three assists.
His support system is established in Boston. The organization has been pleased with his work ethic and progress. He went from a summer league invite to backup point guard in four months and began his second summer session dramatically improved from his first.
So July 15 should come and pass with no issues. With a guaranteed deal Pressey should be able to relax and concentrate on improving his shooting and floor leadership. But the next week will be rather intense for the point guard. His Celtics career is at stake. He desperately wants to stay and the most plausible way to enhance his chances is by flourishing here in Orlando.
Pressey said he is used to the pressure by now, embracing the challenge after he pulled off the improbable undrafted-to-rotation ascension last season.
“It’s not draining at all. I know I have to improve every year because if you don’t you’ll find your way out of the league,” he said. “It’s nothing to me. I know I have to get better. There’s All-Stars in the NBA who are getting better every year, so why can’t I? I think about every day and I know if I don’t get better, somebody’s trying to take my spot.”