The Celtics don’t appear poised to replace Danilo Gallinari with an established veteran wing in the aftermath of Gallinari’s ACL tear playing for Team Italy last month. According to multiple reports, Carmelo Anthony isn’t the team’s radar and they are optimistic Sam Hauser can fill the role Gallinari projected to play. Boston already hoped Luke Kornet would take a step into a secondary big man role after a successful season in Maine. That sets up an intriguing test of the organization’s development system as training camp looms.
Both players spent the majority of last season in the G-League and share minimal NBA experience. They’ll now fill the Celtics’ front court depth. That’s not a massive gamble, considering Boston played a tight rotation that didn’t include Gallinari last season, Daniel Theis didn’t perform well after his trade deadline acquisition and both he and Aaron Nesmith only occasionally played. There’s also no clear alternative to pivot toward, so any positive contributions by Kornet and Hauser would be welcomed.
The questions come when Boston needs to rely on them, whether due to injury, resting starters who carried heavy loads last year or even for short bench rotations in advantageous matchups. It’s unlikely either would appear in the playoffs, and Ime Udoka needs to trust Hauser and Kornet to make them regular components in his rotation. We haven’t seen enough of either player at the highest level yet to fully know who they are.
Udoka’s stated goal has been to start hot and allow for some of that load management last year’s second-half scramble to climb the standings wouldn’t allow for. The team as it stands can do that, but the Celtics’ starters played some of the heaviest minutes in the NBA last season. Robert Williams III suffered a meniscus tear in the closing weeks of the season and the rotation’s limitations became apparent. The same happened when Grant Williams went cold from three in the postseason and Derrick White’s offensive output became sporadic.
That resulted in Jayson Tatum, who played over 400 minutes more than any other player, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart logging almost the entirety of games. Horford took on a larger load for most of the postseason through Williams III’s ailments. Fatigue, Tatum admitted, came into play once the Celtics took a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals and largely faded in the series from that point on. The defensive system, offensive philosophies and rotations all required maximum effort and intensity to raise the Celtics to the top of the east.
Brad Stevens admitted the need for more playmaking by acquiring Malcolm Brogdon, who should help Brown and Tatum stagger minutes more playing with Smart. Gallinari’s shooting would’ve brought a new dynamic to the offense, allowing more flexibility and small ball lineups that may or may not be possible now.
That’ll depend on how the team chooses to utilize Grant, who thrived as a more perimeter-oriented player last season. Could Hauser, the 6-8 sharpshooter entering his second season, play next to Grant and centers? Having a player like Gallinari would’ve been a dream in the Finals against a switch-heavy Warriors defense that exposed mismatches the Celtics couldn’t exploit. Neither he nor Gallinari could’ve relieved the Jays.
Hauser also isn’t Gallinari, who brought a combination of shot creation, post-ups and consistent catch-and-shoot prowess over 14 years. Any percentage of the scaled-back role Gallinari would assumed here could be helpful though, and a 26-for-41 (63.4%) mark on his Virginia post-ups bodes well alongside 31-for-51 shooting in the paint with Maine. That was apparent last year, and Udoka still leaned toward extending his wings longer minutes and staggering Grant’s minutes at the four. Realistically, that will continue with hope for full health.
“First and foremost (Hauser’s) shooting stands out,” Udoka said in April. “Elite shooter. He’s been that since I saw him, had him in the building and obviously with the G-League team he’s been doing that, but he’s a very cerebral player across the board. He’s fit in well in games that he’s played early in the season when guys were injured, we plugged him right in and he didn’t really miss a beat as far as defensively and some of the things we were looking for. So always in the right spot, great team defender and knows how to use himself, his angles and cerebral guy, like I said, not just offensively, but defensively as well. So he’s a guy that we’re comfortable putting in with starters and other guys any time of the game. The shooting’s always there, but it’s more than that. He’s a well-rounded player.”
Defensive limitations led to Hauser going undrafted in 2021. He’s now had ample time between two summer leagues, a G-League stint and time around the NBA squad to get acclimated to Udoka’s system. The translating of his shooting, on paper, happened in his limited Celtics playing time, hitting 19-of-44 from three (43.2%), compared to 39-for-90 (43.3%) with Maine and 309-for-704 in college (43.9%).
Hauser showed more potential when Boston rested multiple starters against Milwaukee shortly before the playoffs. He filled in for 18 minutes off the bench that night, converting 4-of-5 shots from the field, 3-of-4 from three, with four rebounds and an assist against a fully-intact Bucks lineup. The shooting is spectacular, with his prowess coming on the move and running around screens allowing an offense to work inside-out.
He also developed a fun cutting game playing next to Kornet in Maine, who assisted 16 of his baskets 58 baskets in the G-League last season. There’s a consistency to Hauser’s shooting that allowed him to contribute in short bursts, the mark of a good bench player who may be called on some nights and taking DNPs on others. That likely became the biggest roadblock to signing a veteran like Anthony, who’s had a large role his whole career.
The underbelly of inexperienced players who didn’t expect regular roles brought more balance to the room last season, Malik Fitts, Brodric Thomas, Matt Ryan, Nesmith and others focusing on scout roles late in the season, but that dynamic also made Boston relatively thin. Kornet averaged 7.1 minutes in 12 appearances after the deadline and Hauser earned similar playing time. Udoka worked to build continuity, a defensive system and offensive principles among his regular rotation players and it became difficult to break through.
