For the past decade, the Boston Celtics have slowly built one of the best rosters in basketball. They’ve kept things relatively in-house, with most of their top talent coming straight from the draft. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard were all handpicked in the first round.
But as they look to enhance the roster around the edges, they’ll need to find new pathways toward improvement. They can’t afford to bring in free agents, and their draft picks have been utilized as trade chips since Brad Stevens took the helm in the front office. In turn, they are going to have to look elsewhere.
They’ve chosen to look north.
Just 112 miles north of TD Garden is the city of Portland, Maine - the home of the Maine Celtics for the last thirteen years. Boston’s G League squad is turning into a hub for quality players, as the organization has chosen to invest heavily in its future. Instead of using it as a dumping ground for rookies to just get reps, they’re treating it like a second family, and they’re already reaping the rewards.
“The farm system stuff, I think the Celtics are really buying into that,” Maine Celtics head coach Alex Barlow told CelticsBlog. “They have been [for] the last couple years since they started owning the team - since Wyc [Grousbeck] and Pags [Stephen Pagliuca] bought the team. And I think you’re gonna continue to see it more and more. All those teams you mentioned [Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors] are teams that are competing for championships or trying to find that edge. Can we find a rotation player in the G league that can be on a minimum deal that can help us while we’re paying everyone else big money? That stuff’s important. That stuff can be the difference between being a one-seed in the regular season and being the four seed. A couple [of] games. And that can be the difference between homecourt advantage and having to go on the road in the Finals or the Eastern Conference Finals.”
Franchises like the Heat and Raptors have found ample success identifying talent at the G League level, bringing them on board, and helping them work their way up the pipeline. Fred VanVleet started as a Raptors G Leaguer, as did Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher. Meanwhile, Max Strus, Duncan Robinson, and Gabe Vincent were all projects who the Heat developed in their G League system.
The Celtics haven’t enjoyed that sort of consistent success - until this year.
Two rotational players on this year’s Boston squad were G Leaguers last year - Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet. Neither were first-round picks. Hauser was an undrafted free agent who Boston signed to a two-way deal last season and sent down to the G League, while Kornet was a big man who fell out of the NBA and had to work his way back up.
The Celtics signed Hauser to a deal at the conclusion of the 2021 NBA Draft, and after spending the majority of his first year in the G League, the Celtics converted his contract and Hauser joined the big club during last year’s postseason run. Last summer, he earned a three-year, $5.6 million contract with Boston. Shooting was always his ticket to the NBA, but the G League helped him broaden his skillset.
“Sam, his shooting’s obviously special,” Barlow explained. “We didn’t really have to teach him a whole lot, right? I mean, we didn’t fix his shot or help him with his shot. What we did do was we worked a lot on defense. And [Celtics assistant coach] DJ [MacLeay], who works with him in Boston, has also worked a ton on him with his defense… A lot of putting him on the other team’s best players to guard them because the only way he was gonna get better at defense was to actually guard good players. We could have stuck him on their worst player and just said, ‘hey, relax.’ But that wasn’t gonna help his development, that wasn’t going to help him as a player.”
If Hauser wanted a shot to make an impact at the NBA level, he needed to adapt. He needed to learn to play a different way than what he was used to. That’s what Maine was for.
“He’s been a guy that’s always had the ball,” said Barlow. “Sets have always been called for him. So him getting used to making an impact when he’s gonna have to play with Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown], he’s gonna have to space up. He’s not going to have a single set called for him. He might have an ATO drawn up for him once a game. And he’s done a really, really good job of that this year. But he did a really good job buying into that last year in Maine as a two-way.”
And while Barlow was the one to help prepare him for a potential opportunity in Boston, Stevens seemingly knew what he had in Hauser all along.
“Hauser shined as a shooter last season in Maine,” Maine play-by-play announcer Brendan Glasheen told CelticsBlog. “As we know, he earned a role on the floor in Boston because he can shoot. But he will stay on it longer as long as he keeps playing defense. When Brad Stevens visited our booth last February, he was extremely complimentary of Sam and how his skill set would translate well.”
