LAS VEGAS — Ime Udoka keeps talking about the Celtics’ assist rate from last season. During press availability at NBA Summer League on Tuesday, the new head coach mentioned the ball movement emphasis he’s bringing to the Celtics this season, the same emphasis that made the 2014 Spurs team he coached on legendary.
At halftime the Celtics-Nuggets game, Udoka discussed Boston’s roster makeup, an Olympic gold medal run in Tokyo he returned from three days ago, and new additions to the team this offseason. He spent the game in the third row alongside Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens and former Boston president Danny Ainge.
“We got two elite scorers and I want to help them be playmakers,” Udoka said. “We got a ton of great shooters, so we want to play more team basketball. Obviously, have a defensive mindset, do a lot of different things, because we can go big-small, a lot of different ways there. In general, an exciting brand, just share the ball a little bit more. In general Jaylen and Jayson can take a huge step as far as that. Put the ball in Marcus’ hands a lot more, he’s kind of asked for that and I think he’ll be a great facilitator as well.”
The challenge, he added, is helping Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum get shots for others and themselves simultaneously by assuming creator mindsets. He wants to allow the Jays to do what they’re best at — since not every player can create the shots they do — while generating those same quality looks for teammates that they’re able to formulate for themselves off the dribble. Players like Aaron Nesmith, Robert Williams, and Grant Williams need shots created for them far more than Brown and Tatum do.
Nesmith had already poured six three-pointers and 19 points on the Nuggets by the time Udoka spoke in the tunnel. The C’s second-year wing and Payton Pritchard both found their grove in Boston’s second preseason game. They appear to be dangerous catch-and-shoot threats: Pritchard is expanding his range beyond the capabilities that made him one of the most efficient catch and shoot three-pointer shooters in the league last year. Nesmith looks stronger and more agile in the lane. He’s made a concerted offseason effort to hit tougher shots he couldn’t as a rookie.
Elsewhere, Udoka and Stevens agreed the team needed to get older and more experienced. Josh Richardson joined the back court, Al Horford and Enes Kanter returned to the front court, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Dennis Schroder will join Boston in an move Udoka couldn’t yet comment on. The latest Stevens acquisition fits Udoka’s other thematic overhaul of the roster — get a little older.
“We wanted to add some veterans to the mix,” Udoka said. “Bringing the right veterans in, whether leadership, vocal, solidifying our lineups, whether it’s bench or starters, I think adding the right mix of veterans. It helped getting Al back, a voice everybody respects. When you bring in a guy like Josh Richardson and some of the other guys we’re looking at bringing in, I think it was more so a veteran mix that will complement our young guys.”
Udoka praised the addition of Richardson, who he coached in Philadelphia two seasons ago, as a boost of versatility in the back court. He’s seen Richardson thrive on and off the ball, while bringing a defensive mindset. The shooting struggles he experienced — 33.5% from three in his last two stops — weren’t indicative of who Udoka thinks Richardson can be offensively.
“We’re going to get him back to that,” he said. “He’s a better shooter than he showed...Josh is another guy you can plug into a lot of areas, whether small, big or he can be a point guard. Defensively, he can guard all those positions.”
The coaching staff under Udoka will be hands-on. Will Hardy, Ben Sullivan, and Damon Stoudamire all come from winning situations, he pointed out. He’s already relied on his staff, with Joe Mazzulla leading the Summer League team in Vegas, to begin implementing his play calls and minor intricacies to his new system. Stevens pointed out during the hiring process that the Celtics’ new coach will be similar to him, with new areas of perspective.
Boston hopes that will involve forming bridges across the locker room, in what could be a complicated balancing-act of personalities and intentions across multiple contract years for various players on the roster. A look ahead to next offseason, where the Celtics appear to be eyeing with greater flexibility opened up, has to be suppressed in favor of improving now. Minutes need to be hashed out at various positions and possible spacing issues must be resolved, while the players on Boston’s Vegas league roster need to take a leap.
None of that appears as pressing as Udoka’s top goal as the Celtics’ 18th head coach. Getting through to Brown and Tatum.
“We spent a ton of time to kind of strengthen our bond, but just let him learn from the other coaches,” Udoka said of his time in Tokyo with Tatum. “I hit him with little gems here or there about things he can implement when he doesn’t have the ball, like he will in Boston, so trying to work on some of those things. The bench role was something different for him, but he accepted it...he did a great job.”