After the dust of 2017 free agency settled, the Celtics brought in 25-year-old Daniel Theis on a two-year deal at the league minimum salary. For Boston fans, the consensus immediate reaction to the signing was, “Ummm, who?”
At the time, Theis may have been a secret intrigue within the private circles of general managers and talent evaluators, but he was completely off of the prospect radar for media members and bloggers. Almost nothing had been reported about the possibility of him receiving a guaranteed contract. Basketball Bundesliga, the top league in Germany, isn’t a hotbed of top international prospects. However, GMs that look closer at the German League can occasionally find a diamond in the rough, in the form of late bloomers and former NBA fringe players who have remodeled their games. PJ Tucker and Malcolm Delaney worked their way back to the league by excelling in Bundesliga. Dennis Schröder was drafted directly out of it in 2013.
All we had to make our quick evaluation were grainy YouTube highlight videos set to mid-2000s rap music and EuroBasket box scores. We knew that Theis came with a winning pedigree; his team had won of the past three league championships, where he had been a perennial All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
With fives seasons playing professionally under his belt, Theis was an atypical NBA rookie. He already appreciated the daily grind, which allowed him to channel his entire focus into adjusting to the NBA game.
A Polished Rookie With a Modern Game
Daniel Theis made the most of his 14.9 minutes per contest in his debut season. Whenever he checked in, the rookie played like a man with his hair on fire. Celtics fans take an affinity to those who inject positive energy into the lineup, and Theis’ nightly dedication to out-hustling his defender from end to end was palpable. He was a momentum-shifting presence, frequently using his athleticism to reject shots into the second row of the Garden crowd. If the team was in an emotional lull, Theis often served as the bench body who injected some energy.
The German’s neophyte offensive role can best be characterized as “all-around”. Theis wasn’t dominant at any particular area, but he was efficient enough at a variety of duties that it kept the opposing defenses from overplaying him. In today’s age of basketball, it may be more advantageous to fill out rosters with utility men rather than categorical specialists. Theis fits that bill.
From the first jump ball of the season, Theis proved that he possesses wonderful roll man instincts. Whether serving as the big man screener on a high pick-and-roll or in an off-ball action, he has an innate feel for spacing and maintaining passing lanes for ball-handling teammates. Watch here as he perfectly times this screen-and-roll as Kyrie Irving is turning the corner off the catch:
If you ask Tommy Heinsohn about Theis’ best offensive attribute, he would undoubtedly reference the German’s pair of hands. The rookie is comfortable as a finisher around the rim, and toggles freely between receiving lobs and drop offs based on how the retreating defender guards him. With the ball, Theis is decisive in traffic, and doesn’t get spooked by the presence of multiple bodies around him. To add, he also isn’t afraid to let it fly in one continuous motion off of the catch.
Theis’ range and floor-spacing make his potential ceiling even more intriguing. Dating back to his days playing in Europe, Theis has never been afraid to launch from distance. For the season, Theis went 8-for-15 (53.3 percent) on corner 3-pointers, while converting 10-of-43 (23.3 percent) on above-the-break 3’s, per NBA.com.
Defensively, he was strong enough to hold his ground in the post, but offered enough quickness to shuffle his feat along the perimeter, which is a key combination for big men in Brad Stevens’ switch-heavy scheme.
Theis finished in the 79th percentile defending pick-and-roll ball handlers, and the 84th percentile defending in isolation, per Synergy Sports. Those levels of efficiency are rare for a 6’10” big man, and suggest how Theis’ versatility would have been a major weapon in the matchup-dependent lineups that permeated the 2018 NBA playoffs. While the burly Aron Baynes did a proficient job switching out to guard in space, Theis’ quick feet would have provided even more defensive changeability against the likes of Giannis Antentkoumpo and LeBron James.
He possesses the beneficial lateral quickness to survive against quicker guards. Even when opposing dribblers are able to get a head of steam going downhill, Theis did a solid job of keeping them on his shoulder long enough to bait them into testing his deceptively quick leaping skills. He isn’t the bouncy pogo stick shot blocker that makes a lot of highlight reels, but Theis’ combination of reactionary-leaping and intelligent timing made him one of Boston’s better shot blockers.
