WALTHAM — James Young is just 19 years old. Despite a year of NBA experience, he’s still the youngest player on the Celtics’ summer league roster by 10 months.
And he has heard people remind him of that, and remind him of how high his ceiling remains. You’re still just a teenager, James. You’re still so young, James. You’ll start thriving once you get older, James.
Last year, when he was obviously even younger, he acknowledges, he sometimes used his age as a crutch. Now, those days are over.
“I’m not going to look at it as being the youngest anymore,” he said. “I’m just going to go out there and play. This year I’m just going in and trying to take everybody’s head. That’s how I’m looking at it. I have a different mental focus.”
Young had a mercurial rookie season after being drafted by the Celtics with the 17th pick. Fans fawned over his smooth, almost elegant jump shot, and when he sat on the bench during the team’s early season struggles, there was consistent clamoring to give him a more significant opportunity.
As the year progressed it became obvious Young was not quite ready for that. He was slowed by some nagging injuries, but he also was unprepared for the demands of an NBA season.
“It was a big transition for me,” he said. “Being so young, I thought I had it all figured out and my confidence was high. But then my confidence got thrown off, and that kind of messed up my game.”
Young shuttled between Boston and the team’s D-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, 11 times. He showed flashes of potential with the Red Claws, averaging 21.5 points per game and shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers.
Back with the Celtics, however, opportunities usually vanished, particularly after veteran Gigi Datome surprisingly emerged as a trusted option in coach Brad Stevens’s system.
Aside from playing 24 minutes in the meaningless regular-season finale, Young played a total of just 14 minutes over the final 20 games of the season. He did not play in the playoffs, either.
Stevens constantly preaches to his players about “owning their space.” That essentially means that when they are on offense, they should not be pushed around, and when they are on defense, they should push an opponent around.
Last season, by most accounts, Young did not own his space. But he believes he is getting there.
He has reformed his diet and worked extensively in the weight room. He says he has put on 20 pounds of muscle and added 3 inches to his vertical jump since last season.
“I felt how it was being pushed around and stuff like that [last year], and that’s not gonna happen no more,” Young said. “I don’t want to feel like that.”
On the court, Young worked extensively with former Celtics assistant coach Darren Erman, the defensive guru who was named the New Orleans Pelicans’ associate head coach last month. The two spent several weeks simply working on defensive slides, stances, and communication.
Many believe Young has the length and athleticism to be a very good defender, and the hope is that his dedication, familiarity and experience will soon help him take that next step.
“So many of these guys come into the league at such a young age, and he’s just maturing as a person more than a player,” Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga said. “You get more comfortable in your surroundings. You kind of start to figure out how things work.”
Last year, Young missed summer league play because he was recovering from minor injuries suffered in a car accident. This year, he is ready to play and ready to lead.
Over the first two days of summer practices at the team’s training facility, Young and Marcus Smart have taken on vocal leadership roles. For Smart, that is hardly a change from last season. For Young, that is a big step.
“I feel like I’ve been here before,” he said. “I know what’s coming. I know what to expect.”
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Count Smart among those pleased that Jae Crowder is returning to Boston. Late Wednesday night, the forward agreed to a five-year, $35 million contract with the Celtics, multiple sources confirmed.
“I’m glad to have him back and I’m pretty sure this organization is, too,” Smart said. “Jae’s one of the top competitors in this league for sure. The way he approaches every game and practice, he comes out and he’s ready to play every day. You’ve got to respect a guy like that.”
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Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk and co-owner Steve Pagliuca hosted 30 children from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children at Canobie Lake Park on Thursday.
“It’s great to see the smiles on their faces and provide them with encouragement,” Olynyk said.
The event, held at the Salem, N.H., amusement park, was run by the Celtics’ Shamrock Foundation.