Celtics rookies and second-year players stepping up when it matters most


BOSTON – When you see NBA teams with a regular playing rotation littered with first and second-year players, you don’t have to take a peek at the standings to know they’re probably at or near the bottom of the standings.

But this season, the Celtics have proven to be the exception to the rule.

The Celtics (29-10) have the best record in the Eastern Conference, doing so with a regular rotation that consists of four first or second-year players.


“It’s a blessing for all of us, for sure,” rookie forward Semi Ojeleye, a-14.2-minutes-per-game player, told NBC Sports Boston. “It speaks to how much coach just wants guys to step up, especially when Gordon (Hayward) went down, like Marcus (Morris) sometimes doesn’t play so guys have to step up.”

And it’s not just the regular rookies like Ojeleye, Daniel Theis and rookie of the year candidate Jayson Tatum, either.

Abdel Nader, the D-League rookie of the year last season, has seen limited minutes as an NBA rookie this season.

But lately, the 6-6 wing has been a contributor to the Celtics’ success.

In Boston’s 99-98 comeback win over Houston on Thursday, Nader had five points and career-high seven rebounds off the bench while playing 21 minutes which was also a career-high. He did such a good job in the first half, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens had him on the floor with the regular starters to begin the third quarter.

“Even though he did some things that I’m sure he’d like to have back, I thought Nader came in and gave us a great energy lift,” Stevens said after the win over Houston. “I didn’t think we looked like we were matching their level in the first half, and that’s why I started him in the second. And even though he missed a couple of shots in the second, he got some boards back, he was active, and it kind of got us started.”

Nader understands that his minutes on most nights will be limited.

The success Nader enjoyed on Thursday was aided by him getting some decent minutes against New York last week when he scored six points in just under 12 minutes of action.

Nader missed some shots in the loss to New York, but seemed to get better as the game wore on.

“That’s part of it, becoming more comfortable,” he told NBC Sports Boston. “So the next time I get this opportunity, I can perform even better.”

Tatum gets a lot of the attention when conversations center on Boston’s youngsters. But second-year wing Jaylen Brown (out currently with a sore right knee injury) has had a strong sophomore season as well.

Boston has also gotten good play out of rookies Theis and Ojeleye who have all contributed to wins this season.

For Ojeleye, getting solid minutes as a rookie was not something he anticipated when the Celtics plucked him in the second round of last June’s NBA draft.

But trades and injuries opened up a portal for the 6-foot-6 Ojeleye to play, and to his credit, he has made the most of his opportunity.

In one of Boston’s early season signature wins, Ojeleye was matched up against Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony and defended him well enough to aid Boston getting the win.

He would have similar solid play against Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And while holding his own against them certainly felt good, Ojeleye prides himself on not getting too high with the success or too low when he struggles which was indeed the case in the loss to the Knicks when Ojeleye and every other Celtic defender it seemed, could not stop Michael Beasley.

“Look up and down this roster, it was hard at first to see where I fit in,” Ojeleye said. “God had a plan. I didn’t know what that was. I’m just here, trying to give my best.”

He’s not alone.

Theis was an unknown by most when he arrived in Boston.

That didn’t last long.

His energy, rebounding and overall play defensively has been huge for the Celtics as they reshape their roster, one which they returned just four players from last season’s club that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

“I just try to help the team, however I can,” said the 25-year-old. “I just want to win; do whatever I can to help us win.”

And he’s doing just that; him and his fellow rookies this season.


Contact Us