By: Will Burchfield
The Pistons knew what they were getting in Avery Bradley.
A quiet leader. A defensive hound. A tough-as-nails competitor.
They couldn’t have predicted it’d pay dividends so soon.
“In the pickup games we’ve been playing he brings the whole intensity up,” said Ish Smith on Monday, the eve of training camp. “Leadership doesn’t mean you have to be the loudest, doesn’t mean you have to tell everybody what to do. Sometimes you just do it by example, and he plays at such a high level defensively that, for me, I don’t want to look like the odd man out.”
Bradley isn’t going to say much. It’s not really his way. But he challenges those around him, wittingly or not, by competing his tail off.
“He’s not going to play harder than me and all of us are looking out of place,” said Smith. “He’s already, just in our pickup games, brought up the level defensively.”
A quick glance at Bradley’s resume offers proof of his defensive exploits. Second-team all-defense in 2012-13. First-team in 2015-16.
“I think it’s kind of crazy he’s not first- or at least second-team all-defense every year,” said Smith.
“He was a snub last year,” said Reggie Jackson.
The Pistons’ identity this season is yet to be defined. Stan Van Gundy stressed the importance of defensive intensity on Monday, and his players echoed his words. Bradley was the first.
“We know that we have to work harder than a lot of other teams in the NBA. We know we can’t have off-nights,” said Bradley. “Every single night we have to go out there and play hard, play with 100 percent effort, and I think that has to be our identity. We have to be a team that goes out there and fights with a defensive mindset.”
These words ring true from Bradley because he backs them up on the court. That’s what gained him the universal respect of his teammates with the Celtics.
“In Boston I think I led more by example. I was there for seven years. I was a vocal leader at times, but I wanted to be somebody that led by example for all the young guys. I wanted to do things the right way and be consistent so guys could follow my lead,” said Bradley.
With the Pistons, his leadership role is still taking shape.
“Here, I think it’s something that you have to take slowly. I can’t just come in here bossing everybody around. I’m learning and trying to figure out what I can bring to this team, what I can bring to individuals,” said Bradley. “If we need a vocal leader, that’s what I’m going to be. If we need somebody that just leads by example, that’s what I’ll do.”
There’s no mistaking Bradley’s understated demeanor. Smith called him a “quiet spirit.” Jackson said, “He doesn’t necessarily have much to say.”
But Bradley will interject when he needs to.
“He does a good job of talking to guys, pulling them to the side,” said Smith.
By picking his spots, Bradley gives his words weight. And he’s able to give advice, it seems, because he’s willing to accept it.
“I just want to help everybody become better people and better players. And that’s the same for me. If anybody wants to help me, I would hope they would speak up as well,” said Bradley.
If there’s one player who might benefit most from Bradley’s presence, it’s Stanley Johnson. The 21-year-old can be a defensive stalwart in his own right, even if he’s yet to realize it.
“I’ve seen a young guy that is very talented and trying to figure out what exactly he does special, and that’s guard, get down every single night and guard the best three-man or two-man,” said Bradley. “Because Stanley is a freak, man, a freak athlete.”
For Johnson, it’s not a question of ability. Nor is it really an issue of effort. On defense, at least, it’s a matter of embracing his own potential.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him if he’s able to go out there every single night and challenge himself to defend whoever. That’s my mindset every single night,” said Bradley. “I want to defend the best player on the other team, and if he has that same mindset I think it’ll be good for our team.”
The Pistons will learn a lot from Bradley, and the process has only just begun.