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The Theis is right

Versatile scoring coupled with exceptional decision making is making Theis invaluable.

Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Daniel Theis is the gift that keeps on giving, a human Swiss Army knife that continually alters his play style to benefit the team. Last season, it was those infamous Theis seals that cleared the lane for his teammates. This year, the fourth-year big is getting it done with a well balanced pick-and-roll/pop game.

Against the Chicago Bulls, Theis converted eight of his twelve field goal attempts, six of which were off PnR sets. The breakdown of Theis’s scoring is as follows;

  • Three buckets as the roll man
  • Two from mid-range pick-and-pop opportunities
  • Two baskets from the weakside post, just above the dunker spot
  • One 3 courtesy of a perimeter pick-and-pop play

Regardless of the position he’s asked to play, Theis has been the de facto screener in the Celtics high pick-and-roll offense for the majority of the season.

The Celtics have five primary options when running the high pick-and-roll in Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jeff Teague, and Jayson Tatum - with each one having their preference on how they distribute or attack once they come off the screen. It is here that Theis’ versatility becomes a critical factor in Boston’s success as a pick-and-roll based offense.

Walker didn’t participate in the Bulls game, but we have seen enough of him over the last few contests to know that he favors pulling-up off the screen or looking for a pocket pass to hit the roll man in motion.

However, with Smart, Brown, Teague, and Tatum all taking turns to run the offense against Chicago, we got to see how Theis alters his play to suit the ball handler.

We all know that Smart favors the fantastic; he loves to hit the roll man with a perfectly waited pass over the top for an easy alley-oop. Robert Williams has been the primary beneficiary of these Smart lobs. However, Theis is now starting to follow suit, adding some easy buckets to his tally while offering a modicum of vertical spacing as a result.

When Tatum is the ball handler, Theis has to adjust. Tatum’s scoring gravity commands a double team from most defenses, which allows Theis the opportunity to either pop-out beyond the three-point line or attack the short-roll in space.

In the above film clip, Theis orchestrates a dribble-handoff with Tatum on the wing. The first-time All-Star is automatic in this area of the court, so the Bulls rightfully double team him. Theis recognizes the space Tatum’s gravity has provided, and pops out to the strong-side elbow.

Tatum utilizes a hesitation dribble to open up a baseline drive before kicking the ball back out to Theis for the open mid-range jumper.

But what happens when Tatum drives middle? Theis needs to adjust his movements to offer an outlet should Tatum require one.

Again, Tatum collects from the dribble handoff, but this time, Theis re-screens for Tatum to attack middle. The former German league Defensive Player of the Year then rolls hard and ducks into a post-up. Daniel Gafford isn’t interested in guarding Theis, so he rotates towards the basket to provide rim protection from the Tatum drive.

Tatum recognizes the help defense and hits his teammate with the lob pass for an easy dunk. Two dribble handoffs, both ending with Tatum getting double-teamed and Theis finishing the play thanks to his intelligent decision making on the roll.

There have been reasonable amounts of discourse surrounding Jeff Teague’s reluctance to utilize the roll man following a screen. The veteran guard would instead attack the lane or kick-out to reset the offense.

A pick-and-pop doesn’t include a roll man, though, which means Teague’s reluctance doesn’t apply in that scenario. As such, Theis has opted to operate in the short-roll when running pick plays with the Celtics’ veteran ball-handler. Or, in more extreme circumstances, Theis will stay put, allow Teague to collapse the defense, and then reap the rewards for his patience.

The above clip shows Theis exercising that patience as he sets the screen for Teague before standing pat around the free throw line. Teague draws the defense and kicks out to the wide open Theis for a comfortable jumper.

In these clips, we have seen Theis adapt to three different players’ tendencies while attacking space in multiple different ways. The evolution of the Celtics big has been an essential factor in their sustained success throughout the last two or three years.

Yet, it’s these latest improvements in his timing and decision-making that project to elevate the Celtics offense to its most incredible heights of the Brad Stevens era. Boasting no less than five ball handlers who can score at all three levels and facilitate to differing degrees, Theis’ ability to create space off the pick will only grow in value.

Take a look at the shot chart below that shows all of Theis’ made baskets after setting a screen over the last ten games.

Daniel Theis made baskets after setting a screen
Daniel Theis made baskets after setting a screen

Theis is getting his work done across all three scoring levels, mixing his shot profile to suit whatever ball handler he’s screening for. There’s a value to the type of versatility on show from the 2016 German league MVP, a value that outweighs his current $5 million salary.

One thing is for certain: if the Celtics aim to continue their high pick-and-roll offense, then Theis’ contributions are going to be invaluable both for the remainder of the season and deep into the playoffs.

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