We’ve left 2023 in the rear-view mirror, and with nearly two weeks under our 2024 belts, we’re firmly in the midst of New Year’s Resolution season. Whether it’s trying to hit the gym more often or committing to read more books or whatever your goal might be, it’s an optimistic time of year, an opportunity for all of us to push our personal boundaries and strive for personal growth.
I don’t know how true this trend rings to professional athletes firmly in the midpoint of a long and grueling regular season. But from an observer’s perspective, it’s a good time to take stock of what we’ve seen from the Boston Celtics thus far and offer some suggestions for where they go from here. We’re going to take a look at the roster and identify some goals or avenues of improvement for each player in 2024.
For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to be focusing only on the players on full, guaranteed NBA contracts or ones that have seen meaningful run at the NBA level to this point in the season. Let’s get into it.
Jordan Walsh: Defend his way onto the active roster
Expectations always need to be tempered when it comes to second round draft picks, and under that light, Jordan Walsh’s rookie season has been going quite well. Minutes have been scarce on big league team, and as a result, he’s spent most of the season with the G-League Maine Celtics, where his play has been encouraging through five regular season games. He’s added some surprising shooting from deep (41%) on solid volume (7.2 3PA/G) as he works to develop himself as a scorer.
This is an encouraging start for Walsh, but it’s not going to be quite enough to get him on the court for a Celtics team this good. The track record isn’t long enough, and there would be too much talent to afford him much of a workload as a scorer. For a player as young and raw as Walsh to break into the rotation, he’s going to have showcase a skill that will give him situational value. That’s going to be defense. A 6-foot-7 wing with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he has the potential to be the kind of smothering wing defender that teams can never have enough of.
If Oshae Brissett finds himself sidelined at any point this season, I’d bet on Walsh as the next man up. Should he show up and introduce himself to the league as a tenacious and effective wing defender, he very well might buy himself a role in the second half of the season.
Neemias Queta: Cut down on foul trouble
Queta has been a pleasant surprise for the Celtics in his 14 appearances thus far this season. One of the team’s three two-way contract players, the 24-year-old has found himself pressed into action on a few occasions as the Celtics have managed Al Horford’s minutes and dealt with injuries to Kristaps Porzingis. He’s impressed; he already has a pair of double-doubles under his belt, and he’s acquitted himself well as an athletic finisher and active defender.
As the least experienced non-rookie on the roster, with just 33 career games at the NBA level under his belt, it’s not great shock that Queta is still exceptionally raw. His energy and physical talent have done some work to compensate for the fact that he’s still learning the game at the highest level. Nowhere is that more evident than defensively, where he’s fouling opposing players an an exorbitant rate. Extrapolated across 36 minutes, he’d be just about fouling out in every single game he plays with an average of 5.5 personal fouls per game.
NBA defense comes with a massive learning curve for frontcourt players. Foul trouble is to be expected, and takes time to conquer. There’s no better time to learn than the present, though, and on a team with championship aspirations, Queta will need to cut down on the free passes if he’s going to stay on the court as the season winds on.
Svi Mykhailiuk: Be prepared to fill in
“Stay ready” isn’t an exciting resolution to put forth in an exercise like this, I admit. We’re interested in identifying avenues of growth for these players, and it’s not exactly very fun to settle for “just keep doing what you’re doing” in that context.
In Mykhailiuk’s case, though, there isn’t much else to ask of him, short of “grow four inches” or “become peak Danny Green on defense.” The package that makes him an NBA-caliber player is already there: dynamic movement shooting from three-point range. The results haven’t illustrated this so far this season — he’s made just 22% of his 35 attempts — but that’s far from a large enough sample to override what we’ve seen from his six years in the league.
Mykhailiuk is this team’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency piece. If someone in the guard rotation goes down with an injury, Mazzulla and the Celtics know exactly what he can bring them, and they have to trust that he’ll be ready to do so. It’s not easy to sit on the bench and wait for opportunities — every player in the league wants to be on the court. But having the patience to keep yourself ready when minutes are hard to come by is what true professionals do.
Dalano Banton: Develop an off-ball role
If nothing else, Banton is certainly the most unusual player among the Celtics’ deep bench reserves. A point guard by trade, encased in the body of a tall wing, it’s hard not to get caught up in wishful thinking about what he could be. Obviously, we’d be talking about him rather differently right now if he’d shown much potential of reaching those heights. In his third season of NBA ball, Banton hasn’t been much more than a tall body.
So far, he’s only recorded 122 minutes of court time for the Celtics this season, and he feels like the odd man out among this team’s guards. With Holiday, White and Pritchard eating up the lion’s share of the minutes — and Tatum and Brown continuing to compile their customary on-ball reps — there just hasn’t been much space for additional guards who need the ball.
