Celtics

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

A. Sherrod Blakely’s Starting 5: Unmasking the NBA’s best

BOSTON –  The NBA has seen its share of early-season injuries, some resulting in guys out for the season (Gordon Hayward) while others missing just a couple games (Al Horford out two games with a concussion).

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And then there’s Kyrie Irving, who suffered a facial fracture that kept him for one game. He was supposed to wear a plastic protective mask for a couple weeks. Instead, it lasted one game and part of another before Irving decided to ditch it.
 
Kyrie’s mask got me to thinking … who are the best masked men in the NBA?
 
Today's Starting Five will include the top 5 masked men in the annals of NBA history, in addition to the top 5 teams, MVP candidates, rookies and defenders:
 
TOP 5 MASKED MEN


1. Rip Hamilton, Detroit – Worn initially for protection, his mask became an iconic look for the three-time All-star.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers – Mask worn in 2012, the last year Bryant appeared in the playoffs.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City – He looked and played like a superhero in his first game with a mask in 2015, tallying 49 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Philly.

4. LeBron James – Ever the fashion-forward one, James wore a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose in 2014.

5. Kyrie Irving - He played with a mask for 19 games in 2013, averaging 24.5 points and 47.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.
 
TOP 5 MVP CANDIDATES


1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – The addition of Eric Bledsoe has helped rack up some wins, strengthen Antetokounmpo’s chances atop the MVP leaderboard.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State – Shooting better than 50 percent from the field, Durant has stepped his passing game (career-high 5.0 assists now) up this season while continuing to pile up the wins.

3. James Harden, Houston – Not having Chris Paul around most of this season and still winning, is a reminder of how Harden has played at a consistently high level against all comers.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland – Three straight wins and the Cavs are well on their way to getting back into the thick of things, with LeBron leading the way.

5. Al Horford, Boston – In his last three games, he’s shooting 76.6 percent and has been a central figure in Boston’s rise to the top of the NBA standings.
 
TOP 5 ROOKIES


1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia - He has eight double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles to his credit this season. He’s the rookie everyone is chasing now.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas - You have to watch this guy play. Would be getting a lot more pub if the Mavs had a better record.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston - Had a rough start against the Warriors, but bounced back and made key plays down the stretch helping Boston get the win.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers - The late first-round pick has been an absolute Godsend to the Lakers, able to contribute in a multiple of ways.

5. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers - He has been up and down like most rookies. But his court vision alone will keep him on the floor for many years to come.
 
TOP 5 DEFENDERS


1. Al Horford, Boston - He’s the best defender on the NBA’s best team defensively. It makes sense for Horford to be the pace-setter in this category.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah - A towering presence, this 7-foot-2 big man will once again be a top-3 finisher when it comes to the league’s highest defensive honor.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State - The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Green is the rare player who can defend all five positions at a fairly high level.
 
4.  Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City - His ability to defend guards as well as switch out defensively is a huge plus to the Thunder.
 
5. Aron Baynes, Boston - You will be hard-pressed to find anyone who utilizes the NBA’s rule of verticality  better than Baynes.
 
TOP 5 TEAMS


1. Boston – Winning 14 games, that’s one thing. But to beat Golden State along the journey? That’s special.

2. Golden State – Loss to Boston be damned, the Warriors are still the team everyone emulates … even now.

3. Houston – Can score with the best of them, but until they defend at a high level their success will remain limited primarily to the regular season.

4. Minnesota – It’s still early, but it’s hard to imagine the Timberwolves going anywhere but up the Western Conference standings.

5. Detroit – Outside of Boston, there may not be a bigger surprise in the NBA thus far than Detroit.

Curran: Ripple effect of selecting Williams should benefit Horford

Curran: Ripple effect of selecting Williams should benefit Horford

The most intriguing question coming out of the NBA draft is just what form of human torture Bill Belichick would devise if one of his players did what Terry Rozier did while the C’s were on the clock Thursday night.

