Jordan Walsh describes playing nervous first real minutes with the Celtics

Jordan Walsh describes playing nervous first real minutes with the Celtics

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BOSTON — Jordan Walsh checked in in the first quarter feeling some nerves in his first real rotation minutes in the NBA. He’d prepared for this moment all season, shifting to a complementary role with the Maine Celtics that would better translate to his eventual jump to the NBA. Now, after Joe Mazzulla called him to the scorer’s table, Walsh told himself, “it’s just basketball. You’ve been doing it your whole life.”

Payton Pritchard felt differently when he subbed into an NBA game for the first time in 2020. First, the Celtics played in front of mostly empty arenas at the height of the COVID pandemic, so a large crowd of fans didn’t anticipate his every shot like they did on Wednesday with Walsh. Pritchard also played four years in college, arriving more mature, skilled and ready to fit in physically in the NBA.

“He’ll adjust,” Pritchard said. “Like I said, he’s gonna be special.”

Officials called Walsh for a foul seconds into his appearance trying to navigate a screen and twice hit him with calls trying to be physical along the baseline, but Mazzulla let him play through an uneven debut as the Celtics went on to defeat the Nets by 50 on Wednesday. Walsh shot 0-for-3, didn’t score, and made up for it with five rebounds, one steal and a block.

“They were already up 30 in the first, so obviously that took some of the load off, but it’s definitely a different feeling,” Walsh told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog in the locker room after. “The physicality … is on another level. It could just be small, sneaky stuff that refs don’t see, that maybe you all don’t see and maybe we don’t see, but you’ll feel it. Somebody will do it to you and you’ll feel it and definitely know that it happened. It’s just small stuff like that. The defense does whatever it can to get you out of your rhythm. I try to do it myself sometimes. It happened tonight a lot when I was on the court. Obviously, you’ve gotta be tough through everything, the physicality of it, the pace and then just the speed of which things go from fast-to-slow.”

Walsh felt that for the first time when he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges and ran in transition attacking Dennis Schröder one-on-one. As he tried to step into a euro finish, he felt a slap on his arm and fell to the floor, losing the ball with no call. He popped up and told himself to just get back on defense. On the second attempt, he hoped, telepathically, that Jrue Holiday would toss him a lob ahead of the defense, a bounce pass came his way instead and he slipped. Celtics assistant coach Ross McMains joked that Walsh trips over the lines on the floor sometimes.

The pair arrived to TD Garden, after Walsh spent the previous road trip to Miami and Brooklyn with the team, knowing Mazzulla planned to play Walsh in the first half. With temperatures dipping below 30 degrees outside the Garden, Walsh still felt cold, so McMains told him to run up-and-down the Garden steps long before spectators entered the building. In what looked like some rookie hazing, Walsh chose to sprint about 5-6 stairways to prepare to fill rotation minutes for the first time with Jaylen Brown and Al Horford out.

“Since Christmas, he came on the west coast trip with us, we made a conscious effort to just have an understanding of defense is how you make it in this league as a young player,” Mazzulla said. “What you do in the G-League, from a statistical standpoint, is important, but it’s more important about your daily approach, your professionalism and your defense, and I think he’s just really grown in that area in the games I’ve watched and the feedback from Maine and his approach here with us. His defense has drastically improved and so I think it’s an opportunity to give a young guy a chance. Especially in a game where you’re looking for energy, you know it’s gonna be a team win and you’re down a couple guys. So, I really liked the way he’s approached the defensive side of the ball.”

Offensive miscues aside, Walsh made some hustle plays that warranted the crowd’s loud support toward him and tried to play vertical in the lane to successfully force misses against Bridges and Cam Thomas. He ran to half court to toss a loose ball back to the offense twice, barely keeping himself in-bounds. The Nets’ stars, specifically Bridges, also taught him lessons with their laser-fast releases away from his rotations. Bridges only needed a flick of the wrist to drain a corner three over him in the corner. Still, the Celtics outscored the Nets by 10 points in his minutes and saw some positives in an otherwise messy debut.

Walsh will return to the University of Arkansas during the All-Star break to see his former team play before visiting family in Dallas. Other NBA opportunities could arise in the second half of the season as rest and experimentation become more central focuses for a team that built a six-game lead over the second-place Cavaliers entering the week off.

Maine’s season will also wind down in March, providing Walsh more valuable time around his NBA teammates as the team plans to prioritize Walsh’s development in the G-League even into next year when he only turns 20. Spacing, screening and shooting all became improvement points for fitting into an offense with its primary hubs already clearly established, and his practice, training camp and now an actual game appearance have impressed some of those Celtics cornerstones who have taken him under their wing.

“I think he would say, he didn’t have his best game,” Kristaps Porziņģis said. “I know him, I’ve seen him in practice and stuff and I know he’s capable of having a much better game. But you could see his potential defensively. You could see his potential offensively because of his body and his athleticism, and what I like the most about him is he’s not afraid at all. Just go out there, shoot, he’s aggressive, attacking and if he keeps having this kind of mindset, it’s only a matter of time until he starts to get consistent success.”

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