The Boston Celtics’ backcourt will be extremely shorthanded for the foreseeable future. Earlier this week, Kyrie Irving underwent a procedure to remove a tension wire in his left knee (which was originally placed there during a 2015 surgery to repair a fractured patella) and he’s expected to miss three-to-six weeks. This comes after Marcus Smart had surgery to fix a torn ligament in his right thumb, amd his timetable to return is six-to-eight weeks.
With so many guards down, the team will be relying heavily on Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin.
Larkin is seeing his role increase drastically and he’s trying to make the most of it. Over the last eight games, he has averaged 8.3 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and just .7 turnovers in 25.2 minutes per game. On the season, the 25-year-old has averaged 11.1 points, 4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals per 36 minutes, while also shooting a career-high 38 percent from three-point range.
HoopsHype recently caught up with Larkin to discuss his role with the Celtics, how spending last season in Spain helped his development, his close friendship with Jayson Tatum, his continued growth as a player, his upcoming unrestricted free agency and more.
After three NBA seasons, you spent last season playing in Spain. How did going overseas help you – on and off the court – and prepare you for this year with Boston?
Shane Larkin: I think it helped me a lot. It helped me with my mentality and helped me improve my overall game in general. I think going there was good because I played a lot of minutes – the most minutes I had played since I came out of college – and I was able to be the man on a team. I had more responsibilities – being the go-to guy who scores a lot, being a guy who gets a lot of assists, being a vocal leader on the team – and I think that really helped me grow.
It also put me in a place where this year, even though my minutes aren’t as consistent, I’m more confident in my decision-making and don’t second-guess myself when I do get the opportunity to play. I remember earlier in my career, I had some games where I’d leave the arena thinking, “If only I had done this” or “If only I had taken that shot…” But after going overseas, I learned that you don’t want to ever second-guess yourself. You don’t want to have those situations where you’re thinking, “What if.” That’s probably the biggest thing that I took from being overseas. I just go out there and play instinctively. I used to overthink things and worry about my percentages and my last missed shot and things like that. Now, I just play. If I’m open and it’s a good shot, I take it. If I’m in a rhythm, I’m going to let it fly. I think going overseas helped me get that mentality as well as just helping me get my confidence back and allowing me to develop in general.
You missed some time prior to the All-Star break due to knee pain. How are you feeling now?
SL: It’s a lot better. My knees had been hurting for about a month or a month a half before I actually sat out, but I just continued to play through it. I think it just got to a point where my knees were like, “You can’t continue to give us this type of pounding.” So I took those two weeks off before the All-Star break and I rested the whole week and a half of the All-Star break. When I came back, they were feeling good. I increased my minutes every single game, taking it slow, and I continued doing the treatments. Now, they’re feeling really good and I’ll be back to 100 percent in the near future.
You just turned 25 years old in October. I think because you’ve played in big markets and been on the NBA radar for a long time, people think you’re older than that. How much more room to grow do you have as a player?
SL: I think I have a lot of room to grow. I came into the league when I was 20 years old and I broke my ankle during my rookie season, so that year was basically a wash in general because I didn’t play a lot. Then, I played those two years in New York and Brooklyn and the one year in Spain, and now I’m back in the NBA in my fifth year out of school. I’m still relatively young and I feel like I still have a lot of room to grow.
If you look at some of the contracts of the guys who just got paid because they’re just now reaching their prime, they’re guys like Ish Smith, who’s one of the best back-ups in the league, Patty Mills, who’s one of the best back-ups in the league, and Jeremy Lin, who was a back-up before he went to Brooklyn and he was 27, 28 years old. Some guys don’t really hit their peak until those later years and I think I’m one of those guys. I’ve been fighting for playing time in different situations, but I think if I was in that perfect situation, I’d be able to show that I’m such a better player now than I was two years ago. I’m shooting the ball much better now, I’m defending way better than I was before and, overall, I’m just a way better player than I was during my last stint in the league when I was with Brooklyn. I’ve played sparingly this year – some games I’ll play 15-to-20 minutes, some games I’ll play no minutes. My minutes haven’t been as consistent, but I think once I get that consistent playing time and I’m able to show what I can do every single night, people will see my improvement and I’ll continue to improve every single year.
I hear that you and Jayson Tatum are really close. Your locker is next to his and you guys hang out a lot. What advice have you given him? And because you’ve gotten to know him well, how good could he be if he reaches his full potential?
SL: I mean, JT can be one of the best players in this league. From day one, he has shown that he has the full package. And from the first game of the season, he’s shown that he doesn’t back down from any challenge. I remember he got a rebound and went right back up to the rim over LeBron James, who’s obviously the best player in our league. He showed right out of the gate as a rookie that he’s not scared of the moment or scared of the competition. That’s big. I call him a young bull because he’s very aggressive. And he wants to be great. The only advice I’ve given him is just to remain patient. He sees some of the other rookies who get to go shoot 20-to-25 times a night or some of the rookies who have the ball every single time down the court, but when he’s in the situation he’s currently in [he doesn’t get to do that]. I mean, we have Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward earlier in the season, Jaylen Brown, who has played amazing, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris… a lot of guys who can do some great things with the basketball in their hands. When he sees… I’m not going to name another player, but a guy whose team has 20-something wins and he had 35 points that night on 27 shots, [that’s tough]. He’s obviously happy in the situation he’s in, but he wants to have more responsibilities. He feels like if he was given more responsibilities, he’d be able to put some of those big numbers that other guys put up. But I’ve just tried to tell him to be patient and that his time is coming. He just turned 20 years old. I’ve told him, from my experience, that it’s much better to be in a winning situation and a winning culture and learn how to win in this league than being in those losing situations. I was in losing situations when I was a younger player, at 21 and 22 years old. Between the Knicks and Nets, we lost 126 games in two seasons. I’m telling him to just be grateful for this opportunity he has now and to enjoy this time with this great team. We’ve seen how much they love you if you’re a great player in Boston; there’s pretty much no better place to be a great player and his time is coming.
