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Post practice report: Celtics finding their roles

The first day of training camp is all about finding the edge pieces of the puzzle.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The start of training camp is not unlike opening night on Broadway. There’s a buzz in the air. The audience waits in anticipation with bated breath. And finally, the curtain goes up. Media Day yesterday was the unofficial start of the preseason, but today’s first Celtics practice is really the first glimpse of what we can expect from the team this season.

The most curious of fans might scan the floor looking at practice jerseys and their color designation as hints to player combinations. Jabari Parker and Aaron Nesmith are in green. In the distance, that’s Enes Kanter wearing white. It’s all a guessing game until the Celtics’ first preseason game next Monday, but we might already have a clue who’s at least starting and who’s coming off the bench.

There are some givens. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are starting. While not set in stone, Marcus Smart looks to (finally) be the starting point guard as he enters his seventh season with a new four-year contract in hand. After the team’s first practice, Udoka said, “he’s a natural playmaker. He understands the personnel on this team. It’s something he’s going to embrace. It’s a huge opportunity for him to grow his game.”

“Smart is a hell of a player,” Tatum said. “As good as he is on the defensive end, his playmaking is right up there. Having the ball in his hands is always a good thing.”

And if money talks, Robert Williams was also extended this summer and could be the Celtics starting center going forward. With Williams’ injury history, the Celtics will look to build up his role and minutes slowly, but the new contract is certainly a vote of confidence from the franchise.

If that’s the Core Four, who’s the fifth name on the playbill?

As Udoka noted on Media Day, “we have a big team in general and it depends on who we start at the 4 spot for the most part.” In the past, that’s the power forward spot, but the league has shifted away from those traditional roles. Instead of a rugged post player that rebounds and roams the paint, the modern NBA has become more perimeter-oriented and spacing the floor is a must.

The obvious candidate is Al Horford. In an interview with Celtics.com’s Amanda Pflugrad and Marc D’Amico, Horford credited new assistant coach and shooting guru Ben Sullivan on helping him find his stroke from beyond the arc. That skilled paired with his ability to be make plays above the break has made Horford one of the best stretch bigs in the game over the last five years. At age 35, he probably won’t be as effective as he was in his first stint in Boston, but Udoka will lean on him to be a playmaker.

“He’s a big who can handle the ball, pass the ball, shoot it ... initiate offense ... ask him to be aggressive,” Udoka said after Tuesday’s first practice. “Some of the things I mentioned in Philadelphia was teams would put a big on Joel and a two guard on Horford and we didn’t take advantage of that.”

Naturally, Horford is on board. “At times, I’ll play at 5. At times, I’ll play at 4,” Horford said. “But at the end of the day, I’m just happy with the frontcourt that we have.”

If the Celtics go small, the other option is slotting the 6’10” Tatum at the 4, Brown at the 3, and filling in at shooting guard. Udoka has hinted at playing both Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson off the bench as some veteran punch in the second unit which could mean a young player moving into the starting five. CelticsBlog’s Coach Spinella suggested earlier that Payton Pritchard get that nod as Boston’s best catch-and-shoot shooter, but don’t be surprised if his 2020 NBA Draft classmate is flanking Tatum and Brown to start.

Last season, Aaron Nesmith had a rocky start — juxtaposed to Pritchard’s relatively immediate impact — but came on late in the year with his shooting (38.3 3FG% after the All-Star break) and a penchant to make hustle plays on both ends of the court.

“We had a conversation today, there are roles in basketball. Not everybody does the same things ... just understanding that and adjusting ... everything else will take care of itself,” Nesmith said. “Focus on my role ... making plays off the ball, being a hustler ... doing all the little things.”

As a potential starter, Nesmith’s job is relatively easy: make shots and defend. He’s worked on his handle and diversified his shot making this offseason, but if he’s going to support the starters — as Brad Stevens called it yesterday: “accentuate our best players” — his biggest contribution will be spacing the floor and doing all the blue collar work.

One of the prevalent themes coming out of Media Day was the versatility of the new roster and all the different ways it could be utilized. Alas, it’s only Day 1 and there may be more questions than answers right now, but for now, those are good problems to have.