BOSTON — Phil Pressey sat in the near-empty locker room, Vander Blue and Chris Johnson to his far right, Jerryd Bayless to his near left. For the moment, Pressey, an undrafted rookie out of Missouri, was the longest-tenured member of the Boston Celtics currently holding court in the home clubhouse at TD Garden.
A welcome-to-the-business-of-the-NBA moment? Pressey has already had a bunch of those.
In just four months, Pressey has gotten a condensed education into what life in professional sports is really like. It’s not always a fairy tale. Every player — even those on rookie minimum salaries — is well-paid and most cannot be outright released, but at a moment’s notice, anyone can be traded, benched or dismissed. Pressey, 22, has seen all three happen from his little perch in the corner of the locker room.
Courtney Lee, who occupied a stall close to Pressey’s and was a vocal influence on the rookie through training camp and early in the regular season, is gone, as are Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks. Keith Bogans, another veteran role player, has been excused from the team after Bogans began to be a little too open with his opinions over his lack of playing time. In came Bayless and Joel Anthony as part of the trades, with Johnson and Blue signing on to fill out a patchwork backcourt.
On this night, with the Celtics preparing to host the Oklahoma City Thunder for what will be Boston’s 16th loss in its last 19 games, the latest topic of conversation is Rajon Rondo. For more than a week, rumors swirled that the Celtics were looking to deal their All-Star point guard. Then Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge went on the radio and rebuffed those rumors, saying the team had offered Rondo a contract extension.
But Pressey, a 5-foot-11 point guard who attended Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., for ninth and 10th grades while his father, Paul, was an assistant coach with the Celtics, chooses to stay ignorant of the front office side of the game.
“With Courtney and all them, I had no idea what was going on,” Pressey said. “I really try not to look into that. I just focus on what we’ve got going on at hand, right here, right now. As of right now, Rondo’s our leader. He’s out point guard. That’s all that matters to me.”
Pressey earned a spot on the end of Boston’s bench after an impressive summer league and training camp, but he has shot up the depth chart ever since. His minutes have steadily risen as coach Brad Stevens gained more confidence in him and injury concerns forced Pressey to assume more minutes and responsibilities in the guard rotation.
With Rondo’s minutes being monitored closely as he works back from a torn ACL and Avery Bradley and Bayless both sidelined, Pressey logged a career-high 34 minutes in the Celtics’ win over the Washington Wizards last week. In a six-game stretch in January, Pressey handed out 25 assists and committed only one turnover. He’s become the backcourt version of Kris Humphries, a player who also began the year as an afterthought only to emerge as a vital piece of Stevens’ rotation.
“I was a believer from the beginning, somewhat, because I really think guys with speed are hard to contain, no matter their size,” Stevens said. “Then I became more of a believer with his work ethic. Even though he didn’t make shots there for a while, he always is in the gym shooting.
“To be honest, I was probably just as naive. I’m coming into this new and here’s a guy that’s fast with the ball and wants to be coached. Size doesn’t seem to be a factor with how he challenges shots and such. He ends up having a very solid first half of his rookie year and it looks like he’s just trending upward.”
Thanks to his elite-level court vision, Pressey’s most valuable asset is considered to be his eyes. But his ears are just as important. Usually, he is surrounded by veterans, not newcomers on 10-day contracts. He’s learned a lot just by listening.
“A lot of these guys, they’ve been in the league for a while,” Pressey said. “Gerald Wallace has been in the league 10-plus years, Rondo almost 10 years, Humphries almost 10 years, so as much information as I can soak in is all good for me, because they’ve been in positions where they’ve played a lot and they’ve been in positions where they haven’t played a lot. I’m just trying to take in the best of both worlds and trying to make the best of it.”
Provided the Celtics like what they see — and so far, they must — Pressey could be in green for at least another two seasons. He is signed through 2016 on a non-guaranteed, mini-midlevel contract that pays him less than $500,000 this season and just shy of $950,000 in 2015-16, according to the NBA salary database at ShamSports. He’d then be eligible for restricted free agency and a $1.2 million qualifying offer in the summer of 2016.
Two years is a long way off, of course, and the only way for Pressey to convince the Celtics to keep him around that long is by building on the promising start he has set. Eventually, though, it won’t just be about points and assists, but about dollars and cents, too. When that happens, Pressey will be ready. The NBA is a business, as he already knows so well.