Going into the 2016-17 season, Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford are the talk of New England. They are the top two players on the Boston Celtics, and the team will go as far as those two take it.
However, other guys are obviously going to need to step up.
We essentially know what Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley will bring to the table: tough, hard-nosed defense with decent offensive production in support of Thomas and Horford.
But what about the rest of the cast?
That’s where the youngsters come into play.
Which young player on the Celtics is most likely to ascend to the next level this coming year?
Let’s break down the candidates.
(Oh, and P.S. Jaylen Brown is excluded from this list, as he is only a rookie and can’t really make any kind of “jump.”)
R.J. Hunter is listed first because, well, he’s the least likely to make the leap, and you know that whole proverb about saving the best for last.
Look: we know that Hunter is talented. He has an incredibly smooth stroke from beyond the arc, and his length allows him to be a fairly disruptive defender.
Whether or not he can put it all together is another story.
Hunter struggled mightily during his rookie campaign last season, shooting only 36.7 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from three-point range over 36 games.
To his credit, however, he did display some defensive potential. He is pretty active there, unlike James Young, seems to have solid instincts regarding rotations and where to position himself.
Still, Boston was hoping for more than just mere flashes when it selected him during the 2015 draft.
Hunter was expected to develop into a reliable marksman for the C’s, something that can still happen.
Will it be this year? Well, with the signing of Gerald Green, probably not.
We are probably going to have to wait at least another year for Hunter to start making a significant impact. Don’t even be surprised if you see him spending some time in the D-League this season.
Now, Terry Rozier is an interesting candidate.
During his rookie campaign last season, Rozier barely got off the bench, and when he did, it was pretty ugly.
The 22-year-old played in 39 games last year, shooting 27.4 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from deep.
However, due to an injury to Bradley, Brad Stevens turned to Rozier during the playoffs, and the kid responded by actually not messing anything up.
Did he put up big numbers? No, but the Louisville product legitimately looked comfortable out there and didn’t appear to be afraid of the moment. He played tough defense, took solid shots and wasn’t shy about putting the ball on the floor.
Rozier could be a guy who produces in 2016-17.
Sure, he is still behind several guards on the depth chart, but with Evan Turner gone, he should receive considerably more playing time than he did in 2015-16.
Rozier projects to fit the mold of Bradley: a hard-nosed defender who can knock down the three-ball on the other end. The difference is that Rozier is a better ball-handler and can actually break down a defense, hence the Eric Bledsoe comparisons that were bandied about when Boston drafted him.
Look for Rozier to play a role this coming season.
Here’s the thing with Kelly Olynyk: we know he can play on the NBA level. The question is, how much better can he get?
What we do know is that he can shoot from long range, pass and handle the rock very well for a big man and that he has a fairly high basketball IQ.
Olynyk’s issue, as I have stated countless times before, has always been his confidence and consistency.
With Horford now in the fray, however, this could be the year where Olynyk finally develops some uniformity as a player throughout the entire 82-game campaign.
The floor should open up a bit for the seven-footer, meaning he should get better looks from beyond the arc.
If Horford and Olynyk are both on the court at the same time, defenses will have to worry about checking both of them on the perimeter, meaning one of them will likely get a good look the basket.
Horford should also assist Olynyk defensively, allowing him to simply focus on rotations rather than futilely trying to protect the rim.
This is going to be Kelly’s fourth year in the league. If he doesn’t make any sort of a jump now, he may never do so. It’s time for him to get going.
Remember earlier when I was talking about saving the best for last?
Well, here is Marcus Smart.
Smart was a first-round draft choice of the Celtics in 2014, and he has been a polarizing player ever since.
While many bemoan his horrific shooting percentages, others laud his spectacular defensive ability and versatility.
The fact of the matter is that Smart does need to improve his offensive game, and while he does not need to become a dynamic scorer, he does need to take better shots and augment his efficiency.
That being said, Smart has shown signs of decent offensive ability at points.
Not only that but for whatever reason, Smart seems to become a much better shooter and playmaker in clutch situations.
This year, though, a significant leap from the third-year guard is possible.
We know he is going to play a pivotal role defensively, guarding opposing perimeter players and even covering big men here and there, so Smart will see substantial minutes for that alone.
It’s on offense where he can take an enormous step, and with Horford now in the fold and guys like Thomas and Crowder having more experience, Smart should see more scoring opportunities.
With Turner gone, Smart should have the ball in his hands a bit more, and with another scorer in Horford for defenses to focus on, Smart should see more openings to put the ball in the cup.
So, what would a “big step” be?
Well, shooting 40 percent or better, for one.
As far as his output, Smart averaged 9.1 points per game last season, so it would not be the least bit surprising to see him average double figures this coming year. Actually, it should almost be expected.
All of the players on this list will have a chance to make a jump in 2016-17, but Smart is the one who can vault the longest.