Assessing the Celtics’ internal center options with Robert Williams out

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If the Celtics don’t make a move, what will their big man rotation look like?

At the beginning of the offseason, the Boston Celtics’ frontcourt looked deep. Their starting unit from last season was still intact, Grant Williams was coming off of a breakout year, and Brad Stevens signed Danilo Gallinari to a two-year contract. However, a lot has changed since then.

Gallinari tore his ACL while playing at EuroBasket, and, according to Sean Deveney of Heavy.com, Robert Williams is set to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery. He’ll miss 4-6 weeks, which means Boston will be without him for the beginning of the regular season.

What was once a four-man frontcourt is now down to two. So, what’s next?

In the past, the Celtics have expressed the desire to give some of their internal options a chance before turning to the free agent market. Brian Robb of MassLive reported as such on September 9, when the Carmelo Anthony rumors were making their rounds:

“That’s not to say the team is done shaping the roster ahead of the preseason but Anthony isn’t a priority at this point at names that could be brought in. Boston likes a lot of their internal replacement options from what I’ve heard and want to give those names the first crack at minutes.”

There are a few players who stand out as potential big man replacements on the roster, and all of them will likely have to step into larger roles now that Boston is even thinner at that position.

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Luke Kornet

Regardless of any other signings or additions the Celtics make, Luke Kornet will be thrust into more minutes. He finished last season in Boston, playing 12 regular season games with the team, averaging 7.1 minutes. However, when he was traded to Boston at the deadline of the 2020-21 season, he actually played more minutes.

In the 18 regular *///;pp3lseason games Kornet appeared in, he played 14.1 minutes, averaging 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks. Obviously, that was when Stevens was the head coach, but the point is, Kornet has some experience playing with Boston’s core players.

Adam Taylor did a deeper dive on Kornet earlier this summer, when he was projected to be the third-string center behind Williams and Horford. But now that Williams is set to miss time, Kornet will have even more responsibilities on his plate. If Boston doesn’t make a trade or find a gem in free agency, he could end up being their backup five for the time being.

He’s certainly not suited to be a long-term answer as the backup center, but having Kornet fill in the gaps to start the season isn’t nearly as disastrous a situation as many seem to be making it out to be.

Kornet isn’t a reliable defender on the perimeter, but he can hold his own in the paint. Over the course of the last two seasons, he’s held opponents to 62.8% shooting in the restricted area and 39.2% shooting in the paint (non-RA). To put that into perspective, here were Robert Williams’ and Al Horford’s numbers from last year:

Williams: 65.7% RA, 38.2% paint non-RA
Horford: 64.9% RA, 38.6% paint non-RA

There’s obviously a huge gap between the level of opponents faced and the number of shots guarded, but the point is, Kornet is actually a solid paint defender. And with a versatile defensive team around him, his flaws won’t be as easily exploited.

As for his offense, there’s something to work with there as well. He’s a solid screener in the pick-n-roll, and despite his occasional oaf-like movement, he can be a decent roller as well. Plus, he has the ability to shoot the ball. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but he’s capable of making shots from distance.

(And for what it’s worth, Myles Turner, who is heralded as one of the best stretch bigs in the league, shoots the ball just 2.5% better from distance than Kornet over the course of their careers.)

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Grant Williams/Sam Hauser

These two are lumped together because neither is exactly built to play the center position, and therefore, the Celtics will likely explore other options regardless. However, with Williams out, both will undoubtedly be asked to do more, and it’s important to note their potential increased opportunities.

Williams is the more intriguing player out of the two, as he is coming off of his best season in the pros. He spent some time at the five early on in his career, and he’s shown the ability to guard bigger players in the post, so he could be asked to do that more. Don’t be surprised to see him at center if Horford needs a rest and Kornet is on the bench.

In fact, Williams actually thrived when guarding most of the players Horford was tasked with matching up with last year. The most obvious example was when he clamped up Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs, but he performed well when guarding guys like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, too.

