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CelticsBlog exit interview: Luke Kornet spaced the floor and provided versatile defense

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The five-year man out of Vanderbilt is a solid reserve. However, a loaded frontcourt in Boston means Kornet’s tenure with the green could already be over.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Short-lived is the first word that comes to mind when evaluating Luke Kornet’s 2020-21 stint with the Boston Celtics. He logged just 18 regular season games (two more in the postseason) after joining the team as part of the trade package that sent Daniel Theis to the Chicago Bulls. And considering he averaged just 14.1 minutes when he did suit up, Kornet never had an opportunity to showcase the full extent of his capabilities as a basketball player.

Kornet’s per-game splits in green were unspectacular. He put up 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game on 47.3% shooting from the field and 25% on threes. But with a sample size as limited as his, it’s difficult to take those numbers at face value.

Instead, let’s rewind to Kornet’s defining performances as a Celtic to gauge precisely how he impacted winning. First, his debut. On March 27th versus the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kornet finished with a stat line of eight points and five rebounds in 13 minutes to propel the C’s to a 111-94 victory.

At the start of the fourth quarter, Boston found themselves down four points against the worst team in the league. But the Celtics proceeded to bookend the game on a 35-14 run, sealing an important win that kept the team afloat at the .500 mark, 23-23. Without Kornet’s ability to space the floor, the Celtics may not have emerged victorious.

Back-to-back threes from Kornet near the ten-minute mark of the fourth gave Boston a six-point edge. The first secured Boston their first lead of the night, and the second had most of the Celtics bench up on their feet in adulation. These two shots turned out to be the most decisive of the game, as they swung the momentum in Boston’s favor once and for all.

The pair of game-deciding treys highlight Kornet’s unwavering confidence as a long-range shooter and knack for generating looks in the two-man game. Though he shot just 25% on threes, he attempted 6.9 per 36 minutes, and they accounted for 49% of all his field goal attempts (86th percentile per Cleaning the Glass). Some might look at his tendency to let it fly as a red flag, but Kornet rarely took “bad” shots, a notion backed up by NBA.com; a startling 41.3% of Kornet’s threes as a Celtic were classified as wide-open (6+ feet away from the nearest defender).

Kornet is an intuitive cutter and, as such, was a steady beneficiary in pick-and-pop actions. He understands when is the right moment to pop out behind the line (when the opposing big drops back in drop coverage), a skill that far from all players possess. Additionally, the lion’s share of NBA centers are unaccustomed to contesting three-pointers. Kornet forced behemoths away from the basket and on the perimeter, which put them out of their comfort zone and occasionally opened up driving lanes for the guards and wings.

Don’t let Kornet’s three-point percentage dilute your judgment: he’s an above-average long-range threat for a big. During his first two seasons with the New York Knicks — when he saw the most run time as a pro — he averaged 4.1 attempted threes and nailed 36.1% of them. In an entire 82-game campaign, Kornet’s clip could fall within this range. As a seven-foot floor-spacer who shoots the three at a high volume and is a lethal pick-and-pop threat, Kornet offers a skill set unparalleled by members of the Boston frontcourt not named Al Horford.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Despite what he brings to the table on offense, it was on the other end of the court where Kornet truly made his hay. With shooting woes affecting him all season long, his consistency as a rim protector and pick-and-roll stifler kept him on the floor, albeit sporadically. Shortly after acquiring Kornet, Brad Stevens said that he and the Celtics had a long-standing interest in him because of his defense. “He’s always in good position. He’s long, he effects shots; he’s a guy we’ve always had an interest in because of those two things.”

Not by coincidence, Kornet’s rim-protecting and pick-and-roll defense chops shined the brightest when the Celtics allowed him to start back on May 15th against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was the second to last game of the season, and Boston had nothing to play for, but the Wolves’ top talents suited up nonetheless. Kornet accumulated the most minutes of his Celtics tenure at 31 and totaled 12 points, six rebounds, and four blocked shots.

The clip above is an example of a pick-and-roll defensive masterclass. Kornet switches onto D’Angelo Russell following a ball-screen and slides his feet instead of backpedaling, keeping Russell in front and stymieing any dribble-drive opportunities. Russell then forces up a contested mid-range jumper which Kornet effortlessly denies, a storybook ending to a beautiful possession.

Whether he was jostling with diminutive guards on the perimeter or battling with giants down low, Kornet had a knack for swatting away shot attempts. His block percentage of 5.1% ranked in the 99th percentile among bigs and tops on the Celtics roster (Robert Williams was the runner-up at 4.7%). Additionally, opponents’ effective field goal percentage dropped 3.1% when Kornet was on the court versus when he was off, and their mark at the rim dropped 3.3% (82nd percentile). Kornet’s enormous stature, acute timing, and excellent positioning and IQ all contributed to him being an upper-echelon swatter. All in all, Kornet was one of few brights spots on defense for Boston in what was a down year overall.

The Celtics’ current roster boasts numerous players who project to operate at the center spot next season: Robert Williams, Tristan Thompson, and the newly acquired Al Horford and Moses Brown. There are simply not enough minutes to go around to five bigs in a sport trending towards small ball. Sure, Thompson may be on the move soon. But even if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine Kornet would get minutes with Horford, Williams, and Brown still in the fray.

Kornet is an NBA-caliber big — this much is clear. But he would be better off elsewhere playing for a team in need of a center to round out their rotation. Unless the Celtics make an unforeseen roster shake-up in the coming months, Kornet won’t have a real shot at consistent minutes.