Way Too Early Takeaways From the Celtics Preseason Opener

Jaylen Brown Shooting over Kelly Oubre

After three and a half long months without NBA basketball, we finally got the pleasure of watching the Boston Celtics take the court again. Albeit a preseason game, it was still great to see. Let me tell you, preseason or not they did not disappoint.

After a somewhat expectedly slow start to the day, they took over the game with some lights out shooting, hitting 21 threes as a team and dominating the Charlotte Hornets with a final score of 134 to 93. The ball was moving, the shots were falling, and we got a chance to take a sneak peek at some of the new faces who could end up on the final 15-man roster. Like many of you I cannot wait for the regular season to begin so we can really see what this team is capable of.

For now let’s ease into it with some of my way too early takeaways on how this team is shaping up after Sunday’s preseason opener.

Team Identity

It would be silly to overlook the massive change on the bench with Head Coach Ime Udoka being suspended for the entirety of the 2022-2023 season. Previous assistant and now Interim Head Coach Joe Mazzulla will be taking the reins.

Udoka was set to return for his second year as the head coach of this young Celtics team before it was found that he had an improper relationship with a female subordinate on the Celtics’ staff. It was also reported that Udoka was also directing inappropriate language towards these staff members.

For a team that seemed to find its identity in the second half of the previous season and was just two wins away from being champions, this overhaul could be a massive bump in the road.

Brad Stevens and Celtics ownership made the decision to promote Assistant Coach Joe Mazzulla to fill in as the Interim Head Coach for the season as opposed to looking at external options. I don’t think they could have made a better decision.

There’s a long season ahead of us and we really haven’t seen anything from Coach Mazzulla yet. It’s hard to say if he really is head coaching material, especially considering he is just 34 years old. For reference, Al Horford is the oldest player on the team currently at 36 years old.

That being said, sticking with a coach who was already around the team and whose basketball knowledge all the players and coaches have been vouching for, even before the news of Udoka’s suspension broke, helps the team maintain as much continuity as possible. That certainly showed on the court during the first preseason game.

 Photo: Maddie Malhotra / Getty Images Boston.com

When the returning players from last year’s roster took the court, the defense looked tight, especially for a preseason game. There were lapses at times, mostly in terms of protecting the rim, but with Robert Williams out and several new faces taking the floor, that was to be expected.

It’s good to see them picking up where they left off on that end of the court, and it even seems like they’ve found ways to improve on the offensive side of the ball. The ball was flying around the entire time, and the team finished with a whopping 41 assists on 48 made baskets. Ladies and gentlemen, you read that right; just over 85% of their made baskets came off an assist.

Now there are several factors that went into that, such as the Hornets playing expectedly bad defense and it being a preseason game, but I believe Coach Mazzulla deserves at least some of the credit for this. It seems like there was more play calling that had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown playing off ball, and even on possessions like that where they didn’t get touches it allowed for better spacing for the other guys on the floor.

This type of offense could really open up the game for everyone on the team, and if they can make ball movement an emphasis to go along with their stellar defense, this team can be deadly. Brad Stevens made the perfect move to do just that, which leads perfectly into my next section.

New Additions

The acquisition of Malcolm Brogdon will be a game changer so long as he stays healthy. That much was evident in Sunday’s game. He led both teams in assists at 9 in just under 25 minutes. On top of that, he put up 11 points, brought in 5 boards, and he pushed the pace to create opportunities both for himself and his teammates.

He was able to drive to the basket at will, having no troubles either finding someone on the wings or getting a shot off on his own. Every aspect of his offensive game fills in a gap which this team has struggled with.

Photo: Steven Senne / AP Photo MassLive

Over the past couple seasons, the Celtics haven’t had a legitimate paint threat night in and night out. Brogdon can be that guy. While I love Marcus Smart as a point guard, when he leaves the floor, or even when he gets caught up in the moment from time to time the ball starts to move less and less.

Jayson and Jaylen have both gotten their assist numbers up, which is great, but the Celtics needed another legitimate ball handler who can consistently and reliably find open teammates. Brogdon can be that guy. When the Celtics get comfortable with a lead, they tend to slow things down, which often times can lead to bad offense. This typically allows other teams to climb back into games.

They need someone who can continue to push the pace and keep the offense moving, which is where Brogdon comes in. He is the perfect compliment to how this team runs on both ends of the court, so I’m excited to see what he can help this group accomplish.

