The 'Celtic way' starts with mentoring at the top
BOSTON — It wasn't that unusual to watch the Boston Celtics play this season and see Avery Bradley peppering Ray Allen - the man he replaced in the C's starting lineup - with questions before, during and after games.
If you continue to scan the C's sideline, rookie forward JaJuan Johnson could at times be found soaking in every syllable uttered by Kevin Garnett during time-outs, a player that Johnson would like to someday succeed one day as the Celtic's starting power forward.
Keyon Dooling is a 12-year veteran who won't hesitate to drop a few knowledge bombs on rookie guard E'Twaun Moore who has spent most of this season fighting for minutes as a backup guard, along with Dooling.
As much as you have a Celtics team full of young - and not so young - guys that want to play, there is an ever-present mentoring dynamic at work that players believe has been one of the secret weapons to their success this season.
Players believe it helps explain why they have been able to overcome what has been a season's worth of injuries and unexpected setbacks to be where they are now, Atlantic Division champions about to begin their postseason journey with a Game 1 first round series matchup at Atlanta on Sunday.
"Not playing, it's easy to be a cancer," said Celtics forward Marquis Daniels, who has been in and out of the C's rotation this season. "You could easily be like complaining, moaning, whining, but we got some great young guys on this team. We (veterans) don't want to put bad fruits in them; you want give them a good foundation so that they can have something to lean on. I stay after everyday to get a workout in. I make sure E'twaun and JaJuan staying, and make sure they stay in shape."
Back when the Celtics were struggling just to get to the .500 mark earlier this season, C's coach Doc Rivers consistently talked about his team in the kind of glowing terms that were in stark contrast to their record at the time.
"I like our spirit," Rivers said. "We're showing resolve. You can see the camaraderie; it's just a good group, a good group to coach. And the future will say how good we are as a basketball team. But they're a good group to coach, and I'm a coach, so that's good."
And the mentoring is done on many levels.
There's the in-game stuff such as offering tips on how to handle different on-the-court situations. And then there's the stuff that you seldom see or hear about, such as Kevin Garnett spending time after a rare practice this season, working one-on-one with Ryan Hollins.
Hollins, who had a chance to play in pick-up games in California with Garnett and Paul Pierce this past summer during the NBA lock-out, doesn't take for granted the time that Garnett has spent with him.
"It's huge," said Hollins, who signed with the Celtics last month after being released by the Cleveland Cavaliers. "You got somebody like that in your corner. It's him, in the back of your mind, whether he's saying something or not. His attention to detail, preparation for the game, the teammate that he is … it rubs off and really helps."
Hollins is just one of the many young players that Garnett has been a mentor of sorts to this season.
One of the first to latch on to the ways of Garnett was Johnson, whose lanky, lithe frame and ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting is in some ways similar to Garnett's style of play.
Said Garnett: "I'm not a force-feeder, but when I do see him struggling with things, I do give him advice. I do encourage him (Johnson) to speak up a little more because I can't read minds. And use the guys in here. I always tell him that you have a lot of guys in here with a lot of different experiences. You should get to know them. When I do have the young boys on the plane, when I have them individually, I just like to talk to them about just life, this league and the journey and all that. So I open up to them a little bit from that standpoint; just about NBA life; it can be difficult for young guys.
"I don't think it's enough veterans out here on teams, all the teams, to say, to speak and guide some of these young guys and let them know how important hard work is. Having a work ethic, love for the game, respect for the game, respect for yourself, respect for your family, those things. I'm sort of that on this team. I like to always make sure the young guys understand that, as players that come before you, you gotta respect that."
And it's not just the players working with players, either.
Following a recent practice, Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, was on the floor providing a few pointers to Johnson.
"I just enjoy learning," Johnson said.
Fortunately for Johnson, he's surrounded by a long list of willing teachers - something that isn't necessarily the case with most teams.
And those lessons taught, players agree, begins with the Big Three of Garnett, Pierce and Allen.
This is Dooling's sixth NBA team, and he has never seen a trio of leaders such as the C's Big Three who have led both by their work and their word.
"It's just been a phenomenal experience," Dooling told CSNNE.com. "It's good that these young guys get to see those guys, these high-caliber guys come in here and really get their work in. Because if they can come in and do it, you (as a younger player) should be doing 10 times more."
That certainly has been part of what has driven Bradley, who has emerged as one of the NBA's most improved players this season.
"He wants to get better," Rivers said. "He genuinely wants to get better, and our older guys appreciate that."
Even guys no longer with the team still play the role of mentor.
Bradley recalls a conversation he had recently with Jermaine O'Neal who underwent season-ending wrist surgery last month and has since been waived by the C's to make room for Sean Williams.
When O'Neal was with the Celtics, he would often tell Bradley about his struggles early on his career when he wasn't playing much in Portland, and how he was determined to make the most of his opportunity once he was traded to Indiana when he finally had a chance to play.
With Bradley's emergence, he finds himself having similar conversations with players like Johnson.
"Me and him were in kind of similar situations," said Johnson, referring to himself and Bradley. "We talk about it a lot."
Said Bradley: "I help people out just like Jermaine and those guys helped me out, telling me their stories."
Today, Bradley is a starter having unseated a future Hall of Famer (Allen) in the process who is, when healthy, still one of the most lethal shooters in the NBA.
Ainge sees the mentoring dynamic of the Celtics as being a collection of all involved - players, coaches and the front office - recognizing that none of them can achieve greatness without the help of the others. And that involves teaching - and having players willing to learn which hasn't always been the case with the Celtics.
"We're patient with young guys, as long as young guys want to be taught," Rivers said. "It took me about a year of coaching to realize potential with character turns out to be good player. Potential with no character turns out to be the guy that keeps being traded. You get impatient with that, where you try to get a guy to be a better player, and they can't get out of themselves; they're so much into themselves, they're unteachable."
Yes there is indeed teaching that goes on with mentoring. But more than anything, it's about being professional - something that all of the C's veterans take great pride in.
"Being a professional is something you don't have a choice; something you have to do everyday," Garnett said. "Along with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, those guys are true professionals. They are great examples of that. When you're consistent with something, that's what you are and that's what we've established here."