One word said it all. When asked if he had more time to devote to his midrange game this summer — his first NBA offseason without injury issues — Celtics guard Avery Bradley said plainly, “Yes.”
For Bradley, it’s always been about confidence. After tumbling from nation’s No. 1 high school recruit in 2009 to No. 19 pick in the 2010 NBA draft and shooting 19.6 percent (9-46 FG) from anywhere outside the restricted zone as a rookie, he had none. Obviously, an ankle surgery that kept him from his first NBA training camp didn’t help matters, but slashing off the ball to the basket was the only offensive weapon in his arsenal that first year.
(NBA.com/stats key: Red = Below Average, Yellow = Average, Green = Above Average)
Bradley began his lockout-shortened sophomore season as most young players under Doc Rivers did — on the end of the bench — only earning significant playing time once Ray Allen‘s ankle issues flared in late January. After shooting just 1-for-12 from 3-point range through the first three months of the season, Bradley discovered another niche, adding a right-corner 3 to a quiver that still included all those backdoor cuts to the bucket.
He shot 50 percent (21-42 3P) from beyond the arc in the final month, mostly from the right corner, where he shot 72.0 percent (18-25 3P) for the season. His confidence soared to the point that Rivers had no choice but to start Bradley over a hobbled Allen. Given the former’s defensive prowess, any offense was enough to make the move, even if he remained an average to below average shooter most everywhere but two confined spots on the floor.
But injuries to both shoulders cut his second season short in the playoffs, and the surgeries kept him from even attempting a shot for the rest of the 2013 calendar year. When he returned, his stroke naturally suffered in his third year. Even his performance in the restricted area rated below average. Confidence level: bummed.
This past summer, finally granted the opportunity to train without rehab or a lockout looming overhead, Bradley made a concerted effort to improve his jump shot. And thus far it’s worked. He’s shooting 47.1 percent from midrange and ranks in the league’s top 10 among players with at least 50 attempts from that distance.
Among guards who have attempted at least 50 midrange jumpers, his percentage places him in rare company — third in the league behind a pair of 20-point scorers considered among the game’s most dynamic shooting guards.
What makes Bradley’s production most impressive isn’t just his jump shooting percentage; it’s the volume at which he’s attempting those shots. Only Monta Ellis, Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul join Bradley in the top 10 for both midrange field goal attempts and percentage. Bradley has attempted more jumpers than all of them and owns a better shooting percentage than all but Ellis, an $8 million player who hasn’t sniffed an NBA All-Defensive team.
Naturally, without Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to carry the offense, Bradley’s field goal attempts have skyrocketed for a team in desperate need of any offense. His midrange attempts have nearly doubled to 6.5 per game this season from 3.4 last year, when he shot 43.0 percent from that range.
To put that into perspective, Rondo, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford all shot at a higher clip from midrange in 2012-13, and Bradley is now attempting almost as many jump shots per game this season (6.6) than Kevin Garnett, king of the midrange game, did for the Celtics last year (7.2). Confidence level: KG heights.
(As an aside, it should be noted that Garnett is shooting a ridiculous 66.7 percent from that range this year.)
The strange part, though, is that Bradley’s original weapons (off-the-ball cuts to the hole and right corner triples) have dipped to below average levels — a likely result of being forced to help run the offense alongside Crawford.
If, once Rondo returns, Bradley rediscovers those elements of his offense to complement this new midrange game and his always steady all-world defense, we may finally witness the backcourt tandem everyone imagined when the two transformed the Celtics into one of the league’s most dangerous teams by the end of the 2011-12 season.