LAS VEGAS — Juhann Begarin took the opportunity to take over the Celtics’ offense in crunch time against the Bucks in the second game of Summer League and pointed his head down toward the rim. He scored inside to tie the game at 96, barreled downhill to dunk in transition, handing Boston a 98-97 lead with five minutes remaining, then split a pair of free throws for his third consecutive scoring play. Although the free throw gave the Celtics a 99-97 lead, a botched scoreboard made it appear as though Boston trailed by one and that Begarin squandered a chance to tie the game. Instead, he might’ve gained a trip to the NBA with a solid summer.
Urgency increased one play later when JD Davison got stuck in the post, with the Celtics seemingly down by four points after a Bucks three on the previous possession. Begarin cut from above the break, caught a dump-off pass from Davison in the lane and unleashed a massive one-handed slam on 6-9 center Sandro Mamukelashvili. Keeping the Celtics alive in real time, but actually taking the lead. Mamukelashvili got revenge later on Mfiondu Kabengele inside, but Begarin’s steal and free throw make with 71 seconds to go, alongside Matt Ryan’s game-winner, secured victory, the 19-year-old keying the team’s crunch time scoring by shooting 5-for-11 with 13 points, eventually going on to lead Boston’s Summer League squad with 91 points.
“It’s pretty incredible he’s only 19,” Ryan told CLNS Media, unknowingly evoking a long-running Jayson Tatum joke. “He’s probably one of the more talented teenagers I’ve ever been around. Still a lot to improve upon, but he’s shown flashes. Him pushing it in transition, he looked pretty special doing that, had a couple big dunks and hopefully that’ll propel him, get his confidence up a little bit more going into the back stretch of these games.”
Begarin, the Celtics’ No. 45 overall pick in the 2021 draft who played for Paris Basketball last season, displayed the same physicality and blur-inducing transition runs that made him an intriguing Summer League prospect last August. Boston now has the roster spots to carry him into next season after evident progress in his motor, defensive posture along with mild shooting improvement. Begarin averaged 18.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals across five games, finishing 42.7% from the field, 33.3% from three and 76.9% at the free throw line — the latter his most pronounced stride.
While the 6-5 guard turned the ball over 21 times and leaves much to be desired as a playmaker, particularly in the half court, he made up for that deficiency with timely cuts to the rim. His ability to find open space made him an immediate target for passing big man Trevion Williams in the Celtics’ Summer League training camp, and it translated to a 13-point Begarin performance against the Heat where he shot 9-for-10 at the free throw line. Kabengele, who’s a fellow French speaker, noted Begarin’s strides on the court and with English.
“I didn’t know he was from France until I started talking to him,” Kabengele told CLNS Media. “I heard the accent and I’m like, ‘that’s not a Boston accent or an American accent.'” So I thought he was from France, but he’s really good. We kind of just talk about casual things, how it is back home, the food, the music we listen to right now, so it’s been really cool. His English is really good, he understands everything, terminology, some slang as well, so it’s really cool, really good. (He’s a) really big guard. Real big guard, physical guard, sees the play. He understands how to play the right way, making the extra pass, dive in, he’s really good at back cuts.”
Begarin doesn’t have a clear path to minutes with four point guards, Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Danilo Gallinari ahead of him on the depth chart if he comes over this year. He struggled in France’s top division last season, averaging 11.1 PPG on 43.2% shooting with a 30.9% mark from three, 56.3% free throw efficiency and more turnovers than assists. Given that ball-handling ranks among his top weaknesses, he doesn’t project to impact an area Boston already needed help in. Both of the Celtics’ two-way contracts have been filled by Davison and Kabengele, and Europe offers Davison more opportunity and competition than Maine anyway.
All signs point toward Begarin playing out at least one more season overseas. That doesn’t undermine the progress he’s made as a prospect though, and while most second-rounders never make the NBA, he’s on his way to becoming a player that fits Ime Udoka’s system on both ends. He boasts the physique and athleticism to compete with top competition already and owns some admirable skills he can build on. And he’s only 19.
Begarin brought the ball up, initiated some pick-and-roll, attacked the basket off the dribble and finished with both hands last week. That versatility, along with his threat as a catch-and-drive finisher, project toward him becoming a modern, dynamic guard with legitimate wing size.
Right now, his handle does him more damage than good, particularly in the half court.
Pressure sped Begarin up against the Heat’s back court of Kyle Allman Jr., Marcus Garrett and Mychal Mulder. Begarin dribbled ahead of the ball multiple times during Summer League, attempting passes before fully assessing other situations and leading to live ball turnovers and opposing fast break points.
He’s a willing passer and makes good secondary reads, but given his looseness with the ball and lack of a consistent pull-up jump shot, it’s hard to imagine him leading an offense right now. That’s fine if he can become a secondary playmaker and finisher, which he already showed the potential for in Vegas by swinging the ball to open shooters, driving-and-kicking, along with running some delayed actions to find his rolling big men.
