Basketball is finally back. We’ve already gotten our first glimpse of preseason basketball, but today, we’re getting our first look at Celtics preseason basketball. While the rest of the basketball world is fawning over Lonzo Ball and the OKC “Big Three,” we get to over analyze every 3-pointer that Jayson Tatum makes or misses. While people are concerned about Chris Paul and James Harden fighting over possession of the ball, we get to compare Marcus Smart’s speed driving to the rim to determine whether or not the lost weight will actually translate to better production on the offensive end.
And that’s fine! I wouldn’t have it any other way. A long, seven-month grind (hopefully eight or nine months, actually) begins tonight with Boston’s preseason matchup against the Charlotte Hornets. Every single player on the roster has one question facing him that will more or less be answered by the time the final buzzer on the season sounds. Let’s take a look at each player:
Kyrie Irving: How well will he transition back to being a point guard?
I was extremely tempted to write, “why didn’t he double down on the flat earth talk?” Irving possessed the keys to his team’s (mediocre) offense prior to LeBron James’ comeback. After that return, although he spent much time on ball, Irving was relegated to being the second option and a shooting guard basically when sharing the floor with James. Despite this, Irving made an amazing off-ball guard, especially with his spot-up shooting. How well will he transition back into being the focal point of opposing defenses? Will he continue to be an off-ball threat? These questions (all part of that original question) will be interesting to tackle as the season progresses.
Marcus Smart: With less weight and added speed, can Smart finish at the rim?
I can live with the historically bad 3-point shooting. What frustrates me the most is the fact that since coming to the NBA, Marcus Smart has been unable to reliably and consistently finish against interior defenses. At Oklahoma State, Smart was a bully in the paint. Against better and more physical NBA defenses, Smart has had trouble so far finishing down low. In his contract year, now would be the time to prove that he can go back to punishing opposing defenses at the rim.
Gordon Hayward: How good is Hayward’s defense?
We’ve spent a lot of time analyzing how Hayward will fit in the offense and the types of looks he’ll receive. Hayward will really boost Boston’s offense with his versatility. With that being said, Boston lost some really great perimeter defenders. Hayward isn’t a slouch on that end, but with a really young team around him, he’ll have to step up on the defensive end to patch up that hole. His bigger muscles won’t hurt in this endeavor.
Jaylen Brown: Is he ready to start?
I’ve argued many times to start Marcus Smart over Jaylen Brown, but a lot of that comes down to the fact that Brown most likely won’t be ready at the start of this season. Often, we get caught up in who we want him to be (a stud on defense with an extremely high offensive ceiling) instead of who he is right now (a sophomore who shot 37% from the field in Summer League games). If he comes out strong, he could be a valuable 3-and-D piece in the starting lineup next to Kyrie Irving.
Al Horford: How great will he make Kyrie Irving?
Isaiah Thomas was really good. Then Al Horford signed with Boston. Isaiah Thomas thereafter became ridiculously and historically good en route to a Second Team All-NBA selection. That’s not a coincidence. Will the same happen with Irving?
Marcus Morris: How will he recover from missing so much time?
Before Media Day, the general consensus is that Marcus Morris was penciled in as the starting power forward. With him missing the entire week of training camp and some (if not all) of the preseason games, that’s not a sure thing anymore. It was his spot to lose, and he may have lost it by not being available. This will be an interesting storyline to track this season regardless of the verdict of his trial.
Aron Baynes: Can he plug up the paint?
Boston’s biggest weakness this season seems like it’ll be interior, well, anything. No 7-footers made the training camp roster, so this team is pretty small. As one of the bigger bodies, Baynes will be counted on to rebound, protect the rim, set hard screens, and roll to the basket hard for open looks.
Jayson Tatum: Can he defend enough to see the floor?
As a rookie, Tatum is going to need to earn his way onto the court. One way to impress Brad Stevens enough to do that is by playing defense. Much has been made of Tatum’s endless array of offensive moves and his excellent footwork, but the only way we’ll see enough of that end of the floor this year is if Tatum puts in work on the defensive end first.
Terry Rozier: Can he run an offense?
As of last season, no. Rozier is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, and he excels when he’s counted on to just shoot and rebound. If, over the summer, Rozier made significant strides in improving his pick-and-roll offense, decision making, and offensive awareness, Rozier could be handed the keys to the second unit offense.
Guerschon Yabusele: Can Yabu play small ball five?
As mentioned earlier, this Celtics team is small. The bigger bodies will really need to step up to make sure that bigger opponents don’t punk the team on the glass and in the paint. We know the Dancing Bear can shoot, but can he defend the interior? Can he rebound well? If the answer to those questions is yes, we could see Yabusele carving out some minutes at the five this year, especially if Morris continues to miss time.
Semi Ojeleye: What’s the circumference of Ojeleye’s biceps?
I’m asking for science. In all seriousness, Semi Ojeleye could be a sleeper for most impactful rookie due to his strong defensive presence. In Summer League games, Ojeleye stood out to me because of his ability to do . . . everything. Ojeleye did all of the little things that need to happen for an offense and a defense to function, especially since the team was operating without a point guard for a while. Need crisp passing? He’s got that. Strong picks? Absolutely. Combat muscles? Do you even need to ask?
Shane Larkin: On a scale from one to “Phil Pressey,” where does Larkin rank?
If he ranks closer to “Phil Pressey,” we could be in for a lot of Larkin this year.
Daniel Theis: How much of his defense will translate to the NBA?
As a winner of the German Defensive Player of the Year award, I’m expecting some big things on that end from Theis. As with Yabusele, Theis could potentially earn time as a backup center (assuming Baynes starts). If Theis plays bigger than his height by providing rim protection and interior defense, he could provide this team with a big boost.
Abdel Nader: Was his Summer League the normal for him?
I’m really not high on Nader. He looked too one-dimensional on the court this summer, which is weird because he didn’t look that way in his first Summer League. If he gets spot minutes on the wing this season, he’ll have to prove that there’s more to his offense than meets the eye.
15th Roster Spot: Who’s it gonna be?
My vote was for Boris Diaw; he signed in France. Tony Allen signed with New Orleans, and Andrew Bogut (very confusingly) signed with the L.A. Lakers. Even Thomas Robinson has moved on. Will Danny Ainge opt for a D-League standout? Will he wait for the buyout market to settle in the spring? Will he ever sign anyone? Only time will tell.
There are so many questions, and the first step to answering them all is tonight’s preseason matchup. What are you most excited to see?