If he continues to grow the way he’s growing now, I don’t even know what his ceiling is. He can handle the ball, shoot the three, defend, and he’s 6’9 at 20 years old. He may not even be done growing! He has all of the tools to be one of the Top 5 players in this league and I wholeheartedly believe that. He’s a great guy off the court too – he has a great work ethic, he’s very humble and he’s determined to be the best player he can be. I don’t think you can even put a ceiling on him right now until we see more from him.
After playing for a few teams that struggled and playing for so many coaches early in your career, how nice is it to be on this juggernaut Celtics team with one of the NBA’s best coaches in Brad Stevens?
SL: It’s a great feeling. When your team is winning, it’s just a completely different feeling than when you’re losing all of those games. The team’s morale is so much better. The relationship between the coaching staff and the players is much better. The relationship between the front office and players is so much better. Everybody is usually smiling and laughing and having a good time. The plane trips are better. I mean, everything is just better in general when you’re winning this much. I think around Boston, it’s kind of expected because the team has been so good for so many years, aside from a few seasons here and there. But to come here as a guy who was in Europe last year and who was on two teams that really struggled in my last two years in the NBA before I left, it’s just a really refreshing feeling to have that kind of mood in the locker room all the time. It definitely helps you go out there and play with more confidence too. Because when you’re playing on those losing teams, that’s another reason to second-guess yourself. You’re wondering, “Maybe I shouldn’t take this shot or defend this possession this way or make this read because maybe that will be a bad possession and we’ll lose again.” You wonder if you’re doing things wrong. When you’re contributing on a winning team, you can play with ultimate confidence and you know your coach, your GM and your team have your back. And as a group, we’ve grown accustomed to winning so even if someone does make a mistake, everyone rallies behind whoever made that mistake and we’re focused on winning the next possession and getting the win anyway. It’s definitely a great feeling and it’s so refreshing. It’s probably the most fun year I’ve had since I left college and entered the NBA. I’m really grateful for this whole opportunity.
You’re an unrestricted free agent this summer. Are you hoping to re-sign with Boston or are you going to cross that bridge when you get to it?
SL: Obviously going into free agency, you can’t say, “Yeah, this is what’s going to happen.” I love being in Boston and if Boston is the right place for me to be next season, I would be happy to come back and have no hesitation because I love the fans, I love the city and I love everything about it. But it always comes down to what’s the best situation. In Boston this season, I’ve played basically 12 minutes per game and obviously I want to be a guy who continues to grow and continues to be better and continues to get to the level of a guy like Ish Smith or Patty Mills – the guys who have blossomed and grown every year to the point that they’re now looked at as some of the best backup point guards in the league. I think I have all the ability to do that and more. Being in Boston would obviously be an amazing thing and I’d love to be back here. But if there’s a better situation somewhere else where I’m playing more minutes and it’s a better situation for me, then I may have to go there. Because, at the end of the day, no matter how much you love a city or love a certain situation, each organization is going to do what’s best for them and you kind of have to do what’s best for you. If being in Boston as a third point guard and a guy who plays about 12 minutes a game is the best situation for me, then it’d be amazing to be back here. If another team sees what I’ve done this season and they want me to come in and grow as a player and play more minutes and have a bigger role, then I may have to take that situation. It all just comes down to what that situation is and what it all looks like. But right now, I’m not really thinking about that much. I’m trying to focus on what we have going on here in Boston and staying locked in for every game so that whenever I do get my opportunities, I can take full advantage of them.
In practice, you’re guarding Kyrie Irving and trying to score against Marcus Smart. How much better does that make you as a player when you’re going up against guys like that each practice?
SL: It makes you a lot better because those are two of the premier guys at what they do and at their positions in the entire league. It’s actually funny how it works because Kyrie will do a lot of the offensive reps against me and Smart will come in and do a lot of the defensive reps against me, so I’m always going against a great guy who’s helping me get better.
I would say Kyrie has the best handle in the league right now and he’s so good with the way he shifts from side to side and the way he moves the ball and the way he uses fakes and everything, so he’s definitely one of the hardest guys to guard and there’s no question that he’s made me a better on-ball defender since I’m going up against him so much.
And playing against Smart, he’s a guy who’s always going to be in the right position defensively, he’s great laterally, he’s quick and he’s strong as hell, so trying to go by him and fake him and score on him has definitely made me a better player as well. I think they’ve definitely helped me get better this year and I’m just glad those guys are on my team.