In isolation, Begarin struggled to create separation despite his strong first step and explosiveness. That stems back to dribble concerns. He got stuck trying to take on opponents by himself and needed to give the ball up.
When he did reach the rim, it gave big men like James Wiseman time to come swallow him up. Begarin’s ability to stick with those plays stood out though. He finished multiple put backs inside after initially getting rejected at the rim, a credit to his rebounding and improved motor. Begarin’s length should expand his game around the rim, where he’s a mixed bag right now.
Begarin threw a handful quality lobs to Kabengele and served one of his better assists in a Celtics uniform out of a set in-bounds play. His floor sense overall improved over last year. The more turnovers that come as a result of aggressiveness, rather than sloppiness, the better offensive player he’ll become.
Whatever facilitating ability Begarin develops in the half court will only add to an already-great transition game. He dazzles on the run, with or without the ball, and his ability to generate stops with his seven-foot wingspan, dribble the ball on the break, then finish on his own or find teammates remains the most intriguing part of his game. Begarin also caught an alley-oop from Davison in transition.
Begarin moves efficiently end-to-end and rarely gets chased down. When he senses traffic in front of him, he has a good eye at finding shooters and trailers in the corners alongside him. His left-hand finishing ability gives him an unpredictability around the basket when he does need to score in a crowd.
Dare I say there’s some Brown resemblance in his ability to initiate the fast break. He’ll dunk, flush reverse layups and get off the ball if necessary.
An off-ball role may suit Begarin better when he comes to the NBA. Being able to take steps on a Summer League roster that needed him to facilitate some shows an encouraging adaptability even if his turnovers ballooned. He only averaged 2.2 giveaways per game last season in Paris and 2.8 last Summer League compared to 4.2 in 2022.
“We saw some of these guys last year,” Udoka said on NBA TV last week. “You want to see what they’ve done in the last year. A guy like Juhann has been overseas, obviously, we want to see the growth from last year to this year. That’s the main thing with these guys, you got to see how they fit into what we do well. Guys are in different roles here, you’ve got Sam Hauser and some of our guys that played with us this year, but they’re put in a different position here and we want to see how they can acclimate to that. Some things translate, some things don’t as far as the scoring and all that, but we want to see how they’ll fit in with the big scheme of how we’re doing.”
Begarin thrived as a cutter, shooting 25-for-54 on two-pointers (46.3%) in five games, likely finishing at a higher rate if you cut out some of his mid-range and long twos that mostly resulted in misses. He racked up 26 free throws, hitting 20, mostly by making himself available away from the ball and drawing contact around the rim. Begarin looked difficult for defenders to physically stop from hitting layups when he broke free.
“Offensively, he has good feel and great awareness of his spacing, where his outlets, where his teammates are and there’s times where I really liked what he did and times where I thought he could’ve given us a little bit more, but overall, I think he’s really gotten better from last year to this year,” Ben Sullivan told CLNS. “(I want him to) be aggressive on both sides of the ball, really impose his will on the game, his physicality and really impact both sides of the ball with that.”
Sullivan received more of that as the schedule progressed, culminating in a team-high 25 points from Begarin in the team’s finale against Brooklyn. He added three assists, with only three turnovers, while hitting all four free throws and 3-of-6 shots from deep.
Opponents consistently lost Begarin when he traipsed into the paint area, catching passes wide open around the rim. He occasionally made finishes more difficult than they needed to be, and it’s unlikely regular NBA defense will fall asleep on his cuts as often as Summer League’s lackadaisical perimeter stoppers did. It’s still an improvement on one year ago, when he largely needed to shoot or create offense on the run or off the dribble.
Begarin not only found open pockets of space to dive into consistently in Vegas, he also flashed the ability to alter the defense with his movement and create opportunities for others. Sometimes teammates missed him on the cut, but his commitment to a sometimes underutilized skill by NBA guards can be helpful to an offense in the same way a jump shooter can alter a defense.
Elsewhere, Begarin backed Donovan Williams, a similarly sized opponent, down when the defender stayed with him after his catch cutting into the post. Begarin set himself with a dribble move and powered to finish inside through the foul. Bull ball against smaller guards is definitely an area Begarin can utilize his size to translate his scoring to the next level. As an off-ball player, Begarin thrived overall at Summer League.
Players can’t do everything and fall to the second round, and shooting remains one of Begarin’s less enticing skills. He flashed mild improvement, hitting seven three on 21 tries after only converting three on 14 last summer. Both are small samples and though there’s no significant issue with Begarin’s release, he isn’t currently a player who will command major attention when he’s standing behind the three-point line off-ball.
Begarin’s shot still features a slight lean for rhythm and he favors the long two-pointer, stepping into his shots and requiring a little extra room when he tries to expand his range. Fortunately, Davison and others fed him for quality catch-and-shoot opportunities where he looked more fluid and direct to the rim. He may end up being like Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder before him from three, able to knock them down but erratic night-to-night.
