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The replacements: Celtics rookies look to fill veteran roles

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Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards shine in Summer League play.

Boston Celtics Hold Introductory Press Conference For Draft Picks Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Celtics lost five key contributors from last year’s roster: Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Aron Baynes. In their place, Brad Stevens will try to cobble together another 8-10 man rotation with the additions of free agents Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter, rookies Carsen Edwards, Grant Williams, and Romeo Langford, and returning players like Robert Williams III, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye.

First, let’s set aside the Kyrie vs. Kemba debate. Irving is taller and younger and has the more extensive playoff resume. Walker is more the self-made All Star who grinded out eight seasons with the Hornets to get to this max contract opportunity with the Celtics. Both are outstanding scoring point guards. It’s hard to predict how their games and more so, their personalities did and will affect the chemistry of the team. It’s a conversation deserving of a separate article on its own for sure, but for now, let’s shelve it.

The biggest departure outside of Irving is Horford. There just isn’t a big man that can be the quarterback on offense and middle linebacker on defense like him. Kanter could approximate Horford’s point totals. Because of his defensive liabilities, Kanter rarely tops off at 25 minutes per game, but still produces. Over the last three seasons, he’s hovered around 14 points and 10 rebounds a game. That’s statistically better than Average Al did in three seasons in Boston.

Defensively, that’s where Horford will be missed the most. His ability to guard traditional bigs (like new teammate Joel Embiid), modern 5’s (like Giannis Antetokounmpo), or perimeter players off switches at age 33 was a staple to the Celtics’ stout defense. Stevens should be able to Frankenstein a matchup-based approach in the front court. There’s a big opportunity for Robert Williams to be the prototypical rim protector who can switch (and to a lesser extent, Daniel Theis). Against bigger centers, the bulkier Robert Poirier could be next year’s Baynes.

However, the best hope may be in the development of rookie Grant Williams. He shined in Boston’s first Summer League game as a stretch forward. He played three seasons for Tennessee and comes to Boston more polished than Romeo Langford who was drafted eight spots ahead of him. Here’s a snippet of CelticsBlog’s Max Carlin’s draft big board that had Williams at #4:

The best indicator of whether a prospect will be a good basketball player in the future is whether he was a good basketball player in the past. There are no more than three players in this class who have been better at basketball than Williams in the past. And Williams has achieved that level of goodness despite being a very young junior, still just 20 years old through late November.

I expect Williams to step in immediately as a versatile defensive wrecking ball, potent short roll playmaker, exceptional mid-range finisher, and pick-and-pop threat. It won’t be conventional stardom, and there are certainly outcomes where Williams is too vulnerable defending the perimeter and hesitant shooting the 3, but he should be incredibly valuable and irreplaceable complementary player on good teams for a long time.

As Max notes, Williams doesn’t have traditional power forward size, but he overcomes those deficiencies with strength and smarts. On offense, he’s built his game from the break to the baseline with bully ball toughness and a feathery mid-range game.

Grant didn’t have three-point range when he played in the SEC for Rick Barnes, but it’s clearly something he’s worked on since this summer in hopes of becoming a stretch big in the NBA.

His offensive game will develop over time, but his defensive IQ is already at a pro level. Like Horford, he won’t post gaudy numbers in steals and blocks, but he’ll hold the line as a smart team defender.

Williams is constantly thinking two or three steps ahead and reading off ball action. He’s a brick house tagging roll men and moves his feet well coming off of switches and DHO’s. Check out Max’s timeline for more highlights.

In 2018-2019, Morris and Rozier combined for 25 points per game on 42.1% shooting. It was often feast or famine for two players that found themselves in and out of the starting lineup. Together, they averaged nearly twenty field goal attempts between them and next season, several players could step into those shots. Gordon Hayward will certainly see an uptick in opportunity. Brown and Tatum will eat more, too. But there’s a hole in the second unit for a traditional sixth man to get buckets and be the focal point off the bench.

When asked about Friday’s earthquake scare in Las Vegas, Carsen Edwards said, “not to be dramatic, but I thought I was about to die” and thought about how he was going to survive. If Edwards lives like he plays, it’s a good bet he’d live through a natural disaster.

In his first Summer League experience, Edwards lead the team in scoring with 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting, including five from behind the arc in just over 20 minutes.

At 6’1, he’s a waterbug of a point guard that pairs his speed with strength to take contact and shed bigger defenders. He’s got a sweet stroke on his jumper and can deliver at the free throw line. In his junior season at Purdue, he earned All Big Ten honors averaging 24 points per game and 6.1 trips to the charity stripe.

During the broadcast, Director of Player Personnel Austin Ainge said that Edwards was built like a “fire hydrant” and suggested that the 21-year-old is the type of plug-and-play scorer that could immediately make an impact as a pro. Like Grant, he’s a three-year college player who comes in with an NBA-ready body and a good sense of how he can affect a game. Rozier would often struggle with a similar bench role. He’d waver between trying to make an imprint on the game on the defensive end to haphazardly chucking up shots reach some imaginary quota in his head. For now, Edwards doesn’t seem to have that problem. In the event of an earthquake, get buckets.

It’s been one game of Summer League play. Overreactions abound, but it’s at least a promising starting point. As temperatures continue to rise this summer, the hype will dissipate into measured hope.