The Celtics entered training camp with 16 players under guaranteed contracts, knowing that they would have to whittle that number by one before the start of the regular season. All along they hoped the choice would become obvious, that there would be some clarity as days turned to weeks.
Instead, the decision of which recent first-round pick to waive — R.J. Hunter or James Young — came down to the final day. In the end, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge decided to waive Hunter, the rangy, sweet-shooting guard whose statistics ultimately did not match his elegant shooting form.
“He loved that community and loved being around that team,” Hunter’s father, Ron, said in a telephone interview. “I think they got rid of a good basketball player but they also got rid of a better person. But that’s not what this is about. You don’t take it personally and you just move on. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s still a young kid. He’s hurt right now, but when he wakes up tomorrow, he’s going to be fine.”
Both players received the news Monday morning. Then Young took the court and practiced with his teammates, and Hunter made plans to fly home to Atlanta to spend the rest of a disheartening 23rd birthday with his family.
Before he left, Hunter had a lengthy conversation with Celtics coach Brad Stevens; the two have known each other since Hunter was a rising recruit in Indiana and Stevens coached at Butler.
“I told him this is part of the path to a great career, right?” Stevens said. “And I truly believe he’ll have a great career.”
Young, meanwhile, had a conversation with Ainge that might have been both illuminating and motivating.
“I told him this morning that I think this is the first time he’s earned anything in his life,” Ainge said. “He earned this by his play, day in and day out, and he just has to keep earning it. He was given a lot as a young kid, with a lot of promise and a lot of potential, and like we talked about earlier this summer, he had to come out and win a spot with some good competition, and he did.”
When Young was asked about Ainge’s comments later, he nodded.
“I mean, I’ve always been better than a lot of people growing up,” he said. “High school, college, I was real good. I came here and it was a big shock. I feel like this is even better than the draft really, earning this position. I’m really blessed to be a part of this and not much I can do but keep getting better.”
It is rare for a team to cut ties with a first-round draft pick so soon, but that is the cost of collecting so many selections. Over the last three seasons the Celtics have drafted 12 players, the most of any team.
They have tried to avoid a logjam by stashing players overseas or agreeing to send them to the D-League. But that can help only so much. Last week they waived Ben Bentil, a second-round pick this year (he signed with the Pacers Monday and later was waived). And now they have parted ways with Hunter, who was taken 28th overall in 2015.
Hunter averaged 2.7 points and 1 rebound in 36 regular-season games last year. He had shown some promise offensively this preseason, averaging 7 points while making 43 percent of his field goal attempts. But ultimately it was not enough.
Ainge said the Celtics’ depth at shooting guard factored into the decision, as did some concerns about Hunter’s defense. But he insisted that Young won the job; Hunter did not lose it. Stevens said Young’s recent improvements have been obvious.
“I think that James has had a really good month, by far I think the best five or however many weeks we’ve been doing this that he’s had since he’s been here,” Stevens said.
Young was drafted 17th overall in 2014, following his lone season at Kentucky. His development had been slow, and the Celtics had all but pleaded for signs of progress.
Then Young had a disappointing showing with the Celtics’ summer league team this year, even being benched late in games for unproven rookies.
“I just was satisfied with where I was,” Young said. “I was just being too comfortable, confidence was down, so I had to change that around.
“People kept telling me, ‘Hope you have a great season. Hope you make the team.’ I just got tired of hearing that, so it motivated me to get into the gym right after summer league, just come here, keep working hard and take no days off.”
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The Celtics on Monday broke ground on their new Brighton practice facility, the Red Auerbach Center at New Balance world headquarters. Mayor Marty Walsh and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito joined Celtics ownership and front office members at the ceremony for the state-of-the-art, 70,000-foot facility, which is slated to open in the summer of 2018.