Speaking of compliments, I need to give a well deserved shoutout to Sam Hauser. Brad Stevens deserves the shoutout too, for putting his trust in Hauser to step into the role left with the season-ending injury of Danilo Gallinari. Hauser isn’t technically a new addition to the team since he was on a 2-way contract last year, but Brad made the decision to bring him on full time.

Hauser is a 3-point sniper, and he showed it Sunday afternoon. The man went 5-6 from the field with 4 made threes. He was ready to pull the trigger every time the ball found him. His quick release, zero hesitation shot making ability is the perfect offensive weapon from a role-player.

Photo: Charles Krupa / AP Photo Boston.com

Now I don’t want to take off on the hype-train based off a single preseason performance. However many of the Celtics players seem to be pretty confident in his ability to maintain this level of hot shooting throughout the season. Derrick White went as far to say, “He’s crazy. One of the best shooters I’ve seen.”

Apparently, the guy doesn’t miss in practice, and with only one miss in Sunday’s game I wouldn’t doubt that. If he can hit 2 or 3 threes a night and not be a liability on defense, then he is more than deserving of his new contract and a great option off the bench.

Moving on, let’s talk about the guy filling the 2-way spot left behind by Hauser, rookie JD Davison. I really wish we got some more time to watch him play because I was really happy with what I saw in his 6 and a half minutes on the court.

We saw him play a little more for himself in the summer league, but on Sunday he looked like he was playing for the team. He didn’t waste any dribbles and was very decisive with all of his activity. He finished with 4 points and 4 assists on 2-3 shooting. All of his drives had purpose, whether it was to go up himself or to dish it out to an open teammate.

He does not have the experience of Payton Pritchard, nor does he have PP’s shooting ability. He does though have some of Pritchard’s quickness. Sometimes I find that Pritchard overdribbles a bit to get his shots, but to his credit he does hit them.

It seems to me that JD understanding that he’s not as good of a shooter allows him to get more value out of his touches, and that was by using said quickness. It’s a great thing for young players to know their limits and play to their strengths, as it’s a great sign of maturity.

He still showed that young spirit on defense, though. He had a bit of a tough matchup in Dennis Smith Jr., who isn’t the player most thought or hoped he would be, but still has real experience being a starter in the league. JD played tough and stuck with him in the 1-on-1 situations, but I was also intrigued with his help defense.

He seemed to do a good job of knowing when someone was uncovered and being the first one to react when they got the ball off of a swing. His defense gave me flashes of Collin Sexton, at least in terms of awareness and energy.

JD likely won’t have many opportunities to get meaningful minutes this year barring injuries (*knock on wood*). If he continues to play ball the right way and becomes a more well-rounded player during his time in Maine, I could see him becoming a serviceable backup PG in the coming years.

That is a great find for the end of the second round. I’m excited to see more from him over the next couple seasons, and even in the final preseason games in which the starters will likely sit out.

The other 2-way spot is taken up by Mfiondu Kabengele for now, and if the Celtics are in need of a big man going into the playoffs, I could see them bringing him on full-time to finish the season.

He was a great burst of energy off of the bench on Sunday, and he was just plain old fun to watch. From him diving on the floor to secure a loose ball, to him screaming his head off after a tough and-one, he was putting his all into the game. He looks hungry, like he wants to prove his worth.

I will say that his play is a little bit immature and uncoordinated, but there is no lack of effort from him. He has a great opportunity to develop in Maine over the course of the season, and the combo of him and JD could be worth following. Their playstyles seem to compliment each other with JD’s ability to get to the rim and Fi’s ability to set hard screens and get up around the basket.

Who Gets Cut?

There’s still a good amount of talent that got to see the floor on Sunday without guaranteed contracts, and there are one or two spots left for Brad to fill before the season starts. There are currently five players on training camp deals, those being Brodric Thomas, Luka Šamanić, Jake Layman, Justin Jackson, and Noah Vonleh.  

This may be a bit harsh considering he only saw the floor for 10 minutes, but to be completely honest there was nothing that intrigued me about Layman. Besides Vonleh he is the most veteran guy on that list, but he doesn’t seem to provide anything the team needs other than another body.

He’s not a great defender, he’s not a great rebounder, and although he didn’t get too many opportunities to show out on Sunday, I wouldn’t bet on him to be a reliable scorer off the bench either. He finished the night with 3 points and 1 rebound on 1-3 shooting.

