Heading into the season, there were some serious questions surrounding the Boston Celtics’ frontcourt. Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL at EuroBasket, Robert Williams underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of the offseason, Al Horford was set to take on a smaller role, and Blake Griffin was signed to provide Boston with added depth.
Now, as things stand halfway through January, Gallinari is unlikely to make a return this year, Williams has returned, Horford is playing more minutes than he has since the 2017-18 season, and Griffin has assumed an end-of-the-bench role.
But amid all the chaos, Luke Kornet has provided the Celtics with a steady hand. In a limited role with the team, he’s been able to play quality minutes when called upon, acting as Boston’s third-string center.
Boston first traded for Kornet at the 2021 trade deadline in the deal that sent Daniel Theis to the Chicago Bulls. Moving Theis was, in large part, a salary dump, with the Celtics being forced to send Javonte Green out as well. In return, they received Mo Wagner from the Washington Wizards and Kornet from the Bulls.
That season, Kornet actually played impactful minutes with the Celtics. In his first appearance with the team, he logged just over 13 minutes but provided the Celtics with a huge boost off the bench. He nailed his first two three-point attempts, giving Boston their first lead of the night against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After the season, Kornet and the Celtics parted ways, but he remained linked to their G League squad in Maine. After earning chances with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks, Boston signed Kornet to a contract for the remainder of the season.
He didn’t earn much playing time, but over the summer, he stuck around. This past offseason, the Celtics inked Kornet to a two-year contract, and just a few days later, Theis was traded to the Indiana Pacers in the trade that landed Malcolm Brogdon.
With Theis gone, Boston looked to Kornet to provide them with backup big man minutes, but his duties would only increase as their frontcourt situation wavered. Gallinari’s injury, Williams’ surgery, and Horford’s age thrust him into a larger role. After all, he is still the subject of Brad Stevens’ only like on Twitter.
At 7’2 and 250lbs, Kornet is obviously not the most athletic player in the world. However, he’s been able to play within Boston’s system very well. Kornet isn’t the type of player to make SportsCenter or have eye-catching box-score stats, but his in-game impact has been crucial for the Celtics this season.
In the 13 games in which Kornet has played at least 15 minutes, he’s averaging 7.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.5 blocks per contest on 74.0% shooting from the field. He’s been able to utilize his height and interior defensive ability to play a perfect role for the Celtics.
Based on ability alone, Kornet and Williams could be considered polar opposites in some regards. Williams utilizes his freakish athleticism to rise up for impressive blocks and throw down monster alley-oops, while Kornet’s best asset is his height. However, Kornet has been able to replicate a similar on-court product to the one Boston is missing with Williams off the floor.
He’s improved his ability to time up blocks, especially when working from the weak side. Here’s a perfect example. Kornet is guarding Larry Nance Jr. in the corner, but when Jose Alvarado comes driving into the paint, he shifts over just in time to record the block.
It may not be as entertaining as the emphatic rejections Williams produces that land him on highlight reels, but it’s still a block in the stat sheet. Rather than relying on athleticism, Kornet banks on his wingspan and height to get him in the right position at the right time.
Kornet has also done a solid job of staying grounded in pick-n-rolls and utilizing his positioning to record blocks that way. Watch the way he reads this play by LaMelo Ball - one of the better playmakers in the league. Payton Pritchard gets caught on the screen, leaving Kornet to either prevent a lob to Nick Richards or stop Ball at the rim. He lies in wait, shooting up for the block at the exact moment of no return for Ball.
His ability to block shots isn’t the only upside to his defensive game, though. Kornet’s larger frame allows him to bang down low with bigger centers. He’s not quick enough to consistently switch onto perimeter players, but when it comes to guarding the post, Kornet has flashed some skill this season.
New Orleans Pelicans big man Jonas Valanciunas gets the best of Kornet on this play, pump-faking him into the air. But Kornet recovers nicely, uses his size to body Valanciunas, and eventually forces the miss and snags the rebound.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Celtics opponents shot 4.9% worse at the rim with Kornet in the game, which puts him in the 97th percentile of all players. For reference, some of the few names ahead of him on the list include Brook Lopez (-5.1% at the rim), Joel Embiid (-5.4% at the rim), and Rudy Gobert (-5.9% at the rim).
In addition, Celtics opponents’ effective field goal percentage is 4.8% worse with Kornet on the court, which puts him in the 96th percentile of players. Again, for reference, a couple of players ahead of him are Draymond Green (-4.9%) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (-5.6%).
By those numbers, Kornet has quietly been one of the better defensive centers in the league this season. He obviously has certain setbacks, such as his aforementioned struggles keeping up with smaller defenders, but Kornet has even found a way to mitigate those issues.
Take a look at this play. Kornet gets absolutely burned by one of the best ball-handlers in the business, Kyrie Irving, who gets to his spot. But instead of giving up on the play, Kornet fights all the way back out to the perimeter and gets a solid contest off on Irving.
Kornet is never going to be the type of player the Celtics feel comfortable guarding a point guard or a quicker wing. Williams and Horford are able to fill that role nicely. But when it comes down to it, Kornet has done a bang-up job of making life difficult for perimeter players this year.