As for Kornet, his time in the G League was simply an opportunity for him to impress in a larger role. Barlow ran a lot of Maine’s offense through Kornet, and while he obviously isn’t the same hub in Boston, all of the traits he finetuned can be utilized no matter how large a role he has.
“Last year, with how we played offensively, we relied on playing through Luke and Juwan Morgan a lot, hitting them and then letting guys cut,” said Barlow. “And Luke’s ability to pass was something I didn’t know about until last year. So, his ability to pass, his ability to think, how big he is, rebounds, protects the rim - I thought he was an NBA player last year when he was here. I was surprised nobody else signed him, and he had to spend some time in the G League. I think it was a great signing for the Celts. Just everything he does, from his size, rebounding, passing, his ability to think - super smart.”
Kornet began his career as a two-way with the New York Knicks, later joined the Chicago Bulls, was traded to the Celtics, and signed a couple of 10-day deals with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers before making his way back to Boston after last year’s trade deadline.
The 7’2 big man has always been a serviceable NBA journeyman, but it wasn’t until his time in Maine did he get a consistent opportunity. He honed in on the minute details of his offensive and defensive game, polishing his skills in an attempt to make it back to the NBA level.
“It was pretty obvious to me that Luke was an NBA player,” Barlow stated. “What we really worked on really was just trying to help him with his touch shots around the rim, because he’s gonna be around the rim more than he was in the past when he was more on the perimeter shooting threes. And then just being able to be even more versatile defensively. We switched him some last year, which I think just helps overall, him just having to switch some when he was here last year.”
And don’t worry, the Kornet Kontest was in full effect in Maine, too. In fact, it worked wonders in the G League, according to Barlow.
“He was doing that contest last year here in the G League, and like, nobody ever made shots,” Barlow said. “Like it was unbelievable. And it’s kind of funny, right? Like, it’s a funny thing, but it works. It was just something he came up with. And it’s helped him contest shots when he’s not really there.”
Being able to not only pinpoint talent but develop said talent into NBA-caliber pieces is an expertise that not many franchises have perfected. As noted, the Raptors and Heat are the two best examples in the NBA, and if the Celtics wish to follow suit, it needs to be a priority. A lot more goes into that process than meets the eye.
“I think the biggest thing is investing the resources, and the Celtics have been great with that. In order to get better players to come here, you have to invest more, right?,” Barlow explained. “Like we have pre- and post-game food every game. We have pre- and post-practice food every day. Like, as small as that may sound, it’s something that matters when you’re trying to get some of these Exhibit-10’s like Luke Kornet last year. Trying to get a guy like Denzel [Valentine], Marial [Shayok], like that stuff matters a bit.”
Culture is an organizational mindset. The phrase “Heat Culture” may be an overblown slogan at this point, but there’s a reason Miami has been able to make the most out of its cap space. Finding players like Strus, Vincent, and Robinson (before he signed his extension) on minimum contracts is part of what makes their team so successful.
Cultivating a successful G League system is about more than just drafting rookies and giving them a bunch of playing time at their affiliate. Danny Ainge’s Celtics followed that blueprint for a number of years, and the results weren’t ideal. Guys like Pritchard and the Williamses found success, but that was largely due to their playing time at the NBA level. Meanwhile, players such as Romeo Langford, Tremont Waters, and Carsen Edwards were sent to the G League and never panned out in Boston.
“A lot of times, two-ways come down and they just want to score,” said Barlow. “He [Hauser] bought in from the beginning of, ‘I need to do the role I’m gonna do in the NBA [and] I need to do the best I can of doing it here in Maine.’”
Over the last two years, the Celtics have strayed away from that mindset and instead focused on a different set of players. They currently have second round rookie JD Davison playing in Maine and they have surrounded him with second-chance guys similar to Kornet.
This season, Maine has filled their roster with several familiar names that have bounced around the league, but never settled. That list includes Valentine (a 2016 lottery pick who began his career with the Bulls), Shayok (a 2019 second-round pick who started his career with the Philadelphia 76ers), Luka Samanic (a 2019 first-round pick who was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs), and Mfiondu Kabengele (a 2019 first-round pick who began his career with the LA Clippers and is now one of Boston’s two-way players).
