5 Celtics place in top 40 of ESPN’s NBA player rankings

One week. That’s all we’ve got before NBA teams start playing each other inside the Orlando bubble.

Exciting isn’t it? Of course, games that count won’t start for another two weeks, but don’t sit there and act like you won’t be watching every second of the exhibitions for signs that Romeo Langford can play big minutes in a playoff series.

Anyway, with the NBA restart rapidly approaching, ESPN put out some NBA player rankings, listing out the top 50 players inside the bubble. The Celtics ended up performing quite well in these, with five players in the top 40 and two in the top 20.

38. Marcus Smart

If these rankings were based on importance to their team, Smart would be in the top 15, but hey, NBA player rankings don’t typically favor players like him.

A versatile defender who can guard bigger opponents and rack up steals, Smart ranks in the NBA’s top 30 in the defensive rating of ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM). He also has added enough scoring to keep defenses honest, hitting a career-high 2.4 3-pointers per game this season.

Smart finds himself ahead of Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari, but behind the likes of Nikola Vucevic and his own teammate.

36. Gordon Hayward

If Hayward can get some decent injury luck for once in his tenure with the Celtics, I have a feeling more people will recognize just how good of a basketball player he is. Unfortunately, he hasn’t and No. 36 probably warranted behind players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lou Williams.

RELATED: KEMBA WALKER INJURY UPDATE

Hayward spent last season knocking off the rust accumulated from the leg and ankle injury that sidelined him the season before, but he has quietly been very good for Boston this season. He is averaging 17.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists with a 56.3% effective field goal percentage. If the Celtics are going to make it out of the East, Hayward needs to continue to play at that level.

25. Jaylen Brown

Brown thrived this season in taking advantage of openings left by Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum and scoring with efficiency in different ways. He can spot up, attack closeouts, handle in the pick and roll and do a little in the iso game, especially if he can match up against a smaller player in the mid-post area.

Brown responded well to a larger role this season, averaging career bests in scoring (20.4 PPG), rebounds (6.4) and field goal percentage (49.0%). Plus, he’s one of six players in NBA history to have multiple 30-point playoff games at age 21 or younger, something the Celtics will count on this postseason.

Not everyone can be a No. 1 option on a title team, but in 2019-20, Brown proved to be a more-than-capable No. 2 with invaluable defensive versatility.

20. Kemba Walker

Walker has been the perfect complementary scorer to Brown and Jayson Tatum this season with his constant downhill dribble drives and his consistent pull-up three coming around a high-screen from either Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter.

Walker has taken on a lower usage rate this season, which has allowed teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to move into leadership roles. To advance in the playoffs, however, the Celtics will need Walker’s ability to create good looks for himself and his teammates in pressure situations.

Walker’s knees will continue to be a question until he shows us they shouldn’t be, but Boston has to be thrilled with what they’ve seen out of him this season after watching Kyrie Irving nuke the team’s on-court chemistry all year long in 2019.

RELATED: 2020 NBA PLAYOFF SIMULATION

13. Jayson Tatum

We all saw the massive leap Tatum took in February as the team’s undisputed best player and scorer, and if the Celtics have any hope of making a Finals run inside the bubble, Tatum will have to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

Tatum was playing some of his best basketball when the season was suspended, averaging 29.2 PPG with a true shooting percentage of 60.8% in February and March. Still, one big question remains: Can Tatum put up prolific numbers against the Bucks’ dominant defense? Milwaukee held him to an average of 12.0 points on 36.4% shooting while eliminating Boston in last season’s playoffs.

Not sure if it’s fair to question Tatum’s outlook based on last year’s playoffs, but that’s what we’re here for. To poke holes in clearly flawed analysis by the national reporters.

Tatum’s field goal and three-point percentages dropped from February to March because of course they did. He was shooting 48% from deep on about nine attempts per game. The key for him will be getting to free throw line when his pull-up threes aren’t falling. Putting constant pressure on defenses regardless of your jumper working is the mark of a true superstar.

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