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Sam Hauser’s emergence has been highlighted by defensive dependability for the Celtics

The third-year forward is pairing his elite three-point shooting with defensive reliability.

NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Hauser has emerged as one of the Boston Celtics’ top contributors this season. Following a slow start, his three-point efficiency has skyrocketed. Even after an ugly 1-of-9 showing against the Charlotte Hornets, Hauser still ranks top-30 in the NBA in three-point percentage at 43.8% and fifth among players attempting at least five per game.

But on a team with as much top-end talent as the Celtics, while Hauser’s shot gets him on the floor, his defense has kept him there. He’s playing 22.3 minutes per game this season—the most of any player outside Boston’s top six.

“I think he’s a much better defender than people think,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said after Boston’s win over the New York Knicks on November 13. “I can’t say why, or else I’ll get in trouble.”

Hauser isn’t always quick enough to keep up with guards, he’s not athletic enough to challenge elite wings, and he’s not strong enough to bang down low with the league’s best bigs. But positionally, he’s been extremely impressive.

Ahead of the season, Mazzulla praised Celtics center Luke Kornet, noting that the team’s comfortability with the big man stemmed from his understanding of their defensive system. Hauser not only falls under that same distinction, but he’s also been able to capitalize on what has been affectionately called “Hauser Island.”

Sharing the floor with Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, Kristaps Porzingis, and Al Horford, Hauser is the best option for opposing offenses to attack. As a result, Hauser often finds himself in one-on-one situations with opponents targeting him on defense.

Here, the Knicks clear an entire side of the floor so Jalen Brunson can attack Hauser. Brunson crosses over to his right hand, but Hauser meets him with his body and uses his 6-foot-9 wingspan to contest without fouling.

Brunson’s shot clanks off the front rim, and the Celtics are off and running. Hauser was able to use his positioning and quick feet to keep up with one of the best guards in the league. He may not be fast enough to keep up with smaller opponents, but he moves his feet at a very high level.

On this next play, the Miami Heat single out Hauser. Jimmy Butler gets two screens to get a one-on-one with Hauser, and the rest of the Heat clear the floor for him. But once again, Hauser uses his body to stay in front of Butler, getting a hand in his face on his turnaround jumper and forcing a miss.

Hauser’s feet are quick, and his body control has been near-perfect this season. Slow defenders often let their hands lead, making it easy for referees to call fouls and allowing opponents to get to the line. Instead, Hauser almost always keeps his back away from the ball-handler, using his body to initiate contact.

Dennis Smith Jr. attempted to attack him on a drive, but Hauser met him with his body at every point of force. Smith Jr. drove right into Hauser, but the Celtics forward stood his ground, adjusted his feet, and stopped the Nets guard with flawless positioning.

The result was Smith Jr. taking a foolish shot while trying to draw a foul, but Hauser kept his hands straight up and didn’t even have to jump to force the miss.

Physical attributes are important on the defensive end, but they mean nothing without positioning and intelligence. Hauser may not be stocked up on the former, but he’s proven to have the latter.

“His technique and his ability to know tendencies,” Mazzulla said of Hauser’s sound defense. “I feel just as comfortable with him guarding as anybody else. And I’ve said it from Day 1: I think he’s a very, very good defender. Underrated. And as he continues to get better, it makes our team better.”

Hauser’s one-on-one defense has been matched by his ability to protect the rim without fouling.

Tyrese Maxey, one of the fastest players in the NBA and a blur in transition, attacked Hauser at the rim. The Philadelphia 76ers guard had a full head of steam, but Hauser met him, jumped in time with him, and contested his shot perfectly.

He jumps straight into the air, keeps his hands vertical, and doesn’t give the referee a chance to call a foul. Maxey wasn’t pleased with the no-call, leading to a technical.

He’s also been able to combine his defensive skills, utilizing his footwork and parlaying it into a quality contest at the rim.

Jalen McDaniels catches the ball on the wing and immediately cuts to the hoop, forcing Hauser to pivot quickly and run to keep up with him. However, when the Toronto Raptors forward goes up for a layup, Hauser jumps perfectly in time, forcing a miss.

Excellent positioning, superb footwork, and outstanding timing have helped Hauser become a dependable player on both sides of the ball. Shooting will always be his calling card, but he’s not the traffic cone on defense often associated with three-point specialists.

Hauser will never be the perfect defender or earn that “3&D” moniker. He doesn’t have the physical tools to make that possible. But the Celtics don’t need him to be that. They need him to play within their defensive scheme and make reliable plays when needed.

Offenses are naturally going to challenge Hauser. The Celtics are loaded with defensive talent, and he’ll almost always be the weakest link when he’s on the court. But if he’s the weakest link, then Boston is in great shape.

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