As the Celtics stumbled to a 36-36 record before being flicked away by the Nets in the first round of the playoffs last season, the lack of experience on the bench was often glaring, especially with stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both under 25 themselves.
Rookies Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith had both seized important roles by the end of the year, and when second-year wing Romeo Langford was healthy, the Celtics frequently leaned on him, too.
So they are hopeful that the Las Vegas summer league, which begins Sunday, will give Pritchard, Nesmith, Langford, and even third-year guard Carsen Edwards a chance to gain some valuable training.
Langford sat out summer league his rookie year because he was recovering from offseason thumb surgery, and last year’s summer league was canceled because of the pandemic, so Nesmith and Pritchard missed their chances, too.
“It’s awesome being able to get all of this time to prepare and being with these guys for longer and definitely learning the new system,” Nesmith said. “So it’s been fun. I’m just trying to work on being a better basketball player all around: passing, ball-handling, my aggressiveness, assertiveness. Just working on becoming a better all-around player.”
Added Pritchard, “It’s like a full offseason to prepare for a season. So I’m looking forward to it and I think it would be good for a lot of us younger guys who are still in the early stages of our career.”
The Celtics did not have a first-round pick this year, but there will be two intriguing debuts in Las Vegas. Israeli point guard Yam Madar, who was Boston’s second-round pick in 2020, and French guard Juhann Begarin, the team’s second-round choice this year, are both scheduled to take part.
Neither is under contract with the Celtics for next season, but both are hopeful that a strong performance could lead to a spot on the roster.
“I feel comfortable in my game,” Madar said. “It’s a new level. It’s a new challenge. I worked really hard and I prepared myself for this moment to come.”
The team will be coached by third-year assistant Joe Mazzulla. Often, first-year head coaches guide summer squads. But Celtics head coach Ime Udoka is an assistant for USA Basketball at the Tokyo Olympics. He is expected to join the summer league team in Las Vegas next week.
Mazzulla, one of the few holdovers from Brad Stevens’s staff, said his goal is simple.
“The first thing is, did we help the young guys take ownership of their careers, in the sense of giving them a simulation of what it’s like to work on your game every single day?” he said. “For them to see progress — ‘This is where I was when I started, and this is where I am after training camp and after the games.’
“Throughout the games, we’ll be looking for, ‘Here’s the concepts we worked on during the week and here’s you executing them, and here’s opportunities that you missed for execution.’ If the players can end summer league with, ‘I was coached well and I became a better professional,’ those are the two most important things.”
The format for this year’s summer league has been slightly altered. Teams will still play four “regular season” games, but the traditional playoff bracket has been replaced by a single championship game that includes the teams with the two best records. The remaining teams will play a fifth game after the title game has been determined.
Bucks assistant coach Ben Sullivan has agreed to join the Celtics coaching staff, a league source confirmed. Sullivan, who is known for his success as a shooting coach, started his career as a video intern with the Spurs in 2012, when Udoka was an assistant there. He later worked as an assistant under coach Mike Budenholzer with the Hawks before joining him in Milwaukee.