When guarded by Kornet, opponents are shooting just 41.3% from the mid-range, 30.4% from the left corner three, 32.1% from the right corner three, and 30.8% on above-the-break threes. For reference, Horford’s numbers (obviously, on many more attempts) all hover around the 36% mark.
But Kornet’s effectiveness extends beyond the defensive end of the court. His rebounding has also been hugely impactful for the Celtics this year. The big man is averaging 9.7 boards per 36 minutes, which ranks second on the team behind only Williams. Similar to how his shot-blocking has mirrored Williams’ in a way, his rebounding has as well.
Williams has been gobbling up offensive rebounds since returning to the court, using his athleticism to soar over opponents and earn the Celtics second and third-chance opportunities. But again, since Kornet can’t rely on athleticism, he utilizes his height to earn those same chances.
Watch him get the edge over two Brooklyn Nets players on this possession. Yuta Watanabe and TJ Warren are both focused on keeping Kornet off the glass, but his arms extend so far over them that they have no chance.
Ben Simmons strips him as he tries to get the ball back out to the perimeter, but the point of the clip is to point out his talent on the glass. It’s one he’s been using to his advantage all year. Among qualified players, Kornet ranks 21st in the league in offensive rebounds per 36 minutes.
His height hasn’t been the only skill he’s utilized, though. Kornet has been a fighter on the offensive glass this season. Watch him out-battle Gobert on this board, ripping it down away from the three-time Defensive Player of the Year and former rebound champion.
Kornet’s place as the third-string center means he won’t always get a ton of opportunities. But when he does, he’s ready to go to war for the Celtics. The 27-year-old big man is willing to fight for every rebound and bucket. Ahead of Boston’s tilt against Charlotte on January 14, he stressed the importance of adapting to every situation.
“We’ve had different guys out at different times,” Kornet said pregame to Celtics.com’s Amanda Pflugrad. “The ability to have so many different players step up. Honestly, we have a good group of guys who can all start for a lot of teams. Some guys are taking roles that are different than what they could expect elsewhere, but I think that’s part of being a great team.”
His offensive game has also helped him stay on the court. While he’s knocked down a couple of threes for Boston this season and has shot well from distance in past years, his primary roles on offense have been playing the pick-n-roll and working out of the dunker spot/baseline.
Similar to Williams, since Kornet isn’t a consistent three-point shooter — the best spacing he can provide on offense is vertical spacing. And again, instead of employing the freakish athleticism Williams possesses, Kornet simply uses his height and solid positioning.
Take a look at where he’s sitting on both of these plays. While a Celtics ball-handler drives into the paint, Kornet sits in the dunker spot and on the baseline, waiting for his chance. In the first one, Marcus Smart finds him for a lob, and in the second, Brogdon simply dumps the ball off to him once the defenders are out of the way.
As far as his work in the pick-n-roll, Kornet has been great. He’s positioned himself beautifully to throw down easy lobs, allowing his teammates to earn effortless assists. Kornet’s height allows Celtics ball-handlers to throw the ball to spots where the opponent can’t get to it, just like Williams allows them to do with his athleticism.
Here are a few perfect examples, including an off-the-ball pick-n-roll action with Jaylen Brown to lead them off:
Kornet plays a very simple style on both ends of the court. He does what he’s asked, and he’s not asked to do much. When it comes down to it, Kornet is the Celtics’ third-string center. Horford and Williams are going to get the nod over him, and depending on the matchup, Joe Mazzulla could look to Grant Williams for some small-ball center minutes, too.
But that hasn’t stopped Kornet from coming to work and doing his job at an extremely high level. Championship-caliber teams often strike gold with minimum-contract players. Look at the Golden State Warriors and Gary Payton II, the Bucks and Bryn Forbes, and the Los Angeles Lakers and Alex Caruso.
In all likelihood, Kornet isn’t going to get big-time playoff minutes. Boston will almost certainly cut down the rotation, and Kornet will find himself on the outside looking in. But for what the Celtics paid and for what Kornet’s role on the team is, you would be hard-pressed to find another player doing a better job than him.
And if the defensive stats and offensive efficiency aren’t enough, maybe his Stromile Swift impression is enough to move the needle. After a fastbreak alley-oop, Kornet broke out the bird hands.
After the game, he credited the former NBA player for the celebration, noting (sarcastically) that his “explosive athleticism” is the main connector between him and Swift.
“It was an homage to Stromile Swift,” Kornet explained via NBC Sports Boston. “Grant is the original Stromile of our team, but we share it around.”
Luke Kornet's celebration was paying homage to Stromile Swift, he gave credit to Grant for doing it first pic.twitter.com/zI7oWaDvMN— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 29, 2022
And as the cherry on top, Swift gave the celebration his seal of approval.
“I thought the celebration was good, but the interview was even better,” Swift told NBC Sports Boston. “I’m just happy some of these younger guys still remember me.”
So, whether you see him as the class clown, the new-age Stromile Swift, or just one of the better third-string bigs in the NBA, Kornet deserves his respect. He’s excelled in his role for the Celtics this year and is providing plenty of laughs along the way.