Celtics veterans embracing TackoMania -- and all the rookie good vibes

Celtics veterans embracing TackoMania -- and all the rookie good vibes

BOSTON — Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown exploded from their seats and screamed about as loud as anyone inside a delirious TD Garden. Behind them, Marcus Smart clambered onto their vacant bench chairs and threw his hands to the sky, nearly tumbling over in his giddiness.

“I was just trying to be the same height as Tacko [Fall],” cracked Smart, referencing the 7-foot-7 big man whose second slam of the night turned the Celtics bench into human popcorn.

Moments earlier, the Garden had roared with playoff-like intensity when Fall, formally signed to a 2-way contract Sunday morning, got behind a pair of defenders and delivered an emphatic two-handed slam. Kemba Walker, Boston’s All-Star offseason signee, wrapped one arm around the neck of Smart and the other around Jaylen Brown, then lifted his feet off the ground and swung with the joy of a young child.

On a night the Celtics led by as much as 54 en route to a lopsided 118-72 triumph over the visiting Cavaliers, the veterans on the bench seemed to enjoy rooting for the rookies maybe more than building the lead.

Yes, part of the hysteria was the inescapable pull of TackoMania. It was Smart who, when coach Brad Stevens called for Fall to enter, stood up beside him and repeatedly implored the Garden crowd to get loud as Fall headed to the scorer’s table.

But Smart said the reason for Boston’s unbridled joy in watching its youngest players succeed goes beyond just Fall. The Celtics have eight rookies competing for roster spots in camp and seven of them could make the final 17-man roster. The bigger picture: Some of those first-year players are going to have to contribute when games are tenser than a breezy preseason matinee.

"I learned as a young guy coming in, confidence is big,” said Smart. "And we’re trying to give our young guys as much confidence as they can handle, as much as they need, as much as we can give because we’re going to need them. We got a lot of new faces out there, a lot of young new faces. We need these guys to have as much confidence as they can because, when things get tight, we need that confidence to keep going.

“But we’re really excited for those guys.”

So with every Max Strus 3-pointer — and there were four of them — the veterans sprang to their feet in support. Every time Tremont Waters channeled his inner-Isaiah Thomas while probing his way to the hoop for a leaning finger roll, the veterans snapped their towels in excitement.

"That’s what it’s about. That’s what a team is about,” said Smart. "Everybody succeeds. Those guys have worked hard, so it’s only right for us to go out there and cheer those guys on, because they do the same for us.”

The camaraderie of the rookies is palpable on this squad. It’s also manifested itself in a shared work ethic and a desire to improve, which hasn’t been lost on Stevens.

“[Strus], Javonte [Green], Tacko, Waters and obviously the guys we drafted, [Romeo] Langford and [Carsen] Edwards and [Grant] Williams, that's as good of a group of rookie workers as I've ever been around,” said Stevens. "They work. They all can play and they all have a good impact on our environment, which is important.

"Those guys — those guys grind. They are hard workers.”

Given the departures this summer, the Celtics will have to lean on those rookies. Williams and French import Vincent Poirier will get minutes in a new-look frontcourt, while Edwards has proven himself capable of scoring from the instant he comes off the bench. Injuries will only open more avenues for these young players to see court time in their first NBA seasons.

The younger players appreciate the way the veterans are trying to instill an early confidence.

"It’s a team game, so we’re all in it together,” said Strus, who signed a partially guaranteed deal Sunday and then put forth his best in-game case for earning the 15th roster spot. "We work together every day, non-stop. We all look out for each other and we cheer for [the veterans], they cheer for us, and it’s great to have that camaraderie on this team.”

It’s almost too easy to point to this start-of-the-year chemistry and suggest how different it is from last season when there, at times, seemed to be a divide between the “young guys,” and more established veterans. But these Celtics have worked hard to avoid comparisons between this year and last, and their actions this season are simply an understanding that everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction if this team is going to outkick the already tempered expectations.

There’s still an excitement at what this team can become and some of that will be dictated by how much younger players improve, and how much they can handle from the jump. Impossibly, players like Walker and Brown have flown quietly under the radar this preseason because some rookies have taken much of the spotlight, which amuses Stevens.

"Everybody’s flying under the radar except for Tacko,” cracked the coach. "So, that’s OK. We’ll take that.”

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Explaining the Celtics' roster moves and what a 2-way deal means for Tacko Fall

Explaining the Celtics' roster moves and what a 2-way deal means for Tacko Fall

BOSTON — The Boston Celtics made a pair of roster moves Sunday to ensure that Tacko Fall remains a part of the organization beyond training camp.

The 7-foot-7 Fall, who had been with the team on a training camp invite since the summer, was signed to a 2-way slot after the Celtics signed fellow undrafted rookie Max Strus to a partially guaranteed NBA deal that now forces him to compete for Boston’s final available slot on its 15-man roster.

For the casual fan, the roster gymnastics might all be a bit confusing so let’s break this down a bit.

The Celtics signed Strus after June’s draft with a promise of one of the team’s two 2-way roster spots, which allows a player to spend time with both the parent club and the G-League affiliate. The other 2-way spot was earmarked for second-round pick Tremont Waters, one of Boston’s four draftees.

