Avery Bradley, Tony Allen, Defense, and Opportunity

For years, Tony Allen was the Boston Celtics’ most confounding player.  “Trick or Treat” Tony combined good athleticism with a bulldog’s demeanor, offering flashes of elite defensive potential almost as fleeting as the times he showed any discernible offensive skill (though he could definitely dunk with the best of them, at least before his ACL injury).

For a time, it seemed Allen would waste his uniquely barren but sometimes effective game and loud mouth persona on an NBA bench.  Not even undeniable, All-Defense type stopper potential could secure him a place in a team’s rotation.

It was a career-changing moment for Allen and perhaps a franchise-changing one for Memphis when he signed with the Grizzlies as a free agent in the summer of 2010, though in all likelihood neither party considered it such at the time.  This isn’t just another excuse to mention Jeremy Lin, because his and Allen’s rise to prominence underscore an often overlooked fact regarding fringe or marginal NBA prospects and players:

Feb 20, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Boston Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley (0) steals the ball from Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd (2) during the third quarter at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeated the Celtics 89-73. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE

If a guy’s made it this far, he can play.  The main factors deciding whether or not he will succeed are a matter of actually getting an opportunity, and, perhaps more important, getting it in the right place (i.e., Royal Jelly).

For Lin and Allen, opportunities arose due to injury and suspension, and they play in environments where their niche-type skills are allowed to thrive.  What you see from them now – incredibly natural pick and roll offense and the league’s best perimeter defense – are outliers for players with their early career outlooks.  Still, the point remains that every guy who sips a cup of coffee in the NBA got that taste for a reason.

Which brings us to Avery Bradley, the NBA’s new and, maybe in time, improved Tony Allen.

Who’s Avery Bradley? You probably didn’t know much about him – unless you’re one of those rare University of Texas basketball fans – until this season because he didn’t get extended minutes in his rookie year of 2010-2011 (the presence of Rajon Rondo has that effect on combo guards with disappointing, brief college careers drafted by the Celtics).  In 2012, though, due to injuries and suspension to Boston’s volatile best player, Bradley’s got his opportunity.

Make no mistake, Bradley’s overall play in Rondo’s absence is hardly Lin-like (another Linism; the possibilities seem endless), and his basic statistics suggest he shouldn’t have a place in the league.  Like Allen during his time in Green, it takes watching him play to truly appreciate Bradley’s value.  But when you do, and you see his long arms, wiry build, jitterbug quicks, and relentless style, you immediately see he has the makings to be an absolutely world-class defender of guards and wings.

Quick advanced statistics indicating Bradley’s defensive excellence: The Celtics give up 5.9 more points when he’s on the bench, and he limits opposing PGs to a 13.1 PER, and SGs to a 6.7 PER.  Seriously though, just go back and watch his first quarter performance against Russell Westbrook on February 22.  He pressures Russ all the way up the floor and refuses to allow him into the lane or room in the post.  It’s truly one of the most incredible things we’ve seen all year.

A lot like Tony Allen, actually.  The difference, though, is that Bradley’s shown offensive flashes TA never did.

His jumper is mostly broken, he’s got no concept of pace or spacing, and he basically seems scared to play offense in the halfcourt.

The positives: Bradley’s a truly elite run/jump athlete, he handles the ball relatively well, his high turnover rate is actually an indicator of future success for young players, and his jumper, while ugly, has been accurate from 16-23 feet this season (46%, eight points higher than the league average for guards).

Bradley will never be a reliable scoring option or playmaker, but if he improves marginally in any areas offensively, his defensive prowess will prove too much to keep on the bench.

The Celtics are obviously in a state of flux right now, and Bradley’s fate in Boston will no doubt be influenced by the moves Danny Ainge chooses to make with Rondo and the Big Three.  Regardless, let’s hope Bradley gets some Tony Allen-like Royal Jelly before it’s too late, and the league misses out on the player that has the potential to dethrone him as its best perimeter defender.

Note: “Royal Jelly” is discussed by NBA trainer David Thorpe on ESPN’s NBA Today podcast from January 27.  The link above includes an explanation.