Having this sort of experience at the table is not only a good way to seek out untapped potential, but it also helps the younger players who may not be used to the NBA scene.
“For a young guy like JD, it’s good to have guys like that around because he gets to see how guys that have been pros before work,” said Barlow. “And he’s done a really good job of picking those guys’ brains, watching how they work, watching how they go about themselves on a day-to-day basis. So, it’s really been good, I think, for the second-chance guys and the rookies.”
But it’s about more than just picking any random players who didn’t work out with their first or second teams. The key is finding the right group of guys that can put their heads together and have the same common goal - playing winning basketball.
“Denzel and Luka are always pointing to their heads,” Glasheen said. “As former first-round picks, they understand it’s just as important to be dialed in mentally as it is physically. And that’s evident in their pregame preparation and just how they carry themselves altogether. Denzel obviously has more NBA games under his belt, so he’s super focused to return to that level. For Luka, there’s some motivation, being a former first-round pick as well, but he’s only 23. I think he’s really dedicated to improving his consistency on a night-to-night basis. And why has Maine been splendid for them? They both want to win. Kabengele - he wants to win. These guys are playing the right way. Maine has been a top offensive-rebounding team since the beginning of the year. That equates to hustle and no quit. And Maine ranks atop the league in assists and assist rate. They are all about making the right basketball play.”
Rather than using the G League as a place to simply store rookies and give young players run, the Celtics are slowly turning it into their own farm system by loading it with a healthy mix of experienced players, young prospects, and players they believe could fill a specific role at the NBA level.
Barlow isn’t just a developmental coach. His job isn’t to focus all of his time on the players that Boston wants to pan out. Instead, his concentration is on creating a winning culture. Barlow wants to help players get back into the league and earn their chance at the NBA level. In order to do that, he’s emphasized mindset over skillset.
“There [have] been guys who have come to the G league with experience, and they just have the wrong attitude,” Barlow explained. “They view it as like a punishment that they’re here in the G League and not a chance to improve and showcase themselves and show themselves worthy of being in the NBA again. And I think that’s the biggest thing those guys have done. Luka, Fi, Denzel, Marial - they’re all into being in this experience and trying to make the most of it and show that they’re capable of getting back to the league.”
Formulating a successful G League system isn’t a craft many teams have mastered, but Boston seem to be on the right path and it’s already showing signs of success.
They also have a distinct advantage over other teams - they’re the Celtics.
“I also think, like, it’s the Boston Celtics,” Barlow stated. “People want to play for the Boston Celtics. People want to play for this organization. We’ve had a lot of success way before my time here in the G League. I think Scott Morrison made three straight playoffs, got multiple guys in NBA. You look at the call-up banners here, like, we’ve gotten guys called up here. So, I think that stuff matters to agents and players. They know we’re going to invest a lot of time and resources as an organization on their development.”
Name recognition goes a long way, and when an organization backs it up with a concrete reputation, it forms something special. That’s what is happening up in Maine. Boston has combined their historical franchise with an outstanding foundation of good people and a straightforward approach.
In order to mimic the MLB’s farm system and create a pipeline of quality NBA players, the G League must first establish itself as its own league. Maine has done a wonderful job of doing just that, and Barlow is helping lead the charge.
Hauser and Kornet are just the first examples of what could turn into a long stream of successful Maine products, and the Celtics are clearly reaping the rewards. But that’s been a two-way street, too. The organization has clearly noticed Maine’s success, and they are repaying them with a constant stream of investments. And those investments are not only going to benefit Maine’s future, but the future of the entire franchise, too.
“I think the Celtics have done an unbelievable job since I’ve gotten here in Maine in investing and making the G league a priority,” said Barlow. “And if you don’t make the G League a priority, how can you expect to get players out of it? And that’s what the Celtics have done, and I think we’re seeing the results of that investment.”