Boston originally signed Fall to an Exhibit 10 contract, which is essentially a training camp invite with a player in line to collect bonus money if they are waived and funneled to the team’s G-League affiliate.

What the Celtics probably didn’t expect was that Fall would become a viral sensation at Vegas Summer League in July, not only because of his sheer height but because of his raw potential. The Celtics were hoping that, given their glut of rookies, they might be able to sneak Fall through to the G-League as a final camp cut but it became evident that another team would likely pounce on him if waived.

As TackoMania swept the region, the Celtics essentially moved Sunday to ensure Fall would stick with the organization. Here’s how they did it:

1) Strus agreed to a partially guaranteed deal that essentially ensures he collects the money he would have earned as a two-way player regardless of whether he makes Boston’s 15-man roster. Strus had to know his 2-way spot was in jeopardy if the Celtics had no other means of keeping Fall and got some financial security should he be searching for a new employer at the end of camp. Strus, who first wowed Celtics brass with his shooting at pre-draft workouts, is still an intriguing prospect and will have the remainder of camp to state his case for that final roster spot.

2) Fall agreed to a 2-way deal that ensures that he cannot be poached by a rival. The contract type, introduced in the summer of 2017, allow teams to carry two players outside the 15-man NBA roster. Fall can now spend a maximum of 45 total days — or about a quarter of the season — with the parent club while spending the majority of his time developing in the G-League.

This is a win/win for Fall and the Celtics. TackoMania will be a monster draw for the Red Claws, an organization that the Celtics purchased this summer. Boston brass is headed to Portland on Tuesday for a preseason announcement and Sunday’s maneuvering allows them to champion Fall’s impending arrival as well. The Claws should have no problems selling tickets with Fall alone, let alone the other rookies that will likely visit on assignment in order to get heftier game reps during the season.

The Celtics still have an open spot on the 15-man roster — vacant since the team waived Guerschon Yabusele during summer league — and both Strus and summer league standout Javonte Green are here on partially guaranteed deals trying to stake their claim to that spot.

Boston does not have to fill that roster spot — potentially valuing the flexibility later in the season over carrying one of those players — but Green in particular has made a strong case for that spot with his play in Boston’s preseason slate. Strus’ strongest work has come behind closed doors at Boston’s practices were his shooting continues to distinguish him.

The Celtics have two other non-roster players in camp in Yante Maten and Kaiser Gates. Both are longshots for a final roster spot but can latch on with the Red Claws as affiliated players if they are final camp cuts.

TackoMania is now more secure than ever in New England. The Celtics will get every opportunity now to watch Fall develop and attempt to mold him into a NBA-caliber big. Brad Stevens can expect those “We Want Tacko!” chants throughout the season now.

Celtics Spotlight: Is Jayson Tatum ready to make the leap?>>>

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Celtics Spotlight: Is Jayson Tatum ready for the leap that didn't happen last season?

Celtics Spotlight: Is Jayson Tatum ready for the leap that didn't happen last season?

When Jayson Tatum’s 14-foot fadeaway clanged off the front iron on his first shot of the 2019 preseason last week against Charlotte, it was fair to wonder if he was truly committed to hunting better shots this season. 

He followed with two finger rolls, including one over two defenders after attacking off the dribble from the high post, and a corner 3-pointer — all of this in little more than a minute span — and Celtics fans were probably a little woozy thinking about what could be this season.

Celtic Spotlights: Walker | Smart | Brown | Hayward | Williams 

Tatum has since owned his sophomore struggles, dismissed those that want to blame Kobe Bryant for his mid-range penchant last year, and reaffirmed a desire to make the sort of leap that even he was expecting last season.

The formula for that leap might be as simple as embracing a high-efficiency shot profile and letting his natural talents take over. And the preseason glimpses have been super encouraging.

It’s a successful season for Tatum if… 

…he keeps his promise to prioritize 3-pointers and layups. Tatum’s shot chart early in the preseason has been an analytics dream with nearly half of his attempts beyond the 3-point arc and another 40 percent from 10 feet or closer. Good things happened when Tatum was on the court last season, despite his questionable shot selection, and even better things will happen if he maximizes his offensive efficiency. A really successful season might just be Tatum emerging as Boston’s No. 1 offensive option by the time the playoffs roll around. 

It’s a disappointing season for Tatum if… 

…he falls into old habits of settling for mid-range jumpers and lazy fadeaways. Yes, he’s talented enough to make a lot of those shots, and still will. But he’s also good enough to probe off the pick and roll, get defenders off the ground with a head fake, and finish closer to the rim.  It’d be disappointing if he wasn’t in the conversation for a trip to the All-Star Game. 

2019-2020 Outlook

Thirty-five NBA players averaged 20 points or more per game last season. Even with all the obvious offensive talent that Boston has on its roster this season, Tatum should be in that category this year. He must play with more of a killer instinct and be someone that wants the ball in his hands in crunch time or when things are going sideways for the Celtics. But, building off what Gregg Popovich stressed to him at the FIBA World Championships, Tatum must also find ways to impact the game beyond scoring — whether that's with his length on the defensive end or being able to create for others when defenses collapse on him. Tatum has only scratched the surface of his potential to this point.

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