NEW YORK — Ime Udoka and the Celtics’ coaching staff told Sam Hauser repeatedly to stay ready last season. By the time he received extended run the team’s penultimate regular season game against the Bucks, Udoka raved about both his defensive growth and feel for the game. A major compliment from the straight-shooting coach, but too late to gain his trust ahead of an NBA Finals run where Hauser mostly spent time on the scout team in practice and scrimmaging with the team’s deep bench players before games.
The sharpshooting rookie, who abandoned a two-way offer from the Heat last summer, joined Boston without access to G-League Maine for development during the league’s COVID surge. Boston called him into action during rest nights and that early stretch of roster turmoil. Otherwise, Hauser never broke through despite the Celtics struggling to find depth and shooting.
Then, the team traded Aaron Nesmith in the Malcolm Brogdon deal, Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL and the Celtics didn’t use their large trade exception. Nobody told Hauser explicitly, but he knew he had a chance, especially when interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, his Summer League coach from 2021, stressed offense and spacing in training camp. Hauser’s playing time increased each week to start this season, culminating in a 17-point effort in 21 minutes, shooting 5-for-8 from three at Madison Square Garden in a 133-118 win while the Celtics broke their franchise record with 27 triples.
“I had a feeling that there were going to be opportunities,” Hauser said. “But going through training camp, nothing’s really given, so you have to earn everything you can get, so I just put my nose down every day and worked hard and I’ve got to continue to do that to earn my spots, so I’m going to keep doing that.”
Hauser increased his efficiency to 54.8% on 31 three-point attempts, already approaching the total of 44 he attempted during his rookie season. The Celtics’ front office expressed confidence by signing him to a guaranteed two-year, $3.6 million contract, but a third-year team option and an array of wings in training camp forced him to compete. Hauser needed to improve defensively and play within the flow of a fast-paced, pass-heavy offense.
He showed the ability to attack closeouts and hit shots at the rim, forcing overtime in the preseason against the Raptors with a three-point runner. Tatum teased Hauser, declaring himself the best shooter on the Celtics when he wore a mic at one practice during camp, but his explanation of the jab sounded more like a challenge. Teams contest, double team and play Tatum physically on the perimeter while letting Hauser shoot wide open. He should be hitting nearly half his threes, Tatum argued. Hauser surprised him with other parts of his game Friday.
“I know I gave Sam a lot of s*** at the beginning of the season about being the best shooter,” Tatum said. “I gave him his credit in the locker room, obviously he hit some shots, we know Sam can really shoot, but the best play, I think Sam made, he came off a DHO in the first half and I think they blitzed it. He backed out and threw it over the top to Luke (Kornet) and Luke got fouled. I told him, ‘now you’re playing basketball.’ I don’t know if he would’ve did that last season. I think it just shows how hard he’s worked this offseason to earn that opportunity and make the most of it.”
Hauser needed to defend more than anything and worked on his ability to play in isolation, contest with his length and position himself defensively to prevent driving angles. Playing with Maine teammate and rim protector Kornet in a defense that drops, helps and aggressively prevents rim looks helps.
The Celtics haven’t switched as aggressively this season, so while he gave up 1.00 point per possession guarding the pick-and-roll, he’s only been pulled into one per game. The isolations he faces, 1.3 per game, are a bigger challenge. He’s allowed 1.08 PPP when attacked one-on-one. Mazzulla also sprinkled Hauser into lineups, averaging 9.2 minutes per game through the first five games while still finding a way to hit seven three-pointers.
“I think I’ve still got work to do,” Hauser said. “I know I’m going to be involved in a lot of the actions, and I’ve got to hold my ground a little bit better. So that’s something I’ve got to work on, but overall I think I’m getting better. Maybe it’s a little bit of both (strength and positioning). Defense is tough and something you can always get better at.”
So far this season, opponents have shot 55.6% when guarded by Hauser, a number he’ll need to improve, but the Celtics’ bench has outscored their competition by 32 points, the fourth best mark in the NBA. They’re shooting 49-for-100 from three (1st) is a big reason, as Boston leans into a 47.3% three-point attempt rate that’s nearly two percentage points above the second-place Warriors.Mazzulla is playing a deliberate math game. This one adds up.
Cut off mid-rangers from their offensive shot diet. Take threes and layups, and don’t allow those shots on defense. No NBA team has a more extreme shot profile, and on Saturday they took 40 of their first 65 attempts from behind the three-point line.
They want to create space, driving lanes and gain an advantage over opponent’s willingness to take other, less efficient shots and while the three carries some night-to-night variance, they have the personnel to be comfortable taking 51 threes, as they did to beat the Knicks. That requires playing Hauser more often, and they’re outscoring opponents by 25.1 points per 100 possessions in 13.1 MPG.
Hauser, the Celtics’ best unsung prospect find in recent years, is a success story for both Boston’s scouting and G-League development after a rougher stretch to close the Danny Ainge era.
“We have great shooters, we have great players. We have guys who can put two (defenders) on the ball and create,” Mazzulla said. “So when you’re playing a little smaller and there’s more space, you have to take the first best shot. I just think it’s a credit to our guys and it fits our team right now.”
“(Hauser) plays the right way, knows how to play off the other guys, puts a lot of pressure on the defenses, so it helps our spacing. He’s continuing to work at getting better at his defense. I don’t if that’s the biggest reason (he didn’t play last year). I just think right now, he’s worked hard in the offseason, it fits our personnel, it fits our identity offensively and what we’re trying to do.”