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Hunting Hauser

Sam Hauser’s shooting gets all the attention, but his defense has allowed him to become an everyday player

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

Throughout last season and this offseason, Celtics players and coaches went out of their way to praise Sam Hauser’s shooting. But to secure a spot in the Celtics championship-caliber rotation, he had to play adequate defense.

We can safely say Hauser has far exceeded expectations. He’s played in all 21 games, averaging 17 minutes and shooting 48.9 percent on 4.5 threes per game. 94 of his 107 shots have been threes. This summer, he signed a 3-year / $5.6 million contract that’s quickly turning into the league’s best bargain.

On Monday, Jack Simone wrote about how the Celtics haven’t had a marksman like Hauser during the Tatum/Brown era. It’s easy to marvel at his sublime shooting stroke, but his defense is allowing him to stay on the floor.

In Boston’s second game of the season against Miami, Hauser subbed in with 2:46 remaining in the 3rd quarter, and head coach Erik Spoelstra promptly called for Gabe Vincent to attack him in isolation:

Hauser moved his feet well and contested the shot, but Vincent nailed the 16-footer. Miami did the same thing the next possession, but this time Vincent took a tough layup and Boston secured the defensive board:

The Heat hunted him for a third straight possession, now with Tyler Herro, and it resulted in a turnover:

When Hauser entered the game the Celtics led by six, and by the end of the quarter the lead grew to 12. Miami abandoned their rapid motion offense in favor of bogged down iso ball, a development the Celtics will take every time. When they visit the TD Garden on Wednesday, I can’t imagine they’ll return to this strategy.

Per, Hauser plays isolation defense on 20.1 percent of his possessions, the third highest mark in the league. Translation: when he plays, he’s frequently hunted on defense. His most ardent fans would never label him a defensive dynamo, but it’s surprising how well he’s held up on that end of the floor.

Hauser allows 0.94 points per possession in isolation defense. It’s not an elite mark, but it’s about league average, and the Celtics must be doing cartwheels about this figure. Isolations are inherently inefficient possessions, and Hauser coupling his elite three-point shooting with league-average isolation defense is an absolute win for the Celtics.

The only two players who play a higher percentage of their defensive possessions in isolation — Nic Claxton and Zeke Nnaji — allow 0.76 and 0.71 points per possession respectively. Dean Wade and Precious Achiuwa average about 0.55 points per possession in isolation, ranking in the 95th percentile. On average, teams score 1.12 points per possession, so Hauser’s 0.94 figure is perfectly adequate.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the league hasn’t figured out that hunting Hauser isn’t an effective offensive strategy. In the next two clips, two below average offensive players — Aaron Holiday and Killian Hayes — try to score on him 1-on-1 to no avail:

In both cases, he does a good job using his torso to legally move them off their spots as they gather the basketball. He’s not just holding his own against the second-tier guys. Brandon Ingram, one of the league’s top isolation and midrange players, bricks this jumper with Hauser defending:

He does a good job sliding his feet and putting a hand in Ingram’s face upon releasing the shot. In this next clip, Kyle Kuzma tries to body him for a layup, but Hauser keeps a strong base, doesn’t relinquish any space, and strips the ball during Kuzma’s gather:

Sure, Hauser gets called for the (ticky-tack) foul on the second shot, but it’s more impressive how he maintained his position and got the strip against a bigger player barreling to the rim. Similarly, Saddiq Bey tried to out-muscle Hauser in the post:

Hauser shades towards the paint to help on Cory Joseph, recovers out to Bey, stays low on the drive, and forces an awkward push shot.

Of course, great offense almost always beats great defense. Hauser has admirably defended the league’s best scorers, but sometimes there’s nothing he can do. Here, Luka Doncic gives Hauser an array of fakes then hits the heavily contested jumper:

The other night against the Wizards, he helped on a Jordan Goodwin drive, recovered to Bradley Beal, and stayed with him on the baseline step-back, but there’s nothing you can do against this shotmaking ability:

Remember, this is an undrafted player in his second year who only played 158 minutes as a rookie, now he’s the fourth best three point shooter in basketball and a key rotation player on the league’s best team. The Celtics have an incredible +18.3 net rating when he’s on the court, a number that certainly won’t stay that high, but indicates that he’s making a massive offensive impact and not hurting them defensively.

Maybe, just maybe, we should start taking Hauser’s defense more seriously. His 108.8 defensive rating is the top mark on the team. That’s likely because teams mistakenly think he’s a defensive liability, and attacking him insolation leads to inefficient offense.

Back in 2017-2018, when the CP3/Harden Houston Rockets popularized attacking weak perimeter defenders, the league had more exploitable players. Five years later, any rotation player must carry his weight on defense, and coaches no longer leave the most attackable players alone against the top scorers.

We’ve seen defensive liabilities sink teams. There’s the infamous “can’t play Kanter” clip from the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Utah beat OKC in the 2017 playoffs largely because they were able to exploit Carmelo Anthony in the pick-and-roll. In last year’s first round, Ja Morant mercilessly hunted Karl Anthony-Towns, just as Harden and Durant did to then-Celtic Evan Fournier two years ago.

A few months ago, Hauser’s shooting was essentially an urban legend. We believed he could stroke it, but if there wasn’t a baseline of defensive competency, he wouldn’t get playing time. He would be an Allan Ray or Jimmer Fredette — great shooters who couldn’t do enough other stuff to stay on the floor. Hauser has turned into a legitimate weapon on a championship contender and one of the pleasant stories of the NBA season thus far.

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