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Roles coming into focus as Celtics head into second week of training camp

Player combinations and rotation patterns are coming into focus in training camp.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Training camp can often take the shape of an inverted triangle. In journalism, that means presenting a lede with the most newsworthy info followed by the body of important information concluded with background info and context.

Getting an NBA team ready for an 82-game regular season is no different. Coaching staffs first present broad ideas to the team. For head coach Ime Udoka, that was playing with pace, sharing the ball, and utilizing the roster’s versatility. After the first week of training camp, teams start paring down the rotation and figuring out player combinations that work. That’s where we’re at today.

After Wednesday’s practice, Udoka said that the coaching staff is “comfortable with 10 to 12 of their guys” as part of the eventual rotation, but that “9-10 is a more manageable number” by the time the start of the regular season kicks off on October 20th. Over the next two weeks, he’ll continue to trim it down until the tip of the triangle is as sharp as possible. Already, we’re already getting a sense of what’s working.

Al Horford and Dennis Schroder

It’s hard to deny there’s a connection between the two. There’s their shared history of course. The last time Scroder and Horford played together, the two former Hawks were eliminating the Celtics in the second round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs. Five years later, when the idea of Schroder coming to Boston became a possibility, Horford was a key recruiter of his former teammate.

“We’ve done it for a few years. Our chemistry is still there, I believe,” Schroder said after practice on Wednesday. “In training camp, we’ve had a chance to talk about a few things (like) where he likes the ball when he wants to score off the pick-and-roll. We’ve been working on it and getting better at it each day.”

Udoka has consistently said that Monday’s preseason starting lineup (with Juancho Hernangomez at the 4, presumably instead of Horford) doesn’t necessarily mean anything moving forward. There are still three preseason games on the schedule and Udoka says that Horford will start in some of them. However, it’s hard to ignore the Horford-Schroder chemistry that could be a potent punch off the bench. Against Orlando, Horford and Schroder played nearly exclusively together with Marcus Smart and Robert Williams pairing together as starters.

Of all the point guards on the roster, Schroder’s game generates the deepest penetration off the dribble. He averaged more drives than any Celtic last season including starting point guard Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. With Horford’s spacing the floor as a stretch 5, that should give Schroder plenty of space to poke holes in the defense. That could be an important dynamic if the bench is going to be made up largely of shooters.

(cue segue)

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith

After starring together in Summer League, the 2020 draft class again played a bulk of their minutes together against the Magic including a stirring comeback. As aforementioned, what they bring to the table is their shooting. In that fourth quarter, they were 4-for-6 combined with minutes that included Pritchard as the primary ball handler and Nesmith at shooting guard.

Through their play last season and their continued development over the summer, they’ve both positioned themselves as rotational pieces this year. It’s just a matter how much they play. If veterans Schroder and Richardson are part of the second unit and either Horford or another vet big like Hernangomez or Enes Kanter is too, that leaves room for one or two perimeter players.

If Udoka tipped his hand at all after Wednesday’s practice, he did say, “knowing what Al (Horford) brings, it’s more so seeing the young guys with those groups.” “Young guys” also includes Grant Williams and Romeo Langford, but they seem like wild cards and x-factors if everybody’s healthy. That comment seems directed at Pritchard and Nesmith. As aforementioned, if the bench is going to rely heavily on the Schroder-Horford pick-and-pop dynamic, they’ll need to be surrounded by shooters. Last year, Pritchard hit a ridiculous 46.7% from 3 on catch-and-shoots. Nesmith wasn’t far behind at 39.8%.

Josh Richardson

Richardson said it himself. “I’m a gap filler.”

After Brad Stevens, well, filled the remainder of the TPE gap with Richardson’s contract, he signed JRich to a one-year extension. It’s a vote of confidence from the front office that he can rekindle a role that he flourished in with the Heat. In Miami, Richardson was part of team culture where everybody did a bit of everything. Over the last two seasons in Philadelphia and Dallas, he was cast more as a supporting actor rather than part of an ensemble.

The Celtics have two young All-Stars, but they’re not the vortex suck that a Luka Doncic or Joel Embiid are. Richardson will have more of a collaborative role next to Tatum and Brown. Against the Magic, when either Brown or Tatum went to the bench, it was Richardson filling in at either forward position.

He had a poor game statistically (1-for-8 from the field). Disregard the box score. What’s important here is how Udoka is utilizing him as a “gap filler.” Brown and Tatum will play plenty together, but when either one is on the bench, expect Richardson to fill in.