Hauser’s defense remains a question, becoming a major one when opponents lined him up and opened his hips. Being unable to stay in front of quicker talent would be an understandable reason such a great shooter didn’t even get a second-round nod. He doesn’t utilize his size exceptionally around the rim to defend or rebound.
Against a high pick-and-roll team like the Bucks, Boston effectively kept him out of actions by attaching him to perimeter shooters like Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. He hedged on help defense and drew steals out of those positions by jumping passing lanes.
There won’t be possibilities for center minutes like the Celtics hoped Gallinari would provide. Hauser will get bodied by larger centers, and probably won’t be able to switch with faster wings. That means introducing Hauser and Kornet will force Udoka to make some alterations to the defensive system.
Horford and Williams III can carry significant minutes, respectively, on certain nights to ease the load on the other. The former looks lean and arrived to training camp in brilliant shape earlier this month. Udoka challenged Williams III specifically after the Game 6 loss ended the team’s season, to come back stronger, able to play longer stretches and stay available. If he isn’t able to, Grant often stepped into the starting lineup next to Horford last year, either Kornet or two-way center Mfiondu Kabengele need emerge to fill the remaining minutes inside.
Kornet, through four NBA seasons, has played rim protection and pick-and-pop three roles with the Knicks, Bulls and Celtics. Stevens had long admired the 7-2 center as head coach when Danny Ainge traded Theis for Kornet and Mo Wagner at the 2021 trade deadline. Wagner brought more pedigree as a former first-round pick, but weeks later the team waived him instead of Kornet to sign Jabari Parker.
In the following games, Kornet hit a pair of threes to help spark a comeback win at the Thunder, scored 10 points against the Pelican, blocked four shots against the Lakers, then recorded three stuffs to go with seven rebounds and four assists in 19 minutes against Oklahoma City at home.
Stevens, stepping into a front office role, brought Kornet back on an Exhibit 10 contract. His inaugural run as president saw him pad the team’s depth with additions like Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson, veterans who expected regular roles and minutes. Readjusting the roster at mid-season proved key, as the starting lineup, jobs and rotations became more defined and Boston went on its run.
Kornet started in Maine, where he averaged 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 blocks per game on 50.6% shooting, working on his high dribble handoff game in a high-paced offense. He’d join the Bucks and Cavaliers on emergency contracts in December, and when the team traded Schröder, Richardson, Enes Freedom and Bruno Fernando at the deadline, Kornet and Hauser, who started the season on a two-way deal, earned full-time contracts.
“Playing for the Maine Celtics, it was kind of like you’re still in the organization the whole time,” Kornet told CLNS Media at the NBA Finals. “You’d see guys come up from the front office, we’d practice down there occasionally, you always felt like you were in-house and with the team. Once the deadline happened, I was definitely hoping for that option to come up and it ended up coming up and it felt like a very smooth transition because it hadn’t really felt from last season like I even left … we’ve also been able to grow as (Maine) teammates on the court there. Now, a lot of times whether it’s pregame work or whatever it might, there’s a lot of familiarity playing with each other which is great and makes it fun day-to-day.”
Kornet brings enormous size to the interior and shined in some pick-and-roll sets defensively due to his ability to cover ground in the paint with his length.
He won’t get out to the perimeter on switches and shooting bigs, so matchups and a drop scheme will be mandatory to survive.
Khris Middleton hunted him out in the April Bucks game, forcing him to move and contest. That’ll force back side rotations behind him, which Brown, Williams and Tatum should be able to manage.
Vertically, Kornet can make a real impact covering a big like Brook Lopez in the pick-and-roll and will block shots in his minutes. Kornet will just need to limit his fouling in his spurts.
The passing he developed offensively in Maine is intriguing, especially since he has some pedigree as a three-point shooter. Like Theis last year, the Celtics probably won’t want him firing off open threes every time he catches the ball.
If he can balance making quick decisions to find cutters like he did in the G-League and shoot over 30% on limited tries from deep, there’ll be room for him on an off night where Williams III or Horford can’t play. Kornet is a 32.4% career three-point shooter, finished 76.6% inside five feet for Maine and hit 10-of-29 above the break behind the line. He also ran the floor for a run-and-gun Maine system.
Through Boston’s worst days in the winter, Maine’s social media highlights of the high-flying G-League team were filled with Celtics fans wishing the pro team could play more like them. That happened by year’s end, and now two centerpieces of Maine’s offense will get the chance to show the growth they established toward professional roles, which isn’t something the franchise has accomplished since perhaps Avery Bradley.
“We’re really high on Luke, we’ve been really high on Luke,” Stevens told CLNS in July. “We thought he had a terrific G-League season and think that he can step right in and be a passer and a ball-handler and a mover and a screener and a roller when need be … we’re really believing in Luke not only as depth to fill out the roster, but also be ready to help us win. I think he’s at that stage where he can do that.”
NOTE: Bruno Caboclo, Noah Vonleh, Justin Jackson, Denzel Valentine and Jake Layman, as first reported by CLNS Media, will round out the training camp roster with Brodric Thomas likely to join too, according to MassLive. Three regular season spots remain open.