As for Hauser, he was already expected to play a larger role in the rotation when Gallinari went down, but now that Williams could potentially have to spend more time at the center position, he could end up being thrown into the deep end at the start of the regular season.

He’s not a great defender, but just like Kornet, if the Celtics can surround him with their elite defensive talent, they should be able to get away with it. Plus, having him hanging out in the corner waiting for open threes off of drive-and-kicks should be easy money.

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Mfiondu Kabengele

After an impressive Summer League stint, Kabengele signed a two-way contract with the Celtics. In his five games in Las Vegas, Kabgenele averaged 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.2 blocks on 58.7% shooting from the field and 40.0% shooting from distance.

While those numbers might seem mouth-watering, there’s a reason a 25-year-old Kabgengele had to settle for a two-way contract just three years after he was a first round selection.

At 6’9, Kabgenele doesn’t have a big enough frame to bang with opposing centers down low. Robert Williams has dealt with a similar issue, and the Celtics got around it by playing him alongside Horford, but if Kabengele were to get opportunities in Boston, it would likely be as the backup center rather than a power forward next to another big man.

Plus, while Kabengele’s Summer League numbers look great, he’s yet to prove that he can perform at the NBA level. In his two years of NBA experience, he’s yet to earn consistent minutes. Even in his most recent stint with the Cavaliers two years ago, he shot poorly from the field and from deep. He’s also never been a great rebounder, so his 8.2 boards this summer were somewhat of an outlier.

All that being said, there is still definitely a pathway for Kabgenele to be upgraded from a two-way contract to a standard deal. Despite his flaws, he’s still proven to be an explosive player on the court, and there are certainly lineups where his skillset could be utilized by Udoka.

Not every lineup he goes up against will have a big-bodied bruiser down low, and even if he struggles in specific matchups, having him play alongside Grant Williams, Kornet, or Horford would provide him with some relief. He’ll have to show some consistency when playing against NBA-level talent, but if he can do that during training camp and the preseason, Kabengele could definitely be afforded some big-time opportunities.

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Noah Vonleh

This may technically count as an external option, as Vonleh is still only on an Exhibit 9 contract with the Celtics for training camp. While he hasn’t been able to stick anywhere thus far in his NBA career, Vonleh could provide some necessary big man depth on a Celtics roster that lacks just that.

Vonleh’s offensive production has never been something to write home about. He can set screens and roll to the rim, but he’s just never had a clear-cut role on that side of the ball.

Defensively, things have been a bit better. He’s a solid defender on the perimeter, and at 6’10 with a 7’4 wingspan, he has some solid length to defend inside as well. However, his best attribute is likely his rebounding.

Over the course of his NBA career, Vonleh has tallied more rebounds than points, posting a 5.1 career average. The last time he played more than 50 games in a season was with the New York Knicks in 2018-19, and he averaged 8.4 points and 7.8 rebounds. For a Celtics team that has struggled to rebound the ball at times, having him on board could be useful.

Right now, Vonleh doesn’t project to be someone that can step into a large role on the team right away, but he’s also only 27 years old. If he impresses in training camp and adapts to Ime Udoka’s scheme quickly, he could earn some early season looks with Williams out.

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With Bruno Caboclo being waived, it’s looking like the Celtics could be on the hunt for a new big man to add to their training camp roster. There are guys like Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom are likely in the final years of their careers, but there are also players looking for another shot in the league, such as Kenneth Faried and Chinanu Onuaku.

Up to this point, Boston has preferred to bring in youth, so that’s something to remember moving forward, but as noted, they’ve also stated that they prefer their internal options. The news of Williams’ surgery may have changed their perspective, but it’s hard to imagine them suddenly changing their minds on some of these big name veterans who they could have signed all along.

It’s also important to remember that, based on the currently reported timetables, Williams should only miss the first couple weeks of the regular season and that’s if the recovery takes as long as possible.

Having a rotating center position of Horford, Kornet, Grant Williams, and Kabengele for a little while isn’t the end of the world, especially considering Boston can play small ball with one of the best backcourt groups in the NBA.