NEW ORLEANS — It was a rather debated decision, the Celtics keeping James Young because he was less refined than the more polished R.J. Hunter. Young had spent his first two NBA seasons toiling with his maturity, searching for professionalism, and, most important, learning to trust his instincts.
At the highest basketball level, where every player can at least do one thing really well and a good percentage are elite athletes, instinct separates productive players from D-Leaguers, and for his first two NBA seasons, Young was essentially a D-Leaguer.
Each time he received the ball, he paused to consider his next move. Pausing, thinking, and probing are not good qualities for an NBA player. That momentary delay allows defenders to catch up and therefore sterilizes the impact of that next move.
The 21-year-old Young was predictable and methodical and underdeveloped. And the low point of his first two seasons occurred during the Las Vegas Summer League last July, when the Celtics lost their finale to the Trail Blazers while Young sat on the bench in the second half, complaining of a sore knee.
But the reason he was on the bench was more than a sore knee. Summer league coach Jamie Young (no relation) had enough of James Young’s lackadaisical play and questionable desire.
“He’s had a knee issue, but I wasn’t really happy with the way he played in those seven minutes when he was out there,” Jamie Young said after that game. “So I just limited his minutes. I thought some of those other guys were playing harder at that time.
“James is a good player. He has a lot of talent. I just think he needs to assert himself.”
Jamie Young was then asked why James Young is still dealing with issues of passion and assertiveness.
“Yeah, I really don’t have an answer for that, to be honest with you. I don’t,” he said.
James Young said his father and brother called him out after that incident, telling him he had become too comfortable with the NBA life. Young worked vigorously for the next two months before training camp.
He made the team over Hunter but had made little impact until Saturday night in Indianapolis, a game the Celtics were losing in the third quarter with leading scorers Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley both struggling with their offense.
Young came off the bench and scored 10 third-quarter points, including a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in the period to give the Celtics the lead for good. There was no hesitation, no moments to ponder his next move, only playing with instinct and confidence.
“He was out there like he belonged, and that’s what we need him to do. Because the coach might call his name at any given moment, and he just has to be ready,” Thomas said. “He did a great job of lifting us up in that first half and even in the third quarter. I’m proud of him, because he’s putting in a lot of work and you could see there’s probably confidence issues there every now and then but he just has to remain confident and know he can play in this league.”
Young acknowledged that he was listening to a lot of outside forces, trying to take everyone’s advice on how to approach the NBA, and his lack of focus was perhaps nudging him out of the league.
“Two years, it took a while,” he said. “I was thinking about what a lot of people was telling me, listening to a lot of people. I just blocked it out. When I touch the floor, just think about nothing and control what I can control. It took a lot of hard work, and I’m just going to keep working hard.”
What’s heartening about Young’s resurgence is that his teammates are engaged in his success. They were all young, immature players themselves, teenagers in a grown man’s league. The NBA does not offer a booklet or guide for professionalism. Each player’s growth process is different, depending on their support system, love for the game, and desire to be great.
Some players love the game, and some just love the life. For two years, Young loved the life.
“I’m so happy for James Young,” Bradley said. “He comes in every single day, he works hard. Some games he plays, some games he doesn’t. He’s just being a professional. Every opportunity he gets, he makes the most of it.”
Watching attentively from the bench now is assistant coach Jamie Young, the man who benched James Young during a summer league game.
Jamie Young has noticed the change in James Young. His metamorphosis occurred just in time to save his Celtics career.
“I don’t know if that incident in particular was the one that changed, him but he’s definitely come in,” Jamie Young said. “Once camp started, he was more assertive, more aggressive, especially offensively. I don’t know if guys have said things to him, other players, but his whole demeanor, mind-set, body language, everything has been real positive.”