During last season’s playoffs, with Kyrie Irving out for the year after undergoing knee surgery and Marcus Smart out for the start of the first round with a hand injury, point guard Shane Larkin was presented with an important chance.
Over Boston’s first 10 postseason games he averaged 15.2 minutes and shot 45.7 percent from the field, dished out 20 assists and committed just six turnovers. And with Boston surging past the 76ers in the conference semifinals, an even bigger spotlight figured to await, and that would be critical for Larkin, who would soon be a free agent.
But in the first quarter of the Game 4 loss to Philadelphia, Larkin collided with the 76ers’ 7-foot, 250-pound center, Joel Embiid, on a dribble handoff. Larkin sprained his left shoulder and missed the rest of the playoffs.
He insists he would have played through the pain if the Celtics had reached the NBA Finals, even if that probably would not have been wise. But the severity of his injury was apparent. Last week, two months after suffering the shoulder sprain, Larkin was finally cleared for full basketball and weight-training workouts.
He remains a free agent, and open roster spots are being gobbled up by the day, but he is confident that teams will understand that his injury will not linger, and hopeful that they value the strong year he completed with the Celtics.
“I think [the injury] put a question in some teams’ minds, because the last thing they saw of me was me walking off the court with a hanging shoulder,” Larkin said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “I think it adds a little bit of questioning, but I’m fine and will be fine going into next season.”
When the Celtics signed guard Brad Wanamaker from the EuroLeague this month, it appeared unlikely Larkin would still have a spot with Boston. Larkin said that coach Brad Stevens, who consistently gushed about his play during the season, has been similarly complimentary this summer.
“I just ran into Brad on a couple of occasions, and he was like, ‘Man, I was a really big fan of you this year. I think you helped our team. I’d love to have you back and we’ll see what we can do,’ ” Larkin said. “Brad said he’s a big fan of my game, but they have to figure out what’s best for them.”
His meetings with Stevens came before the Celtics re-signed Marcus Smart on Thursday, though, and Larkin said the Celtics have encouraged him to pursue other opportunities if they arise. He has met with several NBA teams, and he wants to go somewhere he will have a role.
“I’ve been right there with a couple of teams, and some teams are there that we’re still working on and still trying to figure out the role and fit and money,” Larkin said. “But it’s been positive. Everything’s been good. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to come across the board and go from there.”
Larkin spent his first three pro seasons as a backup with the Mavericks, Knicks and Nets. He had an NBA offer two seasons ago, too, but elected to play for the Spanish club, Baskonia. He said he might take a similar route this summer. Six European teams have already offered him contracts that would pay $1.5 million per year or more, he said.
“They know I’ve been over there and they know I’m not afraid,” Larkin said. “A lot of NBA guys are afraid to go over there. I think it’s because they don’t think they’re good enough to go over there and then come back, but I know now from experience that I’m good enough to do it. I’m not afraid to do it if that’s the best situation for me.”
Still, his obvious preference is to remain in the NBA. As he rehabbed his shoulder he mostly just did exercises and stretches to maintain mobility. Now he is ramping up strength training with that arm again, as well as shooting left-handed hook shots without any pain.
Larkin said that prior to last season he didn’t view himself as a defensive specialist. But that is the role Stevens used him in most often, and the coach frequently credited the guard with changing a game’s flow with his relentless on-ball pressure.
Larkin said that at the start of the season, he could tell that opponents did not account for his tenacity in their scouting reports, either. But that changed.
“Teams kind of noticed, ‘He’s going to pressure the ball, change the tempo, and just be solid around the ball,’” Larkin said. “’He’s going to be gambling, he’s going to be reaching, he’s going to give 100 percent energy. He’s kind of a pest out there.’ And I think throughout the league people kind of grew a respect for that, because later on, people were just getting off the ball and running down the court.”
Larkin put an emphasis on defense because he had teammates like Irving, Smart, and Terry Rozier, and knew he needed to stand out. Now, he is hopeful he stood out enough for someone to value his skills as much as Stevens seemed to.
“I think I’ve shown I’m not afraid to step out of the box and continue to get better,” Larkin said, “and once I show that and a team gives me that 100 percent commitment that, ‘Yeah once you’re on the roster we want you to be our guy. We want you to work and continue to grow with that team,’ then that’s the role I’m looking for.”