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Celtics’ youthful core is brimming with potential

Celtics guard Marcus Smart, entering his second season, can play off the ball, too, and already has assumed a leadership role.barry chin/globe staff

Not everybody is going to flourish. Not everybody is going to succeed. Not everybody is going to stick.

Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge drafts them, acquires them, signs them. He has flipped over a painfully aging roster in two years, so much so that only five players on the Celtics were born before 1990. The team’s quest following the end of the Big Three Era was to build a new foundation with young cornerstones.

Ainge’s responsibility was to draft well, to inject athleticism into a roster that had become lethargic and relied on savvy. He has accomplished that, acquiring Jae Crowder, re-signing Avery Bradley, drafting Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, trading for Tyler Zeller, and drafting the central figure of the rebuild, point guard Marcus Smart.


Then add last year’s midseason acquisition of 26-year-old Isaiah Thomas, who on this club is a seasoned veteran.

Ainge realizes that not all of his young, carefully constructed core will thrive. Some will — in other uniforms. Others will never reach their potential. Others will become Boston favorites. The players who will fill each category are to be determined.

During a competitive training camp, Smart has excelled as expected. Rookie R.J. Hunter has stunned and impressed with his playmaking skills. Fellow rookie Terry Rozier is a 6-foot-1-inch roadrunner, and it appears all Jordan Mickey needs is time.

There are questions, too. Jared Sullinger reported to camp looking as heavy as he did when the previous season concluded, although he promised to work on his conditioning and spend a portion of his summer with workout guru John Lucas.

Kelly Olynyk has played this month as if he were uplifted by his experience with Team Canada this summer; he has improved his ball-handling and is shooting with more confidence. James Young remains a mystery, slowing improving but perhaps another season away from cracking the rotation.


As all of these players work vigorously to make an impression on coach Brad Stevens. Ainge realizes that the organization won’t score 100 percent with its prospects. There is a failure rate.

“The world is filled with unfulfilled potential, in every profession,” Ainge said. “We’re trying to instill in all the guys a great work ethic; being great teammates and time will tell how good each of them will become.

“I believe each of them have the potential to be very good players, but the odds are that they won’t, all of them. We’re just trying to give them the best chance to become good.”

Some of the core players might have to be traded or fall into complementary roles. Ainge compared the journey to raising his six children. All six aren’t going to grow at the same pace or enjoy the same success.

Ainge said he doesn’t want credit for his roster overhaul until his handpicked players produce wins.

The Celtics rallied to win 40 games last season and reach the playoffs after a one-year absence.

“Anybody can flip a roster,” said Ainge. “It’s how good the roster is and how good players become is really all that matters.

“We haven’t accomplished anything. Time will tell. None of us know. We can all speculate.

“I like the kids. I like the veterans we have. I love our coaches and I’m excited for the year and I’m excited to find out the answers.


“Winning could be fragile. We’re like a lot of teams — the details matter. We don’t have a lot of room for error like the elite teams in the league. We have to outwork people.”

Smart, at 21, already has assumed a leadership role and has displayed the toughness and defensive tenacity that Stevens wanted his youthful roster to adopt.

Scouts have lauded Smart for his work ethic and relentless defense, and he has improved as a shooter.

“I think everybody understands what’s at stake, individually and as a team aspect,” Smart said of the young core. “For the most part, we all grew up being the best player on our team and competing and winning. We’re all used to winning. So when we get out there against somebody just as good as us, we want to show what we have.”

When asked if he was a team leader, Smart said, “I definitely feel like I’m a leader. You can ask a couple of guys in the locker room and they definitely feel like they’re leaders. We’ve got to go out there every night and keep [setting] that example.”

Said Ainge, “I see leadership potential in Marcus. He has some great qualities as a leader. We don’t have one guy that’s a leader, we’ve got a lot of leaders, and that’s a good way to do it, actually.

“Marcus has a chance potentially, but ultimately you have to earn respect.”

In the past, the Celtics had younger players who could have been part of the team’s long-term plans. Glen “Big Baby” Davis was a major contributor as a rookie to the 2008 championship team, but his improvement subsided and he was traded to the Orlando Magic.


Ainge and the brass flat-out missed with the first-round draft picks of Fab Melo (2012) and JaJuan Johnson (2011), both of whom are out of the NBA. The organization has rebounded in the past three years, as six of the team’s seven picks or draft-night acquisitions are currently on the roster.

Hunter, Rozier, and Mickey could become the best collection of players from the 2015 draft. As Ainge reiterated, time will tell.

The organization is far from determining the fate of Young, who is the team’s youngest player at 20 despite entering his second NBA season. Sullinger, entering his fourth season, could be much closer to a determination.

“I don’t think it’s frustrating, because it would be unrealistic to think [players underachieving] wasn’t going to happen sometimes,” Ainge said. “It’s not personal. I feel bad for players that are not capable of reaching their full potential. Some get it right away and some take a little longer and some don’t ever get it. That’s just the way it is.”

Gary Washburn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.