First, you have to suspend disbelief and imagine that Belichick would be able to navigate FaceTime. Then keep disbelief suspended and imagine he’d take that call from, say, Joe Thuney or Eric Rowe on the day of the draft, never mind when the Patriots were on the clock.

Then, if Belichick did take the call and Joe or Eric were able to wheedle out info and surreptitiously broadcast it for the giggling pleasure of nearby nerds and a live online audience, I predict things would go badly for Joe/Eric.

Like, you’d find an arm in Wrentham. An ear in Westerly. A couple of toes in Windham. An eye and a tongue floating in a jar off of Gay Head. Nasty stuff.

And there’d be a stern conversation with the surviving members of the team about the dangers of social media.

Terry Rozier doesn’t have to worry about that though. Nor does he – for now – have to worry about being dealt.

Because the Celtics didn’t do a damn thing on Thursday night but let the draft come to them. And when it did, they got what they needed: an offensively impotent, vine-armed center who can punch stuff into the luxury suites with regularity. That’s Robert Williams. 

There really aren’t a lot of need needs on this Celtics team right now. Offensively, they have multiple guys who can create their own shot – Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Rozier and Gordon Hayward. They share the ball, they are dangerous enough from 3. What they didn’t have – and what Williams could possibly be – is a pick-and-roll finisher at the rim.

Al Horford can do that, but he’ll just as often look to kick to the corner after rolling into the middle of the lane as he will look to finish. Which is great. Horford’s the control tower and teams can’t sag and double without the fear Horford will find whoever’s being left alone. But Horford also just turned 32. His days of rolling and picking a lob out from between the banners are gone (if they ever existed).

Williams can do that. He was described during the draft on ESPN as “the best lob catcher in this draft” and the comparisons to Houston’s Clint Capela have been frequent. So frequent that when a writer for the Washington Times made the link after a pre-draft visit with the Wizards, Williams said, “I knew you were going to say that, bro. I watched him, he’s a great player. But everybody’s different. You can’t compare him to me.”

Whether it’s scoring as the roll man or just finishing off drop-downs when wings penetrate and dish, Williams will give the C’s way more explosiveness than they had with Horford and Greg Monroe.

Defensively, Williams – or at least the image of Williams at his best – that’s where Horford will really be helped. There were times later in the postseason where Horford – after getting pounding with Joel Embiid’s prodigious posterior for a half-hour or getting bounced around by Tristan Thompson on the defensive glass – looked gassed. And played gassed. The load was too much to sustain.

Williams, 6-10 with a 7-5 wingspan, ought to be able to help there almost immediately.

"He was a player that we liked coming into this draft process,” Danny Ainge said Thursday night. “He's a rim protector and rebounder, and a guy who can play above the rim on both ends of the court. We don't have much of that. We have a little bit of that, but not what he can do. So his abilities to protect the rim and rebound and run the floor, and I think, are some of his greatest traits and uses."

The one negative “trait” Williams allegedly possesses is an inconsistent motor. Which is a diplomatic way of saying he doesn’t try hard. It’s the main (lone?) reason he was available at 27 and not gone as a lottery pick.

Friday morning, after the Celtics weren’t able to round Williams up for a conference call with local media, the cluck-clucking picked up steam.

If it’s all true, it’s all true. But that doesn’t mean that can’t change. The kid turned 20 in October. One would think there’s still some time for growth. Especially when he’s got the confirmation that teams didn’t love the way he did his business by passing on him. Over and over and over and costing him cash along the way.

This is where Horford can really make an impact. For all the times on-court Al has been assailed with “Is that all there is…” laments, nobody ever complains about his work ethic or leadership.

And while it isn’t necessarily Horford’s job to make Williams better and himself expendable, Horford doesn’t seem the type who’d shy from mentoring a kid. Especially if the kid's presence is going to make Horford's life easier. 

“He won’t have any better role models than the guys in front of him,” Brad Stevens said of Williams.

