Training camp might be over a month away, but the groundwork for a roster spot battle has already been put in place. Noah Vonleh, Bruno Caboclo, and Mfiondu Kabengele will be pitting their skills against one another as they look to earn one of the Celtics' open roster spots for the upcoming season.
Things could have been different though. Because, at any point, Brad Stevens could have chosen to acquire a veteran big man in the free agency market, but instead, chose to acquire some young talent that had previously struggled to make an impact at the NBA level.
In fairness, Kabengele is guaranteed a spot with the team via a two-way contract, and may not be seen as a direct threat to Vonleh and Caboclo’s chances. But, if the Summer League standout proves himself to be the best candidate, his presence could certainly become a hindrance for the two hopeful veterans.
At this point, it’s worth looking at what each potential big man brings to the table, and how their skillset would fit within Ime Udoka’s offensive and defensive scheme.
Mfiondu Kabengele: Multidimensional Big
Unlike Caboclo and Vonleh, Kabengele has multiple layers to his game, allowing him to be a threat on both sides of the floor, and from different spots within the offense. First of all, as we saw in Summer League, the former 27th pick is a capable rim runner, blocking shots on defense, and then running the floor to explode for a lob finish. Sure, the Ontario native doesn’t possess the same type of athleticism as Robert Williams, but who does?
Beyond his capabilities as a lob threat and rim protector, Kabengele is also adept at making his presence felt both in the dunker spot and the restricted area, as he uses his robust frame to command his space and dislodge defenders which is beneficial to generating scoring opportunities, and for hunting down offensive rebounds.
However, Kabengele is more than just a lob and putback threat — he’s also a capable screener, and can create offense both as a short-roller, pick-and-popper, and traditional role man. As we saw during his time in Las Vegas, Kabengele is capable of extending his range beyond the three-point line and has potential as a short-roll passer from the free throw line extended region.
Take the above play for an example of Kabengele’s short roll upside. We see the possession begin with the big man operating as the hand-off big in a Zoom action before he short-rolls toward the mid-post. A quick-fire entry pass catches Kabgengele slightly off guard, but he still manages to swing the ball towards the open man in the weakside corner, generating an easy three-point opportunity.
And while we’re on the topic of playmaking, Kabengele is also a willing passer above the perimeter and has also flashed some upside as a mid-post facilitator — two areas in which working with Al Horford could certainly help him improve.
It’s this type of offensive versatility, coupled with his defensive potential as a drop defender that convinced Stevens to extend Kabengele a two-way contract following Summer League. However, we’ve seen the President of Basketball Operations convert two-way guys into a full-time deal before, and given how Stevens would be under no immediate pressure to do so, it would give the Celtics some additional wiggle room in the coming months.
Noah Vonleh: Defensive Glass Cleaner
Before agreeing to join the Celtics, Vonleh was plying his trade in China. While a season average of 15 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game is impressive, the fact remains that an NBA-level talent should be dominating to a higher degree in the Chinese Basketball League.
That got me wondering what type of role Vonleh was playing during his time abroad and whether that role was translatable to what Boston will be asking of him should he make the final roster.
In short, Vonleh was the featured weapon for the Shanghai Sharks, while also being tasked as their primary defender and rim protector. In short, his role was all-encompassing, and at times, it looked like he was trying to do too much.
Vonleh still over-dribbles the basketball, as he looks to set up his defenders off the bounce, rather than utilizing his size, strength, and athleticism around the rim and as a roll man.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a big man that is comfortable putting the ball on the floor, but there has to be a limit on what they’re allowed to do, and when they should look to get the rock out of their hands. That was part of the downside to Vonleh’s time with the New York Knicks, as far too often, plays stagnated once he got in possession on the perimeter or around the mid-range.
While the over-dribbling could be an issue, Vonleh did display some impressive growth in his ability to attack space when slipping screens or rolling while the defense trapped, hedged, or simply paid too much attention to the ball-handler.
Beyond his ability to attack the rim in space, Vonleh has improved his hook shot and has the footwork to generate some low-post offense when needed. But most impressively, during his season in Shanghai, the former lottery pick has improved his perimeter game, averaging 38% from deep on the season.
Of course, scoring at a respectable clip in China doesn’t necessitate Vonleh can repeat the feat in the NBA, but the upside is intriguing enough to give him a closer look in training camp. On the defensive side of the floor, Vonleh was a rock as a drop defender, often shading his man away from the rim, or forcing them into tough, contested shots, allowing him to clean up their missed attempts on the glass.
And that’s where Vonleh’s true value to an NBA team lies, on the defensive side of the floor and as a defensive rebounder — two areas he has proven capable of performing in during stops with other teams around the league.
Unfortunately for Vonleh, his offensive game will need to translate over during training camp, otherwise he will find himself sitting behind Kabengele in the pecking order for Boston’s additional big man this season.
Bruno Caboclo: Tweener
Unlike Vonleh and Kabengele, Caboclo is a wing with the skillset to play some small-ball five minutes, meaning his defensive and offensive game isn’t positioned to be dominant around the glass, or have upside as a shot deterrent on defense.
Instead, Caboclo is more of a catch-and-shoot, catch-and-drive, and transition threat on the offensive end, while being a more switchable defender than his two counterparts in the roster spot battle. Of course, under Udoka, being switchable is a huge plus, but you still need to be impactful in other areas on the floor, and that’s the biggest question mark hanging over Caboclo’s head right now.
The former Toronto Raptors draft selection has some NBA experience, but in truth, he has struggled for playing time wherever he’s gone, and only began to post big numbers once he took his talents to Brazil.
Once Caboclo returned to American shores, and took part in the Las Vegas Summer League, his production slipped back down to what you would expect from a multi-year veteran that has seldom cracked a rotation. Still, that’s not to say that Caboclo doesn’t have some untapped potential, but in reality, he’s going to struggle to break Boston’s rotation as a wing player — especially given his limited ability as a floor spacer.
However, with versatility comes opportunity, and that could be Caboclo’s saving grace, as his presence within an NBA roster allows multiple rotation adjustments, counters to match-up problems, and creative scheming throughout the regular season. Unfortunately, unless Caboclo has drastically improved his three-point shot, and off-the-dribble explosiveness around the rim, he projects to be the most likely casualty within the trio of Celtics hopefuls this summer.
Overall, there is scope for each of Kabengele, Vonleh, and Caboclo to earn spots within the rotation in the coming season, and given the diversity in their skillsets, you can talk yourself into each of them impressing enough to warrant a closer look. However, in reality, Kabengele and Vonleh are both better suited to making an impact in the coming season, whereas Caboclo is more of an insurance policy.
Still, given the direct competition for the backup center position, I can see the Celtics opting to move forward with Kabengele on his two-way deal and the potential to convert the contract down the line, and the versatility that comes with a tweener such as Caboclo. Meaning Vonleh could be the player to miss out on a return to the NBA this season.