It just feels as if there isn’t much for Banton to do right now. Sure, he’s capable of running the pick-and-roll as an initiator, but with the talent on this roster, it’s hard to justify giving him those reps when it means taking them away from someone else. He’s a complete non-shooter with a career three-point percentage of just 27%, and he doesn’t wow as a defender despite his size. Finding that one special thing he can bring to the table would go a long way towards clarifying what he contributes to this team.
Lamar Stevens: Consistency from deep
Stevens is another seldom-used bench piece, who, like Mykhailiuk, really just needs to keep himself prepared for nights where the team needs him. He’s a similarly experienced player, a bit more established than the rest of the players on this list — including two seasons as part of the rotation for Cavaliers teams with winning records. Opportunities have been limited, in part due to the emergence of Oshae Brissett, but it’s clear he’s here to pick up the slack in case of an injury in the rotation.
However, unlike Mykhailiuk, Stevens’ theoretical game doesn’t slot into a lineup quite so neatly. He’s simply not a good shooter, and perhaps even worse, he’s not a particularly willing one. Just 28% of his three-point shots have found the bottom of the net, and he’s never taken more than 1.5 threes per game at the NBA level. Defenses just don’t need to account for him, and in the hyper-matchup-exploitative NBA, that can gum up your offense far too much.
This is easier said than done, of course. Improvement from three-point range isn’t a matter of merely trying harder; it’s a complicated art with endless variables. But should the shot come around, Stevens paints a pretty intriguing picture as a multi-positional combo wing/big who defends and plays with energy. Every team needs those kinds of players. Stevens just needs to command a little more respect from defenses before he’ll truly get there.
Oshae Brissett: Just keep shooting
It’s become relatively clear as the season has progressed that Brissett sits atop the depth chart among the deep bench players. When someone from the core rotation of this team hits the injury report, Brissett has been the first call for Joe Mazzulla. He’s done well when pressed into action, playing with hustle and energy and making some splash plays at times. So far, it’s been about the best you can ask for from a budget acquisition on the periphery of your rotation.
There’s still room for growth. Perhaps paradoxically, given his 28% mark from three-point range this season, we feel as though Brissett should be more willing to let the shots fly. Brissett has shown the ability to score effectively from range on reasonable volume in the past, peaking with a 42% rate with the Pacers in 2020-21 on 5.4 attempts per 36 minutes. His struggles from deep this season have been the exception, not the rule.
Of course, that was just 20 games, and it’s not reasonable to expect him to produce like Sam Hauser based on that sample. But even average three-point shooting has its value at the NBA level. If Brissett proves to defenses that he’s willing to let it fly, they’re going to be forced to account for him in a way they aren’t currently with Stevens. These will be open shots, too, given the amount of talent the Celtics have on the floor at all times. Bomb away, Oshae.
Luke Kornet: Secure a bag this offseason
Coming into the season, the reserve frontcourt looked like an obvious area for improvement for this team. Kristaps Porzingis has a lengthy injury history, Al Horford is old, and Luke Kornet looked like a weak link backing up either. This season, though Kornet has made a notable step forward in performance, looking like like the gimmicky, goofy deep bench player of last season and more like a bona fide piece of the rotation.
From a fan perspective, perhaps it doesn’t feel very virtuous to prioritize a paycheck in a professional sport. Team success is the ultimate goal, the defining standard for success within the structure of the league. And doubtless, Kornet wants to win the championship this season as much as anybody else on this roster. For players like him, though, the opportunity to bring home a multi-year, guaranteed deal is invaluable. A player who has never taken home more than $2.4 million in salary in a season is going to hit the open market in a league with a burgeoning salary cap that just saw then-34-year-old JaVale McGee secure a three-year, $17 million deal two offseasons ago. That’s a substantial raise for a player like him, and invaluable long-term security for a career that could have ended at any moment to this point.
Kornet certainly looks the part of a rotation center right now, and that bodes well for the Celtics this season. If he’s able to parlay his improved play into a long-term deal this offseason, though, it might just cost the team his services beyond this year. For Kornet, that qualifies as an absolute success.
Sam Hauser: Win the Three-Point Shootout
Is this the most consequential resolution on this list? Absolutely not. Would it be cool? You bet it would. Personally, I love the three-point shootout. There’s something incredibly cathartic about watching a great shooter find a rhythm shooting off of a rack. As the Slam-Dunk Contest has been on the decline, I think you can at least make the case for the Shootout as the more exciting event — even more so when a Celtic is in the competition.
With the three-pointer carrying ever more value in the modern NBA, the shootout has become a star-driven affair. Hauser may not have the name brand value to participate these days — we’re probably more likely to see Tatum or Brown competing, if someone in the field is going to be competing. But Hauser’s game is tailor made for this, as a dexterous movement shooter with a lightning-quick release. If he’s in, he’s a real threat to win it, and I would love to see it happen.