The Boston Celtics most popular player, arguably the most popular player in the entire NBA, has played a grand total of 24 minutes over the course of six NBA games. That lack of playing time hasn’t kept Tacko Fall from being a breakout star during the course of his rookie season. The 24-year-old, 7-foot-5 center from Senegal has been a fan favorite from the moment he stepped on the floor for his first NBA Summer League game.
As chants of “We want Tacko!” rained down from gyms in Las Vegas to NBA arenas, the Celtics were determined to prove Fall was more than a sideshow. Brad Stevens spoke on a somewhat regular basis that it was important that fans not turn Fall into a circus act. For his part, the rookie center seemed to take everything in stride, albeit a really long stride.
Fall has spent the vast majority of his rookie season playing for the Celtics NBA G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws. In 29 games (11 starts), Fall has played well for Maine. He averaged 12.9 points per game on just over 70% shooting. He also pulled down 11.3 rebounds and blocked 3.1 shots per game. Just as important as any of the stats, Fall was able to log 23.3 minutes per game.
Most of those marks were improvements for Fall over his time at the University of Central Florida. While at UCF, Fall was solid, but unspectacular. Nothing in his college profile, outside of his immense size, made you think he would be an NBA player. History is littered with players well-north of 7-feet tall that never made it in the NBA, and Fall seemed like another one.
When Boston added Fall to their Summer League roster, it was strictly an upside play. Over their time together preparing for and playing Summer League, the Celtics realized Fall had upside and then some.
Fall’s ever-present smile endeared him to fans. Sure, there was a sideshow quality because he makes even towering NBA players look average-sized. But as Summer League progressed, Fall showed he could play a little too. He’s a long-term project, but one worth investing in.
What Fall’s time in Maine taught us is that he’s teachable and learns quickly. At 7-foot-5, but “only” 300 pounds, Fall is fairly slight. In college, teams used to that their advantage. On offense, no one could match his height, so opponents focused on pushing Fall off the block. On defense, it was all about blocking him out in the rebounding action. NCAA officials don’t allow the physicality their NBA counterparts do. Fall spent a decent chunk of most games in foul trouble because of this.
In addition, Fall’s conditioning just wasn’t where it needed to be. That was part of his limited run in Summer League. But he worked at that. One source with the Celtics/Red Claws told CelticsBlog: “Tacko has improved in a lot of ways, but the most was with his body and his conditioning. We kind of had to teach him how to run properly. And he’s lifting weights now and adding strength. We have to be careful, because his size calls for a different approach, but we’re figuring that out. As much as he’s improved his game, his conditioning has been his biggest improvement of all.”
Getting Fall’s wind up, and seeing just what he could do on the court, was a big part of the reason Fall spent the majority of the year in Maine vs Boston. His ability to log over 23 minutes a contest against professionals was a huge part of his development.
So, what’s next for the big man? Unfortunately for Fall and a few others, the Celtics are facing a major roster crunch heading into next season. Boston likely only has one or two open roster spots. Fall will be in a mix of five to six players competing for those spots.
The Case for a Roster Spot
· Offense: Fall has grown greatly in his one year as a professional. The improvement in his body has allowed him to bang with professional players and succeed. He’s been able to maintain a high shooting percentage, despite his looks being far more difficult in the NBA vs NCAA. Early in the season, even in garbage time, he’d get muscled a bit and pushed off his shot.
As he got stronger, Fall was able to make with this kind of shot in the NBAGL with regularity. Here he is doing it in the NBA:
He goes up and over LaMarcus Aldridge with a six-foot jump hook. That’s an NBA shot.
· Defense: Let’s start with the fact that he’s 7-foot-5. That comes with some inherent advantages. Fall can be a dominant shot-blocker. As he shows here using his extreme verticality against a driving Sekou Doumbouya:
And this block on Miles Bridges is just absurd:
But where Fall had to really step up is on the glass. In college, Fall was got pushed around a lot and opponents were able to get rebounding position far too easily. With Maine, Fall showed he could bang and get position himself. His 11.3 rebounds per game is inflated a bit by 3.6 offensive boards per game, but take another look. He did that in just 23 minutes a contest. His ability to hang on the glass now is huge for him, no pun intended.
