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Column: Young Celtics use Team USA training as jump-start to upcoming NBA season

Marcus Smart
Marcus Smart is among the Celtics’ young players expected to help the team improve from its disappointing finish.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Yeah, it didn’t look right, the NBA stars that will represent the country in the FIBA World Cup, getting stomped by a bunch of players out of the league. Should professionals from America’s minor leagues and from overseas be sticking it to Team USA for back-to-back wins during scrimmages Wednesday?

No, that’s not quite right.

And it wasn’t quite right the night before when Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge sat in a seat in the middle of the Lakers’ practice court with one of his players, Marcus Smart, next to him and three more, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, working out on the court.

While everyone is saying they’re using this time to compete for a world championship in September, there has to be something a little sweet that the Celtics’ core is getting a head start on next season -- and doing it on the Lakers’ El Segundo courts only makes it sweeter.

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“I think it can only help, right?” Brown said.

It can’t hurt, and after an incredibly disappointing season, getting a jump on change might be a good thing for the Celtics. Despite losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency, Boston will be among the favorites in the Eastern Conference thanks to the addition of Walker and the projected development of Tatum, Brown and Smart.

Expectations are high -- even if that word causes them to cringe.

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“We’re trying to stay away from the “E” word. We’re going to stay away from that,” Brown said. “We’re going to try and have some fun, and I think the mantra is ‘Just hoop.’ That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

If the implication is that the Celtics didn’t get to “just hoop” a lot last year, it’s not a surprising admission. One year removed from a stunning trip to the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics were the favorites in the East. The logic? They’d be adding a healthy Irving and a healthy Gordon Hayward to a team that already proved it could win.

But Irving’s return stunted the offensive growth of Boston’s young players, and Hayward, who wasn’t up to his standards, forced the Celtics’ young players to take minute cuts. It led to a locker room that wasn’t on the same page -- a place where the same question about how important role definition is could be answered five different ways.

Thanks to Team USA and the need for quality players willing to give up the last month of their summer, the Celtics’ best players are getting a head start on figuring out how to handle one another.

“I’m all about the camaraderie. I’m all about the togetherness,” Walker said. “I’ve always felt that you’re off-the-court relationships translate onto the court. I’ve always felt that way and I’ve always been big on that. It’s why I’m trying my best to get acclimated to those guys as best as I can.”

It’s not the reason Walker is with Team USA -- the only 2019 All-NBA pick on the team -- but it’s a nice glob of icing on the cake.

“Before I was ever signed to the Celtics, I was committed to this. ... It’s just been a bonus, for sure,” Walker said. “What more could you want? I’m the new guy and I’ve got three of my new teammates on my team.”

If all four players make the team -- and there’s a strong chance that’ll happen even with Smart recovering from a calf injury -- one-third of Team USA’s roster will be wearing Celtics uniforms on opening night in October.

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Forward Khris Middleton, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, joked that guys on the national team are trying to keep Team USA practices from becoming Celtics mini-camps. And when players see all four of them together, they know what to do.

“I think a couple of guys try to get in between them and block them out, just add a couple different guys to the mix,” he joked.

That many players from one team, building chemistry while the rest of the league watches? That doesn’t look quite right, either.


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