December is coming to close, and with it ends a busy year of Boston Celtics basketball. From a stunning midseason turnaround to NBA Finals heartbreak to a red-hot start of a revenge tour, 2022 brought a little bit of everything to the Celtics and their fans. The end of the year always brings some time for self-reflection, and as the rest of us average Joes plan to eat better or hit the gym, let’s see if we can set some goals for each member of the team as we turn the page into 2023.
JD Davison: Develop an NBA-caliber jumper
Davison is, virtually by default, the best prospect on the Celtics’ roster at the present moment. A 6-foot-3 hyper athlete at the point guard position with a penchant for audacious dunks and some quality playmaking chops, he’s an easy kind of player to dream into an future NBA contributor.
There’s work to be done before Davison is ready to help an NBA roster, though. Namely, he needs to develop his jump shot. As we’ve seen time and time again, it’s difficult for guards to find success without a reasonably reliable jumper, and shooting remains the biggest hole in Davison’s game. After connecting on just 30% of his three-pointers during his lone collegiate season, he’s currently shooting roughly the same mark from NBA distance in the G-League.
Davison is a ways away from contributing to the Celtics or any other organization. Thankfully, he has a valuable opportunity to develop his skills with regular reps in Maine. Fleshing out a workable jumper should be at the top of the list.
Mfiondu Kabengele, Justin Jackson: Stay ready
It may not be the most exciting of tasks, but for players like Kabengele and Jackson, the most valuable attribute to bring to this Celtics roster is readiness. At present, Kabengele occupies one of the team’s Two-Way contracts, and has appeared in just one NBA game while spending most of his season starting for the G League Celtics. Jackson, meanwhile, sits at the end of the big league team’s bench, having been limited to 14 brief garbage time appearances thus far. When fully — or even just mostly — healthy, the Celtics don’t have room to play either.
One thing both have in their favor: they’re a little more seasoned than your average end-of-bench NBA player. In their offseason acquisitions, Brad Stevens and the front office prioritized journeyman players in their athletic prime with some experience at the NBA level. At 27 years old, with 269 NBA appearances (61 starts) under his belt, Jackson fits that bill. Two years younger, Kabengele hasn’t played quite as much (52 total appearances, zero starts), but he’s spent four years around NBA systems and has had significant playing time in the G League across the past two years. In other words, they’re both slightly more known quantities, which can be a benefit in terms of depth.
If either ends up pressed into a more sizeable role, the Celtics will very likely have bigger problems to worry about. But both are reasonable bets as end-of-bench contingency plans, and the best thing either can do right now is be prepared in case their moment arises.
Noah Vonleh: Bring another skill to the table
After a bit of offseason buzz as one of Stevens’ reclamation project acquisitions, Vonleh has quickly found himself out of the mix in the Boston rotation. He’s largely been resigned to the back of the bench since the start of the regular season, with Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet taking on many of the reserve frontcourt minutes after the core pieces (especially prior to Robert Williams III’s return).
The difference between Vonleh and those bigs? Versatility. Though neither are what you’d call optimal, 30-minutes-per-night kind of players, they’ve carved out useful niches that have earned them minutes on the court. Griffin is a crafty veteran who provides a snug fit on offense, knocking down some threes, moving the basketball and providing a bit of size and toughness. Kornet, meanwhile, is a giant, with some rim protection value and his signature unorthodox shot contests that help him contribute on the defensive end of the court.
Vonleh needs to find his niche. He’s a big body and a tough rebounder, but such players are a dime a dozen, and he hasn’t distinguished himself enough beyond that to justify much playing time. Adding another skill to the toolbox could go a long way towards getting him back on the court. One possibility: piecing together a serviceable three-point shot, which he’s flashed at times (on admittedly low volume) since his one-and-done season at Indiana.
Payton Pritchard: Amp up the scoring
This may be easier said than done for the Celtics’ third-year guard. You can only expect so much growth from a player with such an inconsistent role on his team. With the trio of Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White healthy, there just isn’t room for Pritchard to see the court with any regularity. Finding a rhythm in such a circumstance is understandably challenging.
