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Celtics Offseason Preview Series: The Two-Way Free Agents: Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters

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No player has played for the same franchise for three straight seasons on a Two-Way contract. Will Fall or Waters be the first?

NBA: Preseason-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Two-Way players have been a part of the NBA for four seasons. The Boston Celtics first two players signed to such a contract were Kadeem Allen and Jabari Bird in 2017-18. The next year saw P.J. Dozier and Walt Lemon Jr. for some of the year, before old friend R.J. Hunter came back to Boston to finish out the 2018-19 season.

The last two seasons Boston has filled their two Two-Way spots with Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters. Fall signed on after an impressive Summer League run in 2019, while Waters was selected in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft with a Two-Way contract in mind. With things uncertain heading into the 2020-21 season, and after a short offseason, both Fall and Waters re-upped for second years with the Celtics.

After Boston chose to shutter the Maine Red Claws (now the Maine Celtics) for last season, both Fall and Waters spent the entirety of their seasons with the Celtics. This gives both players, as well as Brad Stevens all the history they need to decide if an unprecedented third season as Two-Way players is in the cards.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Let’s start with the fan favorite in Fall. The 7’5’’ center has shown improvement while in the NBA. His second-year stats dropped a bit, but that’s because Fall occasionally played real minutes for the Celtics vs only playing in garbage time.

Let’s start with the offensive basics for Fall. He doesn’t have any sort of offensive game outside of the paint area. He took exactly one shot outside of the paint. Hilariously, Fall made that shot, missing out on three-pointer only by virtue of his enormous shoe size.

On the flip side, Fall has shown some ability to vary his offensive game. In his rookie season, Fall was limited to catch-and-dunk opportunities off passes or offensive rebounds. He’s shown some ability to use a jump-hook. He’s also become better as a roll-man. This play from the regular season finale sees Waters miss Fall on the roll, and Fall actually cleans up an offensive rebound. However, this might as well have been a pick-and-roll, where Fall caught the ball on the move and finished:

In a game a couple of weeks earlier against the Orlando Magic, Fall showed he’s got some skill to dribble himself into a decent shot too. Yes, this game is a blowout. But Fall is still going against a top-five pick in Mo Bamba here. This is a solid, patient move:

What should really get Celtics fans excited was Fall’s play in an early-season game against the Washington Wizards. Because Boston was down so many players due to injuries and illnesses, Fall played a career-high 19:10 in this game. He finished with four points, seven rebounds and four blocks. Most importantly, for the first time ever, Fall looked like an NBA player vs a sideshow act. Courtesy of Celtics highlight maven Tomasz Kordylewski, here’s a complete look at Fall’s big day against Washington:

While those highlights are all fun, and Fall has improved, 169 NBA minutes still don’t tell us much. Beyond the Washington game, the handful of times Fall has been given real minutes haven’t gone all that great. For example, Stevens threw him against Joel Embiid briefly and Embiid was able to body Fall to get right to the basket.

Fall’s one season with Maine told a somewhat similar story to his time in Boston. He’ll block shots, because he’s surprisingly agile for someone so incredibly large. He grabs his fair share of rebounds, but should be better for someone who is 7’5’’. Because he’s so skinny, it’s easy for opponents to root Fall out of his space. That shows up mostly on the glass. Offensively, everything remains a major work in progress, even if there are signs of improvement.

Where does that leave the team with Fall? He’s one of the most well-liked players in the locker room. Every Celtic player, coach and staffer loves him. Not just because of the fun associated with having him around either. Fall is an incredibly hard worker and he’s very coachable. In addition, he’s extremely intelligent and insightful.

His continued improvement, along with positive locker room presence, would seem to bode well for his opportunity to return to Boston. What works against him is that there is still a very long way to go before Fall can be a regular rotation player. He needs at least another year of development in the G League. The challenge there is that Fall will be 26 fairly early in the 2021-22 season. That’s starting to get up there in age for a developmental prospect.

The bet here is that the Celtics have seen enough to bring Fall back for one more run on a Two-Way contract, but only if they clear out some of the center logjam. If the team enters the season with Al Horford, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams, Grant Williams and Moses Brown on the roster as center options, it wouldn’t be smart to devote another spot to Fall. If one or more of those players is moved, expect Fall to be back.

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Tremont Waters is in a bit of a different situation than Fall. And not just because he’s a foot-and-half shorter. Waters also two years younger than Fall and came in with more expectations, due to his status a second-round pick. Waters has also seen more of a chance in the NBA than Fall, and we have more to go off of.

It’s that last part that is starting to work against Waters some. With Fall there remains some mystery about what he could become. With Waters, it feels like we’re getting towards finished product status. And that finished product doesn’t look as good as once hoped for.

To be fair, Waters improved in his second season. He shot 39.5% from behind the arc, which is an upgrade on his 34% shooting while at LSU and the 35.4% he shot with Maine in 2019-20. It’s a small sample size (only 38 three-point attempts), but it’s improvement nonetheless.

Another thing working against Waters is that we’ve seen him play some real minutes for the Celtics now. Where Fall has seen very little opportunity outside of garbage time, Waters has seen some meaningful minutes, including four career starts.

Three of those starts came in 2020-21, as Boston battled injuries and worked Kemba Walker back into the rotation slowly. Waters started games against the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston went 2-1 in those games, but Waters struggled to find his shot.

As a starter, Waters played 23.9 minutes per game. He shot just 29.2% overall and 18.2% from behind the arc in those games. He also struggled mightily on the defensive end, as opponents targeted him regularly.

Waters’ stats in his one full G League season were pretty good. He started in all 36 games he played and averaged 18 points (on 43/35/78 shooting splits), 7.3 assists, 1.9 steals in 33.8 minutes per game. Those stats are more in line with his NBA production in garbage time, adjusted for minutes of course. That’s starting to feel like the NBA equivalent of a 4A player in Major League Baseball. Too good for the minors, but not quite good enough for the big leagues.

In the season finale against the Knicks, Waters logged considerable time. He did alright with his minutes there. Once again from Tomasz Kordylewski, here’s Waters’ highlights:

Much like with Fall, Boston and Waters have decisions to make. The Celtics currently lack some point guard depth, following the Kemba Walker trade. Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard are the only lead ballhandlers left on the roster. On the one hand, that would seem like Waters has a shot. On the other hand, it’s likely Stevens will want to give Ime Udoka at least one veteran point guard option to call upon.

In addition, there is at least some chance the Celtics bring over 2020 draftee Yam Madar for this upcoming season. While Madar might not be willing to sign a Two-Way deal, his presence on the regular roster would limit the need to bring back Waters.

Waters can likely find more of an opportunity elsewhere, and Boston probably won’t stand in his way.

2019-20 Maine Red Claws Media Day Photo by Rich Obrey/NBAE via Getty Images

To date, no player has played three straight seasons on a Two-Way contract with the same franchise (which, incidentally is the max allowed). Tacko Fall has a chance to be the first. It’s highly unlikely Tremont Waters will do the same.