Thursday night worked out perfectly for the Celtics. They resisted all temptations to be the life of the party by making some outrageous move. They simply added a player who – if all works positively – will be really useful and pretty solid. They’ll put him in a stable situation with a well-defined role. And if it doesn’t work out, there will be no, “WHY DIDN’T THEY (fill in the contrived outrage)?!?!?!”

What else do you want at 27?

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The next Clint Capela? Plenty of parallels with Robert Williams

The next Clint Capela? Plenty of parallels with Robert Williams

BOSTON – On a draft night when there was very little drama, intrigue or surprises to speak of, the Celtics landing Texas A&M’s Robert Williams certainly qualifies as an unexpected pairing.

Williams was seen by most as a potential lottery pick (top 14). who might slip into the late teens.

But all the way to 27?

To have such a precipitous fall, there are likely factors weighed by NBA teams that passed on him that go beyond his ability.

Of greater concern for the Celtics, is how good can he be in Boston?

As far as the floor for him as a player, you can go in a lot of directions, from Stromile Swift, who was one of the bigger draft busts in recent memory, to former Celtic Amir Johnson, who has been a solid-but-not-spectacular pro for more than a decade.

In looking at current NBA players who seem very similar to where Williams is now, Houston’s Clint Capela in many ways mirrored the promise and potential problems that many see in the 6-foot-10, 241-pound Williams.

Here’s a look at five traits that give the Celtics reason to be cautiously optimistic that they may have landed this draft’s version of Capela:

Late first-round picks

Clint Capela was considered one of the best athletes to ever come to the NBA, from Europe. Despite some impressive physical traits, he slid down the board before ultimately landing with the Houston Rockets, who selected him with the 25th pick in 2014. Williams is talked about in a similar vein when it comes to having elite athleticism. And, like Capela, he, too, saw his stock take a draft-night dip to where he was finally scooped up by the Celtics at 27.

Rim-runners

The term “rim-runners” is relatively new to the basketball lexicon, but it has been around for a while and it really does matter. Players who can run the floor effectively not only create shot attempts for themselves, but also puts stress on a defense that allows the teammates of elite rim-runners to get great looks at the basket. As talented as James Harden and Chris Paul are, they benefit from Capela’s ability to get up court in a hurry. Williams has a similar skill to his game, but wasn’t surrounded by the type of quality shooters to which that strength of running the floor was on display enough. In Boston, he’ll make the guys around him better offensively by doing what he does best and that’s run the floor and, when given the opportunity, play above the rim.

Defensive Mindset

Since coming into the NBA, Capela has been a stabilizing force for a Houston team that has steadily improved collectively on defense. He has great timing, above-average length, and instincts at that end of the floor that has served him well. His 1.9 blocks per game last season ranked fourth in the NBA. Williams comes into the NBA with similar potential at that end of the floor. In both his seasons at Texas A&M, Williams was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. In addition, he led the SEC in rebounds (9.2) and was second in blocked shots (2.6 per game), despite playing just 25.6 minutes per game.

Bad free-throw shooters

When you fall as far in the first round as Capela and Williams, you know there are some warts to their overall game. The one thing both share unequivocally is a knack for not making free throws. Capela is a career 48.2 percent shooter from the free-throw line, but the good news for Rockets fans is he made a career-best 56 percent last season and has actually improved from the line every year he has been in the NBA. Williams has been just as woeful from the line. In his two seasons at Texas A&M, he shot 54.1 percent from the line, but that included last season when he connected on just 47.1 percent of his free throws.

Established, successful franchises

When the Rockets drafted Capela, they were coming off a 54-win season with a roster that included Harden, Chandler Parsons (when he was healthy), Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin (who like Parsons, was healthy then). So, he knew early on that by playing to his strengths – rebounding, defense, running the floor – he would be a contributor in a year or two. Williams is walking into a similar situation. Boston has established veterans ahead of him in the frontcourt, but the strengths of his game – rebounding, defense and running the floor – provides an element that Boston won’t get from anyone else. And by playing to his strengths, he’ll only enhance the success of a team that has already built to contend for an NBA title this season.

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