That said, whether due to lack of opportunity or otherwise, it’s fair to say we haven’t seen Pritchard at his best very often this season. He’s shooting career-lows from across the floor, including a 33% mark from behind the arc that lags far behind 40%+ rates in each of his first two years. Apart from a four-game stretch in mid-November in which he averaged 10 points per game on 57% shooting from the field, he hasn’t really moved the needle as an offensive presence this year — which he needs to do, as an undersized guard with an inherent cap on his defensive impact.
Pritchard has had an atypical experience relative to most first-round picks in the NBA. He excelled out of the gate as a rookie, but has seen his playing time dwindle more and more over his young NBA career as the team’s burgeoning depth and increasingly urgent championship hopes have squeezed him out of a rotation spot. It’s possible — if not likely — that the best basketball of his career won’t come with the Celtics. For the present moment, though, all he can do is make the best of his present circumstances, and getting back to his accustomed levels as an offensive presence will give him chances to contribute as the regular season wears on.
Sam Hauser: Conquer the slump
The ascension to the status of full-time rotation player has inevitably brought Sam Hauser to one of the realities of playing regularly in the NBA: going through — and breaking out of — a slump.
December was a tough month for the 25-year-old. Across 14 appearances, he shot just 33% from the field, including a 28% mark from the behind the three-point arc — his primary base of operations on this roster. Hauser has generally acquitted himself well on the defensive end, even in the face of heightened attention from opposing offenses who have sought to target him as the de facto weak spot in the Boston defense.
But those threes are important. Three-point shooting is his pre-eminent NBA skill, and while he’s not useless in other aspects of the game, it’s his ability to break defenses from long range that puts him on the court. The Celtics need him knocking down those threes to maximize his usefulness on the court; this 28% shooting version of him is quite a bit harder to justify.
Hauser has a long track record of success as a sharpshooter. He’s succeeded as a three-point shooter at every level, including a four-year career as a starter in college that saw him connect on 44% of his threes on significant volume. It’s a testament to his skill that, even after a full month of poor results as a shooter, he’s still connecting on 40% of his threes for the year.
There’s no reason to think his poor December was anything more than a cold spell. It’s up to Hauser to find the reset button and start off 2023 on a better note than he finished its predecessor.
Blake Griffin: Keep those old bones fresh
One of the most pleasant surprises of the first half of the season has been the play of Griffin, who signed late in the offseason to help fill the void left by Robert Williams III’s recovery from knee surgery. A true disciple of Brad Stevens, interim coach Joe Mazzulla has deployed Griffin on a part-time basis in instances where he’d like to preserve the team’s rotations. Al Horford needs a night off on the second night of a back-to-back? Simply plug in Griffin, who has started eight games this season, with the Celtics winning six of them.
Griffin’s assignment for 2023 may be as simple as “keep doing what you’re doing.” He’s carved out a great niche for himself as a part-time rotation player, stepping up and filling holes in the lineup without overexerting himself in the process. He’s shooting 50% from the field, including 63% at the rim (with three dunks!). Age and a lengthy injury history have insured that Griffin’s days as an NBA star are long over, but this new, reinvented version has shown he can contribute to winning basketball.
Luke Kornet: Can the three-point shot be rediscovered?
Like Griffin, Kornet has done a nice little job filling in as a reserve big for this team. Mazzulla and the Celtics have coaxed the best season of his career from inside the arc, as he’s shooting nearly 70% on his two-point attempts this year (on miniscule sample size, of course), and he’s had a respectable enough impact as a defender.
I’ve always been (perhaps unduly) intrigued by Kornet’s potential as a shooter, though. It’s been years since we’ve seen it deployed with any regularity or effectiveness, but he spent his first two NBA seasons as a roughly average three-point shooter on solid volume for a couple of ill-fated New York Knicks teams. Perhaps the jumper has been gone for a little too long to be a realistic hope, but it feels like a Daniel Theis level of “able to knock it down when left open” could be attainable for the jumbo-sized big.
That will do it for Part One of our Celtics New Year’s resolutions; we’ll be back in 2023 to talk about the core rotation of the team. In the meantime, what do you think the Celtics’ reserves should be working on in the second half of the season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.