When Celtics rookie Jordan Mickey scans box scores after games, he does not check his points, because scoring is not his focus. And he does not check his blocks, because he keeps a running tally of those in his head.
He knows he has value as a rebounder and that the box score is generally honest. And after Mickey’s first two summer league games last month, the truth hurt.
He grabbed four rebounds in his debut, then added just two the next night. The low totals had come in large part against players who will not make NBA rosters this fall. Mickey’s stepfather, James Wright Sr., called him after that second game, a second Celtics loss.
“You forgot what your true assets are,” Wright said. “You have to go rebound the ball.”
It was a familiar and perhaps comforting reminder for Mickey, a reminder of how he reached this point, how he became the 33d pick in the NBA Draft.
Mickey did not start playing travel basketball until the summer before his freshman year of high school. Wright believed the best way to catch up was by excelling in areas others might have dismissed.
Mickey and Wright would study footage of the NBA’s most relentless interior players. They focused on Dennis Rodman, the eccentric forward who thrived by rebounding, defending, and being an overall nuisance.
Rodman was an elite rebounder despite being just 6 feet 7 inches and 220 pounds, and it seemed that Mickey — who is now 6-8, 235 — would develop a similar frame. Rodman was a physical menace, but it was no accident that he was consistently in the area of missed shots.
“Jordan and I would really look at how Rodman knew the trajectory of a shot,” Wright said by telephone. “He had an ability to read a shot when it’s taken, determine where a ball is going to hit the rim, and where it might go after it does.”
As a shot blocker, Mickey required less instruction. His mother was once a standout hurdler, and Mickey inherited her pogo sticks for legs. When he walked down a street as a kid, he would often jump at least part of the way. If he was standing still for too long, he’d start jumping.
Mickey noticed how players such as Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard were often most dangerous as shot blockers on their second jumps, meaning that if their first attempt was mistimed or otherwise unsuccessful, they could leap again before opportunity vanished.
So Mickey made that a focus of his training, spending hours with a jump rope and practicing his leaps in a flurry, as someone might do if they were standing on hot pavement.
“I seem to catch a few people off guard not knowing I’ll be able to get off the floor that quickly a second time,” he said. “Players think they have me off one pump fake, and then I’m able to get back off the floor before they can get their shot off. It’s something that’s tough to adjust to.”
Athleticism is apparent
Mickey’s shot-blocking and rebounding abilities helped him emerge as an elite college prospect.
Johnny Jones had become familiar with Mickey while coaching at North Texas, but he knew Mickey would not go there. Then Jones was hired at LSU, where he could offer Mickey the chance to join a prestigious program while also joining his stepbrother, James Wright Jr., who played football for the Tigers.
Mickey and Wright are so close that they refer to each other as brothers and become irritated when others call them stepbrothers.
“I still remember the first time I came home from college and he beat me in a one-on-one game,” Wright Jr. said with a chuckle. “That’s when I knew I couldn’t mess with him anymore.”
The two were reunited at LSU, but Mickey charted his own path. And as a freshman, his athleticism was instantly apparent.
“I was an assistant coach here when Chris Jackson played, and you never wanted to miss a practice then, because you knew he was going to do something special,” Jones said of the guard who once scored 55 points in a game and was selected third overall in the 1990 NBA Draft. “That’s how it felt with Jordan, too.”
Mickey joined Shaquille O’Neal as the only Tigers to register 100 blocked shots in a season, and he did it twice. As a sophomore last season, he led the nation with 3.64 blocks per game and also gathered 9.9 rebounds per contest.
Mickey was mostly slotted at power forward as a freshman and at center as a sophomore, which sometimes made it difficult to display the midrange offensive game he had developed. He did not want to disturb team chemistry, but those close to him were concerned that the limited offensive opportunities were hurting his draft stock.
Jones said some NBA teams were leery of Mickey’s shooting abilities, particularly as a potentially undersized power forward. But the coach’s response was clear: Mickey is a capable shooter, and teams that pass on him because of their uncertainty would regret it.
Coming to terms
Mickey completed two workouts for the Celtics and thought the team might take him with one of its first-round picks, No. 16 or No. 28. Ultimately, Boston selected Mickey at No. 33.
Second-round picks do not receive guaranteed deals, and the Celtics have a crowded roster, so the onus was on Mickey. After averaging three rebounds over those first two summer league games and getting the call from his stepfather, he averaged 9.5 boards over the final six games. He also averaged 12.2 points and 2.4 blocks and shot 52.6 percent from the field.
“He’s a great shot blocker when you look at his numbers for a smaller guy in height,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But then you look at his length and his reach and he’s really, really long and gets off the floor extremely quickly.”
Mickey’s camp wanted a three-year contract with two guaranteed years, believing he would prove to be more valuable than his rookie deal. But the Celtics pressed for a four-year agreement.
“They made it obvious they wanted to sign a longer deal, and I’ve got to admit, at the beginning we just weren’t hearing that,” Wright Sr. said. “We didn’t want a four-year deal. We wanted a chance to get back to the table earlier.
“But Jordan, his mother, and I sat and talked and decided it made the most sense to just work this thing out, because this is the team he wants to play for.”
Mickey signed a four-year, $5 million contract, one of the largest ever given to a second-round pick. Now he is back home in Dallas, back at work.
His approach has not changed much since he was 14 and trying to learn his way on the AAU circuit. He has 24-hour access to the gym at Southern Hills Church of Christ in Dallas, and he is working on adding a pull-up jump shot to his arsenal.
He would like to extend his shooting range beyond the 3-point line, as stretch forwards have become tremendously valuable in today’s NBA. But he also will not stray from what helped him reach this point.
“I’ve always told him that if he can rebound and play defense, he can play for anybody,” Wright said. “We’ve pretty much held fast to that from Day One.”