He played the second most minutes out of all the non-guaranteed players, yet still had the lowest impact. I would be very surprised if Brad decided to add him to the roster past training camps.

Another guy who I would be surprised to see make the roster is Brodric Thomas. Thomas was on a 2-way contract with the Celtics last season, and I honestly didn’t think too lowly of him in the few minutes he got with the team. He was another ball-handler in a pinch, has good size, and was an okay shooter.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with his performance on Sunday, but I would give him a little more leeway given his previous time with the team. The biggest things working against him are that both 2-way spots are already filled this time around, and the Celtics are probably the deepest at the guard position as it is.

I could see him signing a contract to play in Maine if another NBA team doesn’t want to pick him up, but I don’t think he is worth a guaranteed roster spot for the Celtics right now.

Photo: Charles Krupa / AP Photo MassLive

Here is where it gets a little trickier. This is likely just personal bias, but I would love to see Luka Šamanić get a shot with this team. Is it because his name is so similar to Luka Dončić? Maybe. Is it because he’s a lanky near 7-footer and has some decent skills for his height? Probably. Do I honestly think he is worth one of the last roster spots? No, probably not.

It’s always intriguing to me to see long, mobile big men like Giannis, Aleksej Pokuševski, Chet Holmgren, and now Victor Wembanyama do what they do at their height (yes, I am fully aware that all of these guys play very differently and are on widely different skill levels).

Šamanić is far from being on the same level of even the lowest guy on that list, but the potential is just so enticing. In his 5 minutes on the court Luka put up 2 points and 4 boards, and he also got yammed on not once, but twice by Kai Jones.

I respect him going up to try and block the dunks, but he straight up got bodied. In all seriousness he likely won’t get one of the last roster spots, but he’s another guy I would hope the Red Claws could pick up for a season to see how he develops.

Down to the last two, Noah Vonleh and Justin Jackson. I actually liked what I saw from both of them on Sunday, and they both could fill some needs for this team. Both of them can play as either a wing or a stretch-four. They both have good size though Jackson is a bit quicker while Vonleh is a bit taller and stronger.

The Celtics have the space to bring both guys on for this season, but I imagine Brad wants to keep a roster spot open to either fill up with a veteran free-agent straggler or to wait until the buyout market opens up later in the season. So, who is more likely to make the roster of the two?

At the moment, I would give the edge to Vonleh. I liked Jackson’s confidence on the court. He looked composed and seemed like he played within himself. That being said, it wasn’t a great shooting performance for him, and he hasn’t historically been a great scorer. He’s a career 32% shooter from 3 averaging just 6.5 points per game. He is a decent defender, but I do not think he makes enough of an impact on that end of the court to beat out Vonleh.

Vonleh led both teams in rebounds at 9 in just 13 minutes. He likely would have gotten more time, though he found himself in foul trouble throughout the game. On top of his rebounding, he went a perfect 3 for 3 from the field including an end of shot clock step back three to close out the first quarter.

He played the most minutes out of all the non-guaranteed players, even with his foul trouble, and I would say that’s a pretty good indication of how the coaches and front office feel about him. His defense is not ideal, but he can be a small offensive spark off the bench. He’s active on the glass and he showed he can make shots.

Now we’re only one game into the preseason so Jackson and the other guys still have some time to show us what they got, but as things currently stand, I would bet on Noah Vonleh taking up one of the final two roster spots.

Final Thoughts

Let me just reiterate that a lot of my takes which you just read may be jumping the gun and/or slightly exaggerated due to the fact that this was the first NBA basketball I got to watch since the Finals, and I am way too excited for the season to start. I’m getting caught up in it all, and again, we’ve only seen one preseason game so far.

These are still my honest thoughts and takeaways with what I saw, but a lot can change very quickly. Nonetheless, as this team is currently constructed anything less than making the Eastern Conference Finals would be a disappointment to me. There is a ton of talent throughout the East, but the Celtics only got better this offseason and I expect them to make the finals again.

They already proved they can make deep playoff runs year in and year out, but at this point that may not be enough. The road to the finals is never easy. Let’s hope that their disappointment with last year’s finals loss is enough to propel them over the hump and bring home Banner 18.

Header Photo: Bob DeChiara / USA TODAY Sports

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