BOSTON — Ah, the 20th of November. It was a simpler time.
We had not yet learned the depths Jason Kidd and Mike Tomlin would go to in their efforts to wring legitimacy out of their games. The excitement and wonder of what might await us at those fun Black Friday sales was still ahead. Truly, there was in innocence that has been lost.
Just as importantly, Nov. 20 was also the last time Celtics backup point guard Phil Pressey committed a turnover. Since then, he has played in six games for a total of 57 minutes of action, with 10 assists and seven steals, without coughing up the ball once. Jordan Crawford‘s transformation as the Celtics’ starting point guard has received a deserved amount of praise for the team’s surprisingly respectable 7-12 record, but Pressey’s ability to keep it rolling off the bench has been key as well.
“Just trying to maintain stability with that second group and making sure our offense is where it needs to be,” Pressey said. “Just trying to take care of the ball as much as possible because I can’t tell our guys to take care of the ball if I’m not doing the same, so I just try to value each possession and try to get the best shot.”
When it comes to valuing each possession, Pressey has been as reliable as any Celtic. When Pressey is on the court, the Celtics average 1.24 assists per turnover; only Jared Sullinger, at 1.29, has a bigger impact on the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio. When Pressey is off the court, the Celtics’ assists and turnovers are virtually dead-even at 1.02-to-1.
In fact, sharing and protecting the ball at the same time has been a strength of the second unit, even as it’s been a glaring weakness for the regular starters. Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee and Sullinger — the three players who made up the core of Boston’s bench before Kelly Olynyk‘s ankle injury — all give the Celtics a positive assist-to-turnover ratio when they are on the court.
(Keep in mind that each individual player’s assist-to-turnover ratio is separate from the team’s assist-to-turnover ratio “when they are on the court.” Pressey’s personal assist-to-turnover ratio is a gaudy 3.67-to-1, which would put him fourth in the league in that category if he had enough minutes to qualify. But for now, let’s focus on the impact Pressey’s play has had on the team as a whole.)
Pressey wasn’t always this sharp with the ball. He suffered his share of untimely turnovers in his final year at Missouri, and after beginning this season with three straight turnover-free games, he might have played himself out of the rotation by fumbling the ball away seven times in a four-game stretch — if the Celtics’ thinness at the point guard position didn’t basically force coach Brad Stevens to play Pressey.
As Pressey has grown more comfortable with his teammates, though, the miscues have become rare. He has committed only two turnovers since, including an impressive 20 minutes in which he dished out eight assists and did not turn the ball over once in a win over the Bobcats. Veteran teammates Lee and Wallace have complimented Pressey in their own ways, as much as they are willing to compliment a rookie.
“That little midget behind you?” Lee said in response to a question about Pressey. “Yeah, he’s playing well, but me and Gerald are making it easy on him, just running out and letting him throw it ahead.”
Pressey recognizes that the fast acceptance has come as a result of him studying and learning his teammates’ games and tendencies to maximize their effectiveness.
“You kind of figure out what guys like to do with their games,” Pressey said. “I’m starting to really figure out C-Lee. I know he likes to catch and shoot, and catch the ball off pin-downs [screens], so that’s when I tell him I’ll give him the ball. You kind of figure out what guys like to pick-and-pop, what guys like to roll, who can catch, who can’t catch.
“Sully likes to shoot. Gerald likes to cut. So you always know [Wallace] is somewhere around the basket trying to get easy buckets. The more you play with them, the more you figure it out.”
If that seems like an impressive amount of extra credit work, Pressey shrugs. He’s just performing the basic responsibilities of a point guard.
“You have to know that type of stuff because, if you don’t, that’s when turnovers happen and guys aren’t as efficient,” Pressey said. “If guys like to catch the ball a certain way in the post, or [you learn] where they like to shoot the ball, it gives them a better chance of doing well and gives yourself a better chance to run the offense.”
The Celtics are far from a finished product, clearly, but Pressey is, too. Pretty soon, Rajon Rondo will return and Pressey’s court time could drop precipitously. But if another setback forces Pressey into action, Stevens and the Celtics can be confident Pressey can handle the job — and that his so far flawless decision-making could still get even better.