For a moment, January looked like a month of opportunity for Tacko Fall. After Robert Williams’ positive COVID test sent himself and half of Boston’s bigs (Tristan Thompson and Grant Williams) into mandatory quarantine under the NBA’s health and safety protocol, the Celtics entered a Friday night tilt against the Wizards with just two active bigs, Daniel Theis and Fall. Brad Stevens had a decision to make: trot out some truly miniscule lineups when Theis left the court (Semi Ojeleye at center? Marcus Smart?), or ride with the gargantuan, unproven Fall.
Stevens opted for Fall, and the results surpassed reasonable expectations. Fall tallied 4 points, 8 rebounds (3 offensive) and three highlight-reel blocks, and the Celtics were a +13 in his 19 minutes of floor time (surpassed only by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown). This was a breakthrough for the second year center, who spent most of his rookie season either dominating the G-League or serving as a human victory cigar for the big league squad.
Brad Stevens said he planned to play Tacko Fall for four-minute stints, but stuck with him because: "I thought he was too good to take out on some occasions."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) January 9, 2021
Following the standout performance, it looked as though Fall was about to spend the following week serving as Boston’s primary backup center. It could have been a tremendous opportunity for a young player on a two-way contract looking to show that he belongs, but one that wasn’t meant to be. Additional contact tracing ended up costing the Celtics their next three games, and their return to play brought the rest of the big man rotation back to the floor. In the three games since that point, he’s only seen eight minutes of garbage time in the blowout victory over Orlando, suggesting his time in the rotation is over for now.
So where does this leave Tacko Fall in our current evaluation? It may not be a terribly exciting conclusion, but the answer appears to be “about the same.” The attributes that have made Fall such a compelling figure to fans are all still there, but the many pitfalls that could hold him back from meaningful NBA contribution seem to be as well.
Against Washington, the talk of the night were his three blocks on the evening. And yes, they were all very good plays. He’s simply massive, and the Wizards seemed ill-prepared to account for his size. Perhaps their game plan expected Stevens to go small with someone like Semi Ojeleye at the five, I don’t know, but he simply terrorized them at the rim all night. Here he is erasing Russell Westbrook.
By the nature of his build, however, Tacko Fall is always going to have some serious limitations as a defender at the NBA level. The all-important attribute is mobility in space — mobility in the pick-and-roll, mobility against switches, mobility out to the three-point line. Fall just doesn’t move quickly enough to really survive in any of those areas.
Puzzlingly, the Wizards just rarely seemed determined to exploit him. Despite rostering a pair of capable shooters at the center position — Thomas Bryant and Moritz Wagner — they didn’t try to force Fall out to the perimeter, handing the duo just one lone three-point attempt in the evening. Ish Smith didn’t make this layup, but look at how much space opens up with Fall forced out beyond the free throw line, after he visibly hesitates in space with both Bryant and Bradley Beal behind him.
We did see one new wrinkle: he ran the floor very well on the night, relative to his size. Here’s a chase-down block in transition (!) against Robin Lopez.
One thing we did not see in his brief cameo was offensive growth. Fall’s popular NBA comparison is Dallas’ Boban Marjanović, but it’s a flawed one based on little more than the two players’ outlier height. Marjanović derives most of his value on the offensive floor thanks to his extreme efficiency at the basket — a product of his elite skill level as a finisher. Where Fall is mostly finishing gift-wrapped open dunks, Marjanović has had more craft to his game. His bag of post moves allows you to funnel your offense through him in the post, whereas Fall can do very little on the block with a defender directly in front of him.
It’s notable that he doesn’t bring much value as a screener as well. Perhaps his center of gravity is simply too high, or that he doesn’t wield his 311-pound weight assertively enough. Whatever the reason, he doesn’t seem to create much space when he sets a screen. It makes him ill-fitted to serve as a jumbo-sized rim runner. As an example, one of his few good screens against Washington help spring him for one of his highlight plays. Watch him peel Isaac Bonga off of Jaylen Brown (though admittedly, he did move a bit here), forcing Robin Lopez to step up to contest a potential pull-up and free Fall up for the alley-oop.
Tacko Fall isn’t going to be a 30-minutes-per-game kind of player at the NBA level. Over the past couple of decades, it’s just unprecedented for a player his size who isn’t named Yao Ming (and Ming’s size also contributed greatly to the injury issues that ultimately ended his career relatively early). That’s even before considering the high level of play shown by Robert Williams this season, who looks likely to lock down the “center of the future” role for the Celtics going forward.
Rather, NBA success for Fall looks more like what Marjanović has accomplished — not in terms of play style, but instead of carving out a useful niche against certain matchups for 10-15 minutes per night. For Fall, that niche most likely comes on the defensive end. If he can become more nimble and decisive in space (the latter is more likely than the former), he has the ability to alter a game for short stretches of time around the rim. Any value he provides offensively is found money most likely, but developing one or two go-to moves beyond catching lobs and dunking would go a long way.
Or perhaps he simply becomes a knock-down jump shooter. I mean, we can dream, right?