Here he is working hard defensively to stay in front of two quicker guards in Victor Oladipo and Delon Wright:
Theis tore his meniscus after colliding knees with Pacers guard Cory Joseph in an early March contest. Theis began running on the Alter G last week, and recently said that he expects to be back running on the basketball court “within a few weeks”. He is currently in Germany continuing his rehabilitation, and says that if all goes well, he hopes to suit up for the National Team later this summer.
Theis’ $1.378 million second-year salary is non-guaranteed, but Boston is certain to pick up his option. He proved to be a quality contributor while getting his feet wet in Stevens’ system, and with the Celtics projecting to flirt near the luxury tax threshold, Boston will have to find utility with low-burden contracts like his. After next season, he’ll have a $1.8 million qualifying offer, but the open market should be far more fruitful if Theis has another productive season in Boston.
Today’s talent evaluators look for players with dynamic offensive tools, i.e. someone who is capable of shooting, driving, and playmaking. Having the triple-threat means that defenders can’t overplay you to a weakness. Most of Theis’ scoring production occurs immediately after the catch, namely from rim running drop off passes or spot up jumpers. He only attempted to dribble on one out of every three times he touched the ball this season, per NBA.com.
The next offensive step for Theis is to add a little variety to his offensive game. Can he attack a closeout with a one dribble pull up? If a second defender closes in on him, will he make the correct read to find the open teammate? Will he perfect one or two go-to post moves that can steal 4-6 points per night? With a little more fine tuning, he can become the kind of dangerous multi-threat that fit the idea of a modern role player.
Defensively, Theis could afford to become a tad sturdier defensively when absorbing contact. He surrendered an unattractive 1.146 points per possession in the post (per Synergy Sports), partly due to the fact that he averaged 6 fouls per 36 minutes on the floor. As an undersized center, Theis’ best bet to withstand some of the bruising 7-footers is to improve his upper body strength.
Theis’ on/off numbers skew toward the Celtics being slightly better with him off of the floor, but he still yielded a positive asset return in his first NBA season.
The possibility of Theis being slotted into the starting center position in October is not out of the question. Losing Baynes on the open market is a realistic possibility, and prior to Theis’ knee injury, the German was starting to cut into the Aussie’s minutes.
Just as it was in his first two seasons, Al Horford is sure to have his energy conserved by using him as a stretchy power forward at the beginning of games and halves. Horford, who is headed into his age-32 season, needs to prioritize long-term health to remain fresh for the playoffs, so finding a dependable center who can eat 5-7 minutes at the start of first and third quarters will be critical. His playoff success, highlighted by a newfound flashy corner pocket 3-pointer, may have ballooned his value out of Boston’s price point.
The Celtics would be smart to get some rookie-scale contracts in the frontcourt. Horford has only two years remaining on his deal, and Guerschon Yabusele’s cap hit continues to grow each year, pushing him closer to the negative asset category. Greg Monroe proved to be too slow-footed to compete in a modern playoff format, so conventional wisdom suggests that Boston should swap Monroe’s depth spot for a moldable and cheaper big man.
Identifying and grooming a potential multi-year starting center who can flourish within Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s championship timeline should be a priority. Until that cornerstone building block is developed, Theis presents an interesting bridge option. At 26-years-old, he’s entering the age-range where most players hit their his peak athleticism. Playing the energizer role with the starters, he would serve as a 5th scoring option, but one that cannot be left alone behind the arc and is an efficient enough rim runner to generate high-percentage baskets if the defense isn’t paying attention. Should Boston find that their limited cap space becomes tied up in Marcus Smart’s negotiations, then bringing in a veteran big man will become much harder. In that scenario, Theis would be the logical option to be relied upon for a 6 to 10 minute bump in nightly playing time.
Theis was playing his best basketball right before he was shut down. In 22 games during January and February, he had upped his playing time to 17.8 minutes per game, shot 58.6 percent from the field, including 43.3 percent from long-range, and posted a 4.7 net rating.
While he may have become somewhat of a forgotten name in the laundry list of season ending injuries, there is no doubt that he would have helped Boston in the playoffs. The positional variance on both ends of the floor would have been invaluable, and he should have plenty of opportunity to increase his minutes load next season.
If the Celtics lose Aron Baynes in free agency, would you trust Daniel Theis in the starting center role?
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All non-cited statistics are from Basketball-Reference or NBA.com. All non-cited salary information is from Spotrac and Real GM.
All statistics are accurate as of games heading into June 12, 2018.