Editor's Note: NBC Sports Boston's "20 Under 25" survey is back for another year, giving fans the chance to vote on the 20 best professional athletes in Boston under age 25. Jordan Walsh is the Boston Celtics' lone candidate in this year's contest.
Ask 19-year-old Jordan Walsh his goals for the start of his NBA career and there is no hesitation: Win, and eventually earn a spot on an All-Defense team.
It’s a refreshing and ambitious answer given that most young players tend to obsess about playing time and scoring. Walsh understands the situation he’s been drafted into after the championship-chasing Celtics nabbed him with the 38th pick in June’s draft. He’s also mature in acknowledging that it could take multiple seasons to even get the opportunity to fully showcase his defensive potential.
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But five years ago he made a commitment to that defensive end of the floor, and he’s hell-bent on making it his calling card at the pro level.
"I kind of set the foundation for my game going into high school,” said Walsh. "I was going to play in an open gym and I was already considered one of the good players in the [Dallas] area. But I would go into an open gym with a whole bunch of older guys and they would never pass me the ball. Like, no matter what I did -- wide open on a fast break — I would never get the ball.”
Walsh’s coach at the time told him that the other players in the gym didn’t care about Walsh’s status as a five-star recruit and weren’t going to respect him until he proved himself. If he wanted a shot, he was going to have to create his own opportunity.
“[Walsh's coach said] 'Either you're going to get a stop and play defense, or you're going to get a rebound and push yourself,'” said Walsh. "And that's kind of like what formed the foundation of my game.”
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Walsh has yet to appear in a regular game for the Celtics this season. His contributions have come largely in emphatic bench celebrations to early-season dunks. Walsh had a solid summer league debut in Vegas, proving to be a raw but intriguing player with 3-and-D potential. He has spent most of his first pro season on assignment with the Maine Celtics in the G-League.
Before Walsh went north, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla offered the same sort of tough-love advice that Walsh got in Dallas open gyms. Asked what he wants Walsh’s priority to be in Maine, Mazzulla bottom-lined it.
"Defense and how to impact the game without scoring,” said Mazzulla.
Such is the road map to playing time for any wing on a team that features the All-NBA tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics loaded up on experienced wings this summer -- adding Oshae Brissett, Lamar Stevens and Svi Mykhailiuk -- which further crowds Walsh’s path to playing time.
But the reality is that few 19-year-olds are NBA-ready. Walsh is getting an opportunity to develop in the shadows. He can bulk up and get much-needed game reps where he can make mistakes and learn without a blaring spotlight on him.
And Mazzulla is keeping an eye on his progress from afar.
“We get an email after every game,” said Mazzulla. “Craig [Luschenat], our guy who works with our player development, and [Maine head coach] Blaine [Mueller] are in constant communication and then we have constant development checklist of what's important to us, where we want him to be at the end of the season, where we want him to be in a year from now.
“We’re just trying to create that culture of development and understanding of, what you're doing up there matters, it's really important. And it's both: We want you to develop but we also want you to enjoy the game, so how do we go about doing that?"
In his first 10 games in the G-League, Walsh averaged 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 0.4 blocks over 30.4 minutes per game. That’s solid overall production, even if his shooting splits haven’t been great -- 39.5 percent overall and 32.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Walsh hasn’t been Boston’s most eye-catching second-round pick up north. That distinction goes to J.D. Davision, the 53rd pick in the 2022 draft, who was averaging 23.6 points and 8.4 assists (second best in the G-League) through the team’s first 10 games. The Celtics are crossing their fingers that both players can be steady depth options in the future.
Developing young talent is vital to Boston’s ability to sustain a top-heavy payroll. The Celtics had to move on from players like Grant Williams this offseason in order to comfortably take on the money of someone like Kristaps Porzingis.
Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens doesn’t seem eager to make a first-round pick any time soon given his team’s title-chasing status, but he’s acknowledged a need to find ways to otherwise develop young talent. He’s pointed to how the Miami Heat have consistently found gems outside the first round (and sometimes outside the draft) to supplement their core.
One not-so-beloved former Celtics player (cough, Kyrie Irving) liked to note that comparison is a thief of joy. But that’s what we do with young players in the NBA. Watch Walsh even for a few games and you’ll understand why some make lofty comparisons to players like Dennis Rodman and Andre Iguodala based on his defensive potential.
Walsh has a crowded path to simply getting on the floor, let alone being mentioned alongside players who 1) Won titles and 2) Earned All-Defense spots. But those are his goals.
And like that 14-year-old kid in Dallas, he’s going to keep playing defense until he gets the chance to show he belongs.
Use the module below to participate in NBC Sports Boston's "20 Under 25" voting contest: