WALTHAM -- If it were only a matter of raw talent, the Celtics would be going deep into the 2007 playoffs.
"As far as raw talent is concerned, we'd have to be up there," agrees coach Doc Rivers. "Teams like Miami, Dallas, San Antonio, and Detroit have both raw talent and experience, but I think we really are talented in that way. And I'd rather have some kind of talent."
The Celtics have young talent, all right, and the embodiment of all that enticing raw skill is Gerald Green.
His was no case of false advertising. He was billed as the ``Best Athlete Available" when the Celtics chose him with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2005 draft, and he demonstrated his extraordinary athleticism in actual NBA competition during the final three months of the season. Now all he has to do is turn himself into a suitable NBA player.
In case you're a little late coming to this story, Gerald Green is in the 6-7/6-8 range with a nicely proportionate NBA body. They list him as a forward/guard swingman, and that's probably the way it's always going to be. He can get up and down the floor and he can take it to the hoop, and if you continue to follow the story, you will undoubtedly read and hear frequent references to the word ``explosive" when people attempt to describe his style of play.
Simply trading on his lip-smacking package of inherent skills, he managed to get himself into 32 games as a just-out-of-high-school rookie last season. He wound up shooting 48 percent from the floor (not all dunks or drives, either) and included among his performances a 22-point game at Indiana, a 19-point, 6-assist game at New Jersey, and a 13-point, 9-rebound game at Phoenix. You have to like all those ``ats," by the way.
Considering where he started, and the route he took (including humbling trips to the NBDL), it wasn't a bad debut season at all. And we won't even mention the crowd-pleasing jams.
Best of all, the young man seems to get it. He knows what he doesn't know, which is why he spent the offseason polishing his skills.
``I worked on every aspect of my game," he reports. ``Shooting. Passing. Court awareness. Ballhandling. Most of all defense. At this time a year ago, I didn't have any idea about rotations."
He now knows that making it in the NBA requires more than just a mastery of the game's skills and physical components.
``One of the big things I learned last year was how to keep my head up when things go bad," he explains. ``In high school, I would hang my head when things didn't go my way."
One thing we do know: This kid from Houston's Gulf Shores Academy can do things no coach could ever hope to teach him.
``Absolutely," says Brian Scalabrine, who might very well qualify as the Celtics' anti-Green. ``I'm thinking, `Is there anyone else close to him athletically?' I'd say he's in the top 2 percent in the NBA when it comes to elevating to the rim quickly.
``The best thing is that he works at his game. He's getting it down where he can get in the lane with two quick dribbles and just take off over anybody."
OK, then. It's well-established that Gerald Green is a hunk o' talent. But where does he fit on the '06-07 Celtics? The coach ought to know, right?
``I'm not sure yet," replies Rivers. ``I just know that I'm really pleased at the way he's worked. He's a much different player than he was last year. But what can he give us? That will shake out. I know he can score. But it's not like it was with Paul Pierce, where I wanted to make him into a more efficient scorer. It's too early for that."
It's probably safe to say that Gerald Green is currently a luxury item on this team. Or you might want to classify him as some sort of secret weapon. Rivers has plenty of other young people who need to be smoothed out, polished or whatever, starting with his new young point guards, Sebastian Telfair and Rajon (Da Doo Ron) Rondo. It's not like he can spend all his time worrying about Gerald Green.
That's why Green's surprisingly strong work ethic is such an important part of his story. His coach can trust him to keep improving without being prodded. He doesn't have to be some sort of major project. He'll be taking care of his own business under the watchful eye of such Big Brothers as Pierce and fellow Texan Kendrick Perkins.
The Celtics have 18 players in camp, which sounds like a lot. But Rivers speaks of a core group ``separating" itself to become the regular rotation, something that didn't materialize last year.
``I believe a core team will start showing itself," Rivers maintains. ``If I get that, then everything will be easy. I really don't think there's going to be a debate about it. I think, for sure, some people are going to separate themselves. If they don't, that's their fault."
He named no names, but you have to believe he thinks Gerald Green will be one of those players. If he thought enough of the lad to give him significant minutes in the latter stages of last season, wouldn't it stand to reason he has some interest in seeing Green assert himself now? And it all comes back to the issue of raw talent. Green can give Rivers things the coach cannot get from any of the other 17 people on this roster.
Green is comfortable with his boss.
``Doc wants to see me get better," Green says. ``He's always telling me, `Try to win everything. Try to win every pick-up game, every one-on-one game, shooting drill, everything.' He is always encouraging me."
``He's going to get an opportunity," predicts Scalabrine, ``and that's really good for him. He'll take advantage of it. He can be great. He can be good. I definitely think he's going to be one of those two."
Good will be just fine. Great can wait a year or two. Gerald Green turns 21 in January. There ought to be a few years of nice bounce left in those legs.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.