BOSTON — While some of Boston’s most recent draftees engaged in a spirited game of Knockout to close out Boston’s practice in front of season-ticket holders last week, fellow rookie Vincent Poirier amused his new teammates with his soccer skills at the other end of the floor.
Poirer, Tacko Fall, and Jaylen Brown were taking turns juggling a ball near the Boston bench when Poirier unleashed a series of “hop the worlds,” the 7-footer's long legs making the trick look that much slicker.
It was a decade ago that Poirier traded in his soccer cleats for hoopin' hightops, a teenage growth spurt pushing him from the pitch to the parquet. And it was in around that time that Poirier first gained an understanding of the team that would eventually make his NBA dream a reality.
“When I first played NBA 2K, the main game was Lakers vs. Boston. That’s how I knew that it was a big, big, big team,” said Poirier.
This helps explains why, in announcing his decision to come overseas this summer, Poirier glowingly referred to the green on social media as the, "mythical franchise of the Boston Celtics.” He became better versed in NBA hoops in recent seasons, especially after a summer stint with the Orlando Magic in 2016, but the video game Celtics near the end of the Big Three era were essentially his introduction to American basketball.
Poirier, who celebrates his 26th birthday later this month, signed a two-year, $5.1 million pact with Boston this summer. He arrives to a well-stocked frontcourt, but one that surely lacks the Kevin Garnett-like presence that made Boston a surefire contender at the start of this decade.
Poirier marvels at the variety of bigs Boston has in camp with a glass-crasher in Enes Kanter, a high-flyer in Robert Williams, a floor-stretcher in Daniel Theis, and a sheer giant in 7-foot-7 Tacko Fall. But there are clearly minutes to be won on this team after the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes. So how can Poirier separate himself from the pack?
"Doing what I did last year: Be active on both sides of the court, make the good decision, good screens. Make the guys shine,” said Poirier. "I think that, when the team is shining, you have to find somebody to say, ‘OK, it’s about doing the dirty jobs.’ I would like to be that guy.
“And to be active. Be as active as anybody on the court.”
Poirier distinguished himself overseas with his motor. He can run the floor and finish in transition, and he attacks the glass for available rebounds. Last season, he led the EuroLeague in rebounding, grabbing 8.3 boards per game while playing 25.6 minutes per night for Baskonia of the Spanish ACB League. Poirier also averaged 11.9 points per game and made the All-EuroLeague second team.
Poirier didn’t play in summer league, but competed in the World Cup, helping France earn a bronze medal in China. That included a win over Team USA (and four of his new Celtics teammates) though Poirier was a DNP that day. He had maybe his best game of the tournament against Australia (and former Celtics big man Baynes) while helping the French emerge in the third-place game.
Playing alongside countryman Rudy Gobert should only help Poirier’s defensive development. In Sunday’s exhibition opener, as Boston’s big men routinely got shredded by a mediocre Charlotte offense, Poirier was one of the lone bright spots. He was scoreless in six minutes of floor time but earned solid reviews.
"I think Vincent played as well as anybody the other night,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "I thought he played hard, he was in the right spots defensively, he read our coverages well. I thought, when he was in, I felt good about our pick-and-roll defense, which is a big deal.”
Poirier speaks solid English and communicating is the least of his difficulties with a new team.
"He’s been a great guy, a great communicator,” said rookie Grant Williams. “He plays with a lot of energy, a lot of motor, plays with pace, and does a lot of good things. He’s talented, he’s able to make shots over both shoulders in the post. And he’s an aggressive rebounder, so he’s doing really well. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do during the season.”
The Celtics have started stretching Poirier out to the 3-point line in post-practice shooting drills and he has a solid stroke. Like many of Boston’s foreign imports, he seems to recognize that evolving his game will be crucial to earning floor time.
It might ultimately be Poirier’s ability to joust with the likes of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo that determine just how much he plays this season, particularly if Boston’s other bigs struggle defensively.
Given the narrow window between the World Cup and the start of training camp, Poirier said his mother and girlfriend took care of finding him an apartment in Boston. He’s anxious to get a vehicle, a process delayed because he needed a credit check, which required a social security number. Moving to a new country is no easy endeavor, even for a pro athlete.
“It’s hard. I’ve got a lot of people helping me,” said Poirier. “So I just have to focus on basketball and practice.”
What does he miss most about home, beyond his family and friends?
"La baguette,” Poirier said with a laugh. "Yeah, la baguette. I don’t have my baguette every morning. It’s different when you live in Paris. That’s my home. My home city. I know everything, restaurants. Here, I need to find the good spots.”
Yes, there’s only so much a video game can prep you for a city. And the hunt for the mythical baguette continues.
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