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Celtics rookies summer study: Tacko Fall

Coach Spins sees a lot of Roy Hibbert in Tacko Fall’s game.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, the Boston Celtics made it through this year with six rookies seeing time.

The foundation is in place for a longstanding core in Beantown. If lessons from past NBA homegrown stars (i.e. Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors) teaches us anything, it’s that paying a balanced, talented core max money puts an onus on cheap, young role players to excel in their lane. Money can’t buy everything, so if it buys stars, the depth has to be manufactured somewhere.

That’s where player development comes in. The Celtics have so many young players to develop and are hoping that at least a few will stick. Heading into the offseason during one of the most tumultuous endings to a year, these players’ development cannot be lost in the shuffle. They’re professionals now; it’s their job to get better and the team’s job to help them.

Seeking improvement requires an honest look in the mirror, recognition of one’s own strengths and a plan to improve their weaknesses. For that reason, we’ll stay away from sharpening the already-existent strengths of these young players and focus more on rounding out their game to the point where they can be a consistent and trustworthy contributor.

A large part of this series will also focus on finding comparisons that our current Celtics are physically overlapping with. Last week, I looked at Carsen Edwards modeling his game after Ty Lawson.

For Tacko Fall, that’s an almost impossible task.

What he falls (pun intended) victim to is the inability for referees to know how to adjudicate the whistle. He is so dang large that there’s an inherent advantage he gains over opponents. Any contact he dishes out is exacerbated since it’s more noticeable. Verticality is also a different concept since he doesn’t have to jump to contest shots. How he fares as a grounded secondary defender, but someone who doesn’t have to move, is a doozy for officiating crews.

There’s little doubt with how Fall will be deployed if he’s to be a successful role player: he’ll drop near the rim on defense and guard the paint while being mostly catch-and-finish on offense.

In my estimation, no seven-footer maximized their inherent and physical abilities in those two areas more than Roy Hibbert. The former Indiana Pacers center was the master of verticality, and imposed his will in two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals on a Miami Heat squad that played without a de facto center. Hibbert learned to jump straight up, control the movements of his extremities, and became a reliable defensive anchor.

Fall has a similar set of physical constraints, but his problem is more about his form in contesting shots. Routinely, Tacko will reach to block a shot with one hand, therefore twisting his torso. The offensive player will ram into the twisting Tacko, and be thrown to the ground like a slain cartoon character. Those are shooting fouls that the 7’5 Fall shouldn’t be picking up:

In relatively small samples, this became a problem for Tacko. Players will aggressively hunt contact against him, knowing a sympathy whistle can bail them out.

The rule of verticality is a popular term in the modern NBA, but it wasn’t thrown around with such esteem before Hibbert came along. As he sought a way to guard the smaller, quicker players on the Heat, he began to apply the concept to how he protected the hoop. As the official NBA rulebook puts it:

“A player is entitled to a vertical position even to the extent of holding his arms above his shoulders, as in post play or when double-teaming in pressing tactics.”

This has been broadly applied to help defenders and not just primary defenders, in situations where the offensive player is initiating contact. The charge call exists to prevent offensive players from simply initiating contact and getting a foul. While charges are often over-called and dangerous, they tend to reward smaller guys who are quick enough to anticipate, rotate, and embellish contact outside of the charge circle.

Big men are officiated differently and aren’t afforded the same consideration when inviting contact. Hibbert needed to develop an arsenal through which to fight back without picking up a foul, scrambling to get outside the charge circle or acting like a matador to allow layups and dunks. So, he mastered the technique of jumping straight up–jumping in Point A and landing in Point A–with his arms straight up to get as big as possible.

Hibbert would become the premier late-leaper, sticking his arms in the air and letting attacking guards come crashing into him like waves against a breakwater:

That’s a lot of contact for Tacko, most of which won’t be absorbed in his chest but more in his stomach region. When that happens, it’s important for him not to bend his core, which will make his arms go down. Any contact when that happens will likely lead to a whistle.

That would happen to Hibbert, where he’d be a step late and take the hit so low that his arms would bow over:

The key from Hibbert is how high he tries to jump straight up, almost like a volleyball net player. His job isn’t to reach out and block the shot, but to square the driver to his chest, jump as the driver starts his move, and make him adjust to shoot over the top of his length.

Hibbert’s leaps were perfect. Straight up with arms extended, and he let contact find him. That’s evidenced by how many times he would fall backwards:

Core strength is essential for obvious reasons. Tacko may not be able to throw his body around the way Hibbert can, but an emphasis on leaping straight up with both hands builds a mountain nearly impossible to score over.

Too frequently we think about rim protectors and shot blockers being one in the same. But swatting the ball into the front row doesn’t always lead to defending the tin. Players who leave their feet to block shots are susceptible to pump fakes and leave the rim unprotected to savvy drivers.

The important distinction is to know that you don’t have to block shots in order to change them. Sometimes, when you’re over seven feet tall, all you need to do is stand outside the charge circle, make yourself look massive and hold your ground:

This is a key concept for Tacko. If someone adjusts and tries to dodge him mid-air, Tacko’s already won the battle. There’s no need to bail the offense out by jumping or changing course to tally a swat. You could see that he was unable to help himself a bit last year, lunged at shot fakes, and like Ron Burgundy, immediately regretted his decision:

Young fella got caught by the wise DeMar DeRozan. Hopefully plays like that early in his career help teach an important lesson for how he can use angles and size to frustrate opponents, even if he doesn’t block a shot (cc: Robert Williams). To borrow a metaphor I’ve heard tossed around with massive hoopers, Tacko needs to treat himself like a palm tree. The basket is the sun. His job is to just make sure anyone who drives near him is in the shade.

We’re only one abruptly-ending year into the experiment to see what Tacko provides of value, other than buzz and excitement. He’s a larger than life persona. The trick will be using his size to more of an advantage on the court. Hopefully, he’s more like a palm tree than a whack-a-mole.

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