The free throw shooting left little hope for growth previously, given he’d never shot better than 66.7% at the line in any of his professional stints going back to 2017. Begarin show far more stability at the line this time, with his 9-for-10 performance against Miami likely up there with some of his best nights there ever.
He shot 2-for-9 on free throws last summer, and finished a respectable 77% on 26 attempts this time. There’s hope he can improve from the field too with that progress.
Begarin has all the tools to compete at the NBA level defensively, including a 6-11 wingspan and 8-9 standing reach while standing over 6-6 in shoes. He’s strong, moves well laterally and flashes quick hands and plays with aggression on that end. With some seasoning and discipline within a strong system, he could become a switchable force across the perimeter and occasionally inside. Begarin walled off and prevented perimeter players like Cam Thomas and Moses Moody from opening his hips to create driving lanes, an improvement on last summer.
He fares particularly well when offensive players try to power him, Begarin boasting a powerful base and upper body that allows him to stand his ground around the post. Day’Ron Sharpe had no luck posting him in the finale. Warriors wings like Jonathan Kuminga and Moody found more luck at the rim, but not easily.
The help defense Begarin provided presented more mixed results. He loved to play at the nail, cheat inside and commit to help routinely in each Celtics game. Begarin couldn’t keep his nose out of plays, and while it worked more often than not in the chaotic, disheveled, poor shooting Summer League environment, it led to numerous players where he creeped in way too far off of a shooter. His recovery’s weren’t always on point.
That’s nit-picking though, and given the Celtics coaching staff’s desire to see him play aggressively, they got what they wanted from him on that end of the floor. Begarin generated nearly two steals per game, his help presence proved helpful alongside Davison’s propensity to give up the drive and with all that length at the nail, he stuck his arm into a few plays and poked the ball loose. He wasn’t a passive defender, always finding a way to get involved in a play. It did become questionable how impactful his presence around the rim became when he parked himself inside to help stop opposing penetration, Begarin fouling often in those circumstances.
The Celtics will love what they saw as a team that wants to attack offenses, and his switching communication will sharpen. Begarin’s defense could be what seals the deal on a roster spot, something he already wanted to claim one year ago.
While his close-outs aren’t always sharp or on time, Boston coaches three-point defense as well as any organization and he should stay more attached in those situations when play NBA defense. What did stick out in that area was Begarin’s intensity on the defensive boards.
“He’s really grown physically,” Sullivan told CLNS. “There’s some things that he can do defensively. He has great instincts, kind of a nose for the ball, where to be.”
There were several long bounce outs back toward shooters who he had come out to contest, setting up sprints to the loose ball he won more often than not. He even forced a jump ball battling with Wiseman on the boards inside. Begarin grabbed over five rebounds per 36 minutes in France, a solid total for a defensive guard.
The concern on defense came in the screening game. Begarin took long, awkward paths around screens that his bigs often played up well enough to help him recover from. Sometimes he got taken out of plays by a quality pick and he didn’t always keep the play in front of him, choosing more often than not to go over and allow the drive. Entering a league full of handoffs and screens on and off the ball, he’ll need to sharpen up his off-ball defense fast.
Begarin’s roaming tendencies on defense can be passed off as a player capable of home runs on that end swinging for the fences. He finished seventh in the French league in steals and looks like he can pile them up if he’s trying to. That doesn’t always equate to great defense and perhaps one of the benefits to having him on the active roster would be implementing the concepts, habits and technique that Udoka wants his players to execute. The structure of a quality Celtics Summer League program, with almost every player knowing their role, helped Begarin as Boston’s pick-and-roll defense allowed him to recover on many plays where he initially struggled with the screen.
Begarin’s strength, length and quickness, however, give him every chance to become a great defender and you already see flashes.
Begarin might’ve made the strongest case possible for coming over. Given Boston’s front court needs, wing depth and array of playmakers that didn’t seem feasible entering Summer League. It’s a credit to how well he played that we’re even having this conversation.
Right now, his production painted a picture of a young player who needs to learn, grow and play against heavy competition. His 29-game picture from France’s top league told a more complete story than five games in Vegas. There’s NBA talent here, that seems clear, which is encouraging given where they selected him and the extremely raw package of tools at his disposal one year ago. You can imagine him playing and maybe even starring in his role in Boston eventually, but both he and the Celtics have plenty of time to get there.
They shouldn’t rush him to the league, start a contract and already subtract one year off of it where he’d rarely play. The shuffle back-and-forth between Boston and Maine probably isn’t one he’d want to take toward development either, despite the occasional pitfalls overseas can have in terms of style of play. It’s worth one more year at the highest level of French basketball, or wherever he lands. The Celtics will maintain his rights indefinitely until he forces the issue.
“I think you can just tell that he’s matured,” Hauser told CLNS. “He’s only 19, so it’s weird even saying that, but he’s definitely matured. He’s got more savvy in his game now and his English actually has gotten really well. He’s been really, really good, obviously (in the Milwaukee game) he was awesome, but he’s going to keep working. He knows he can still get better at certain things, but overall he’s made a big jump.”