There’s no such thing as a perfect roster — no matter how much talent you have littered throughout your fifteen available spots, there’s always a gap somewhere, whether that is positional, size, or specific skillset.
For the Boston Celtics, their biggest area of need right now is an additional center. Even when Daniel Theis was still on the roster, it was clear his skill set didn’t exactly fit the needs of Ime Udoka’s Celtics, and as such, always looked a likely potential casualty as Brad Stevens began Phase Two of his roster rebuild.
But now, with Theis heading to the Indiana Pacers in the deal for Malcolm Brogdon, Boston is in urgent need of an additional center, ideally one that can play a similar role to Robert Williams. Heading into the off-season, I had JaVale McGee listed as the perfect target, but with him off the board, and very few rim-runners on the market, the next few weeks are going to be intriguing.
However, on Saturday night, as the Celtics opened their Summer League season against the Miami Heat, Mfiondu Kabengele took the first step towards throwing his hat into the ring for a permanent contract.
Sure, the talent level at Summer League is nowhere near comparable to that of the NBA, but you can always garner some form of insight into a player's potential impact by how well they play their role, rather than stand out.
If a player is shining in Summer League, that means they’re being featured within the offense, and unless they’re Paolo Banchero or Keegan Murray, that’s not going to be the case once the regular season gets underway. But, if the player is excelling within his role, and impacting the game in a way that allows their team to flourish, then you might be able to get some crossover once the regular season gets underway.
Kabengele is 6’10’’ with a 7’3’’ wingspan and solid athleticism — he’s not Robert Williams, but then again, nobody is. Still, the big man will be entering his third NBA season once October rolls around, and at times against the Heat, his experience at the highest level began to shine through.
Defensively, the 24-year-old big man was a reliable deterrent in the passing lanes, proved troublesome when protecting the rim, showed versatility between playing the drop and switching actions higher up the floor, and had some nice moments as a help defender where his timing stifled some drives towards the rim.
Each of those skills could translate to Udoka’s defensive scheme, although there’s clearly a lot of work to be done before you would feel comfortable with Kabengele being a primary rotation piece, but hey, it’s Summer League, and there’s plenty of time for every player to show more of their games.
On offense, the Ontario native fits the bill of a rim-running center. Kabengele impressed as a lob threat, reminded everyone that he’s a capable screener, and even hit a perimeter jumper to show there’s range to his shooting mechanics.
When looking for an understudy for Williams, it makes sense to envision the incoming player fulfilling a similar role of defense, screening, and rim finishing. Kabengele displayed his capabilities in all of those areas on Saturday night, along with some involvement on the perimeter as a dribble-hand-off creator, and floor spacer.
Sure, the Flordia State alum isn’t as explosive as the Timelord, and nor is he as imposing inside the paint. But, when you’re looking for a cost-controlled asset with upside, you’re not going to get everything you’re looking for right away.
When you look at the available big man talent around the league, there’s scarcely anyone who could fit into Boston’s system as Williams’ back-up without Udoka needing to make some slight alterations. Dwight Howard could be the answer, but does he still have enough bounce in his game to offer a modicum of vertical spacing? Can DeMarcus Cousins play a role that entails relentless running on both sides of the floor? Ok, Jakob Poeltl is the ideal addition, but in reality, that’s almost as unlikely as Kevin Durant actually getting a say on where he lands next.
As such, players like Kabengele and Trevion Williams have a unique opportunity in front of them. Impress, and you’ll probably get a training camp invite; hold your own in camp, and guess what, there’s a roster spot with your name on it. You’re probably not going to get many minutes out of the gate, but if I’m Kabengele or Williams, I’m asking myself, ‘do I believe I can beat out Luke Kornet?’ because that’s who’s standing in their way right now. It’s achievable.
Then again, we’ve only seen one Summer League game from Kabengele, so there are still plenty more hurdles for him to overcome, but at least he passed his first audition, now it’s about finding a consistent performance level and continuing to impress.