· Intangibles: NBA teams are their own little ecosystems. No one has room for a player on the roster that no one likes. Fortunately for Fall, he’s beloved by everyone. He may be the most easygoing player in the NBA. He takes everything in and legitimately seems to enjoy all of it. Fall also understands his place on the roster. He’s at the end of the bench for now because he’s a project. Eventually that might change, but only if he continues to put work like he has since he got to the NBA.
· The Contract: Fall is in a unique spot because he’s coming off a Two-Way deal. That means he’s eligible for restricted free agency. All Boston has to do to keep match rights for Fall is to give him a qualifying offer. That qualifying offer only has to be for another Two-Way contract. Given his potential, that’s a virtual lock.
The Case against a Roster Spot
· Offense: Does Fall really fit Brad Stevens’ offensive system? The bigs who have performed best under Stevens have the ability to play on the perimeter. They can screen and roll, pick and pop, pass the ball or shoot off spot-ups. Fall hasn’t shown the ability to do much of any of that, minus some work as a roll-man. Most of his offense comes out of straight post-ups. Outside of Enes Kanter, Boston doesn’t run much out of the traditional post-up. And that’s had very mixed success.
· Defense: It’s good Fall can hold his own on the backboards now, otherwise he’d be out of the mix entirely. Stevens and Danny Ainge haven’t had much use for big men who can’t rebound. Fall’s challenge comes in with defending pick and roll. The Celtics love to aggressively ice (force to the sideline) against screen and rolls. This requires the screener’s defender to be quick enough to keep the ballhandler from turning the corner. Boston also switches more than most teams do. They trust active, quick big man defenders like Daniel Theis to hold their own against ballhandlers.
Fall has shown little ability to do either. He doesn’t have the quickness to execute the ice scheme, nor to switch. His size helps him make up for that, but only to a point. NBA teams will make it part of their attack to isolate him after a switch and attack him of the bounce. That means Boston has to change their coverages to a drop style of defense against pick and roll. The Celtics have done this regularly with Enes Kanter, who has the same deficiencies as a defender as Fall, with mixed success. It also becomes a tough ask of the other four players to execute multiple schemes within games.
· Intangibles: Eventually, fans will tire of chanting “We want Tacko!” and will want someone more useful in the lineup. Teammates also love nice guys who work hard, but they like guys who help them win even more. It’s a long way away from any of this mattering with Fall, but it’s something to keep in mind.
· The Contract: While Boston will likely have match rights on any offer sheet Fall could sign with another team, that does come with a couple of challenges. First, if all the Celtics are offering is a minimum deal or another Two-Way contract, Fall could prefer to go elsewhere for a bigger offer. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be in the NBA. Because Fall is a citizen of Senegal, he wouldn’t count against the limits many European leagues have on how many US-born players a team can have. He’d also be a draw for those teams for the increase in ticket sales.
It’s very easy to see Fall getting an offer from an NBA team too. He has size you can’t teach and showed great improvement during his rookie season. A team could gamble on that being worth a few million dollars over each of the next few seasons. Given their tax concerns, that becomes a challenge for the Celtics to match.
Tacko Fall has earned a chance to be back with Boston. The best course of action is to issue the Two-Way qualifying offer. Fall has improved a lot, but still has a long way to go before he’s ready to be a regular rotation player in the NBA. Another season on a Two-Way contract is what’s best for the Celtics, and probably for Fall. That gives Boston plenty of options to bring him up and down as necessary, while he continues his development in a less-stressful environment.
If pushed, the Celtics could offer Fall a standard contract. It would likely be for the minimum for two-to-three years with non-guaranteed years following a guaranteed year. Boston would still be allowed to assign Fall to Maine, but it would eat up one of their standard roster spots.
No matter what, Tacko Fall should be back with the Boston Celtics next season, barring a team throwing a larger than expected offer at him. Ideally, it would be on a Two-Way contract, but a standard deal for the minimum wouldn’t be the end of the world.