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Luke Kornet growing comfortable in larger Celtics role

The Celtics big man plays into exactly where Boston wants to force opponents to shoot from.

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Luke Kornet’s game reflects his personality, substance over style. He rarely looks to shoot. His hair flows over his forehead, the opposite of Gordon Hayward’s fade.

Kornet jumps to contest perimeter jump shots across the court, because he heard it works as a deterrent. Even if it earned him an early season appearance on Shaqtin’ a Fool.

He’ll sport a short stubble and muse about candy corn on the jumbotron, and Kornet kept contesting shots at the rim even if it placed him on multiple posters to start the season.

“He’s not about flash, as you can tell with his big old black shoes and white socks,” Nicole Kornet, his sister, told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog last year. “His fashion sense, I was always the one who was like, ‘Luke, come on. You’ve got to pick it up here,’ but he doesn’t care. He’s so minimalistic.”

Look up and that subtle presence made a major impact on the Celtics’ rotations in Robert Williams III’s absence. He averaged 13.3 minutes through his first 12 games. The Celtics posted a 104.8 defensive rating when he played, the second best among the team’s rotation players, while Kornet helped craft the opponent shot distribution Joe Mazzulla desired by playing in a deep drop and deterring drivers. He’s blocked 1.4 shots per game in November.

The Celtics acquired Kornet from Chicago, seemingly as a throw-in next to Moe Wagner at the 2021 trade deadline for Daniel Theis. Brad Stevens lamented losing Theis, his starting center from the 2020 east finals run, but acknowledged Boston eyed the reserve big man for some time. Kornet joined the Celtics in Milwaukee by driving the 100 miles in his Toyota Camry.

“We’ve been really intrigued by Luke for a long time because of his pick-and-roll defense,” Stevens said then. “He’s always in good position, he’s long, he affects shots at the rim.”

Kornet didn’t play often to close that season despite hitting a pair of threes to spark a comeback win over the Thunder. The Celtics didn’t have room for him on the active roster that summer, so the player who became the first two-way signing in NBA history with the Knicks returned to the G-League with Maine on an Exhibit 10 deal.

He never imagined he’d spend less time in Portland last winter and more bouncing between Milwaukee and Cleveland on emergency contracts due to the league’s COVID surge. Kornet’s first NBA action last season came against the Celtics with the Cavaliers in Boston.

“That was pretty crazy,” Kornet told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at the NBA Finals. “I was likely to get signed by Boston if guys went positive with COVID, but they ended up not. And so then, I ended up signing with Cleveland before, so that was kind of a weird time period where I was thinking I might be in Boston in a minute, and then all of a sudden I was in Cleveland playing against Boston.

When he finally returned to Maine, he played alongside Sam Hauser on Jarell Christian’s squad that wanted to run, pass and shoot more than any team in the G-League. Kornet adjusted his game to play end-to-end, execute dribble handoffs and nail off-ball screens.

That began the transformation of his offensive game away from pick-and-pop, and when roster spots opened up after the trade deadline, Boston signed Kornet and Hauser full-time. Four months later, he and many of his Maine teammates sat court side at the NBA Finals.

“I feel like playing for the Maine Celtics, it’s sort of like you’re in the organization the whole time,” Kornet said in June. “You see guys come up from the front office, we’d practice down there occasionally, you always felt like you were in-house with the team, once the deadline happened I was definitely hoping for that option (to sign) to come up, and it ended up coming up.”

He had developed a two-man game with Hauser and averaged 4.7 assists per game in 11 games with Maine. The once exclusive jump shooter now looks more like a facilitator from the high post, averaging 3.2 assists per 36 minutes for Boston.

Kornet’s defense still stands out too. Kornet isn’t Williams III, rejecting and altering shots left and right inside. He positions himself to seal off driving and rolling lanes, uses his length to recover well and can record blocks. If not, he’ll leap to block the view of the rim.

“We love it. It’s Luke. He’s different. You don’t see a lot of people doing that, and it’s different,” Marcus Smart said. “I think it catches a lot of people off guard, because they are open and then they see this seven-footer just jump straight up out of nowhere, it’s like, ‘what’s going on?’”

According to Cleaning the Glass, opponents saw their looks at the rim decreased by 10% when Kornet plays, the best mark among NBA players. Their short-mid range attempts increased by 3.8%, long-mid range attempts increased by 9.4% (1st), all mid-rangers increased by 13.2% (1st) and three-point tries decreased by 3.2%.

The Celtics, overall, have allowed the fifth-fewest field goal attempts per game inside five feet, the most mid-rangers, nearly one per game more than second-place Milwaukee, and the seventh-fewest three point attempts.

Mazzulla acknowledged that priority for Boston’s defense, which got hit with 47.7% mid-range shooting (8th) from opponents through the first loss to Cleveland. Then, they held the Wizards to 7-for-22 (31.8%) shooting on in-between shots in their first blowout win.

Their opponent’s figure for the season is down to 44%, closer to the league average, but they’ve had to navigate 45.4% mid-range shooting during their nine-game win streak. A reminder that if you allow those shot, opponents will hit some.

“Giving (our guards) space gives them opportunity,” Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said in October. “The analytics of the game tell you those pull up twos are going to be bad shots, but if you got guys like Donovan (Mitchell) and Caris (LeVert) who can knock that down, I think that becomes a good look for us.”

Utilizing Kornet will also challenge Mazzulla in ways similar to how he’ll address Williams III’s minutes when the big man returns. More Kornet in the home loss against Cleveland meant less Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon, a challenge Brogdon acknowledged. Playing Kornet in crunch time also clogged the lane on Tatum’s game-winner attempt that night.

Kornet took a three-second violation hesitating to shoot inside following a dump-off on against Washington and his three hasn’t appeared outside of two late makes in blowout wins. He’s played every night in November, averaging 13.5 MPG, save for two games after the birth of his second child forced him to hit the road again from New York to Boston.

Al Horford continues to assume the load at center, averaging over 31 MPG, more than last season, but receiving nights off on the second night of back-to-backs. Blake Griffin earned spot starts in those circumstances, while Noah Vonleh helped spell Kornet’s absence. Williams III recently returned to three-on-three action, and should return within one month.

In the meantime, teams may adjust and not guard Kornet after the Wizards collapsed on his paint touches. Having 7-2 impactful size inside matters for a struggling defense lacking Rob, but Boston needed to make him a viable part of the offense to sustain their historic pace.

Teammates looked for him more often in their win over Atlanta, and he recently flashed the reverse slam similar to the one that drew Stevens’ first like ever on Twitter over the summer. Kornet scored 15 points that night on 7-for-7 shooting against the Hawks and attacked De’Andre Jordan with post-ups in the Celtics’ win over Denver.

Boston also adjusted some of its pickup points in recent weeks, including an extra aggressive 15-steal effort against the Thunder. The Celtics switched more aggressively at times, particularly when Grant Williams replaced Derrick White in the starting lineup.

Kornet, too, got out to the perimeter against some jump shooters as Boston remains flexible defensively. They’ve improved to 10th in defensive rating during their win streak.

“You kind of determine on a large scale whether it’s really (the drop) hurting or not,” Kornet said. “We did a good job of fighting through screens (against Cleveland), making it tougher, obviously they made some shots. It’s going to happen. They also missed some or didn’t get looks altogether.”

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