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The Emergence of Avery Bradley

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Something I thought could never happen occurred last night.

No, I'm not referring to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West getting back together. Perez Hilton and I both saw that one coming a mile away.

I'm talking about the Celtics' starting lineup Thursday night in Chicago.

Avery Bradley at shooting guard, I read to myself before the game.

Of course my first response was, is Ray Allen hurt again? Allen had missed six games in a row with a sore ankle until returning to the lineup Wednesday against the Spurs.

But he wasn't hurt. Not at all. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, back when Allen was a Milwaukee Buck, and for only the fifth time in 1,145 career NBA games, the game's deadliest three-point shooter was starting the game on the bench.

First, let's not get carried away. Allen still ended up playing 31 minutes Thursday. Doc Rivers is famous for being conservative with his veterans, especially ones coming off of injuries. Thursday's maneuver was probably Doc's way of easing Allen back into game action and preventing the star guard from further injury. Bradley's move to the starting lineup could even be a one-time thing.

But the fact that it happened is still significant. Avery Bradley has arrived, my friends.

Bradley has earned Rivers' trust, and he's close to earning mine as a fantasy owner. Bradley's numbers aren't gaudy in the least but it's tough to ignore Bradley's drastic improvement from earlier in the year.

Bradley has always profiled as more of a role player than as a guy who will eat up minutes on a consistent basis. Even last season when Bradley was on the floor for just 5.2 minutes per game it was apparent that Bradley was a good athlete with decent quickness. But more often those qualities were overshadowed by Bradley's glaring lack of size (6'2, 180 pounds) and overall tentativeness (he scored just 1.7 ppg).

Even early on in this season, Bradley looked lost at times. While filling in for Rajon Rondo at point guard during an eight-game stretch in January, Bradley seemed hesitant to shoot the ball or even dribble inside the three-point line.

Not until March, did Bradley begin to come into his own. Injuries to Allen and Mickael Pietrus opened the door for Bradley to start at shooting guard. Since then Bradley has tallied an impressive 14.4 points per game including a team- high 19 Wednesday against the fourth-best team in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs.

What's been especially encouraging about Bradley during this recent seven-game stretch is his newfound confidence.

Being thrown into the fire and starting in Rondo's place earlier in the year was a valuable learning experience for the 21-year-old but it was clear that Bradley was out of his element playing point guard. In 31.4 minutes per game, Bradley registered 7.5 ppg during this eight-game stint, which was better than his season average (5.8 ppg), but still not good enough to warrant any fantasy consideration.

Two months later, fantasy owners are starting to change their minds. Over his last seven games, Bradley has shot the ball more than ever (11 shots per game) and he's actually starting to find his stroke. During that span, Bradley has a 53.2 percent field goal percentage. If Bradley kept that up for the whole year he'd be 11th in the NBA and second-best amongst guards (Steve Nash is shooting 53.8 percent, seventh-best in the league).

Bradley no longer seems intimidated playing alongside a team of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rondo. He's taking smarter shots and his elite speed has allowed him to team up with Rondo on the fastbreak for easy layups.

Bradley isn't just scoring at a higher rate than he did earlier in the year. His free-throw shooting has gone from Dwight Howard-like (68.1 percent from the line December through February) to Ray Allen-esque (90.3 percent since March 1st). He's even started to find his touch from three-point range (8.3 percent December-February, 38.5 percent since the beginning of March).

Despite Bradley's recent offensive emergence, his strength has always been as a lockdown defender. That aspect of Bradley's game hasn't changed.

In Boston's past four games, Bradley has collected seven steals. Only Rondo, who has been selected to the NBA's All-Defensive First Team the past two seasons, has been able to keep up with Bradley's steal totals.

What's even more remarkable about Bradley's pesky defense is that he has been able to stay aggressive without committing lots of fouls, something Boston's bull-in-a-china-shop center Greg Stiemsma has not been able to do (Stiemsma has fouled out of two of the Celtics' last four games despite playing just 16.5 minutes per contest).

If Bradley can keep playing terrific defense without getting into foul trouble (Bradley has only fouled out once this season), he'll be able to stay on the court longer, which will bolster his offensive output.

Of course, there's a reason why Bradley is still available in roughly 96 percent of fantasy leagues. The former Texas Longhorn doesn't contribute much in terms of rebounding (his season-high is just six, and that was against the Wizards) or assists (1.3 apg).

Bradley's 21.5 fantasy points per game last week was still well below what Glen Davis (42.3 ppg), Kevin Seraphin (34.4 ppg) and Gerald Green (30.8 ppg) were able to accomplish, and all three are available in most fantasy leagues.

Bradley might not help you this year but you can't ignore his potential. Bradley is in only his second season. Remember, even Rondo, the 17th-highest scorer in fantasy hoops this year, took a few seasons to develop into a star (8.5 ppg, 4.5 apg in his first two seasons in the league).

Bradley's breakout fantasy season could be just around the corner. With Ray Allen in the final year of his contract, it's very possible that Bradley will be the starting two-guard in Boston next fall. And who knows who Kim Kardashian will be dating then.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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