Basketball

Exploring how Luke Kornet can help the Celtics

If you’re like me, having Luke Kornet as your primary backup center has caused you some concern over the last few weeks, especially as the Boston Celtics have continued to ignore the veteran big men that are currently available on the free agency market. I, too, was worried, especially for what might happen in the playoffs, or when facing some of the elite teams in the league in the latter part of the season.

However, before hitting the panic button, I wanted to go back and watch the film, and, rather than focus on the outcome of specific possession, focus on what Kornet was doing, and if it could translate to a larger role within the rotation.

I was pleasantly surprised.

“Luke’s a guy that can shoot the ball, but we’ve also been really intrigued with Luke for a long time because of his pick-and-roll defense. He’s always in good position. He’s long, he affects shots; he’s a guy we’ve always had an interest in because of those two things,” then head coach Brad Stevens said shortly after Boston originally acquired Kornet in 2021.

At 7’2’’, Kornet has the size and length to be a solid rim protector and shot deterrent — especially when playing as a drop defender, utilizing his size by continually staying in front of the ball-handler. We’ve all seen the Green Kornet alter opponents shot trajectories since he joined the Celtics, but that’s often come during developmental minutes at the end of blowouts, and there’s a wide margin between end-of-bench talent and primary bench contributors.

However, at times, we did see Kornet play against regular NBA contributors, and that’s where we got our best view of what type of impact he could make in a more significant role next season.

The above clip is an excellent example of what to expect from Kornet when operating as a pick-and-roll defender against high-level competition. If you watch Kornet on this possession, you can see he stays slightly below the level of the screen as Brook Lopez initiates the action, allowing Kornet to clog the driving lane for Jrue Holiday.

Once the screen has taken place, Kornet remains in front of Holiday, but times his movement with Lopez, allowing him to remain at the level of the screener and split the difference between the roll man and the ball-handler — which also allows Jaylen Brown to pressure Holiday in a lock-and-trail.

The possession ends with Kornet recovering onto Lopez, challenging the shot, and forcing a miss. What made this defensive possession so successful was how Kornet operated in a shallow drop, not conceding too much space in the mid-range, or over-committing to either Holiday or Lopez until the possession unfolded.

Here is an example of how an NBA offense can take advantage of a drop defender such as Kornet when the space quickly opens up, and the ball-handler forces a defensive commitment from the big. Kornet is focused on Holiday, has angled his body to limit driving lanes, and is over-committed to the ball-handler (who has Jaylen Brown in his rearview) — a simple wrap-around pass allows the rolling Lopez to get an easy bunny at the rim, and the Milwaukee Bucks add two points to their box score.

These two examples both show Kornet defending the pick-and-roll as a drop defender, one is successful, and one needs a few minor tweaks, but both are encouraging when you consider that the Texas native will be operating in the role on a more consistent basis next season.

Sticking with defense for one final thought, Kornet is deceptively good with his lateral movement and can recover from close-outs, or stay in front of slashers, regardless of contact, while also being exceptionally good at going straight up to challenge shots (and thus, avoiding fouls).

On offense, Kornet’s role will likely be well defined – set solid screens, pop to stretch the floor, or roll to pressure the rim. Sure, as with most bigs in the modern NBA, Kornet will likely operate as an offensive fulcrum via hand-offs, either above the perimeter, or as part of an elbow series, too.

Kornet isn’t a lob threat in the same way that Robert Williams is, but his size still makes him a target around the rim, especially when rolling or slipping to the rim.

We’ve seen this type of slip-screen action before when Enes Freedom was in his first spell with the team. As you can see, Kornet times his slip to a split second before he makes contact with the defender, allowing him to quickly run into space and offer an easy entry pass. However, it’s fair to say that Kornet probably has a softer touch around the rim than what Freedom did during his time with the franchise.

Kornet is more than just a slip screener, though — he’s also a solid screen setter, capable of springing shooters, cutters, or ball-handlers free, and can also be relied upon to flow from one action to the next without getting too caught up by the defense.

Take the above possession as a good example. We see the action unfold with a rip screen from Kornet, allowing Nik Stauskas to “L cut” out to the corner, which has just been vacated by Aaron Nesmith, who has curled off a Kornet pin-down on the weakside – two screens, one corner action, both involving Kornet, and of course, the big man offered a passing outlet for Nesmith had the defense cut off his drive to the rim.

Kornet’s presence also allows the Celtics to run more perimeter-based actions, be that in transition, with the big man filling a corner, on the perimeter in pick-and-pop possessions, or as a five-out delay with Kornet dictating proceedings above the break.

A career 32.4% shooter from deep, Kornet will convert just enough of his attempts to ensure opposing defenses respect his shot-making ability, thus ensuring Boston’s second unit has the floor spacing it needs for Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White to pressure the rim and create off the dribble.

Another bonus of having Kornet operating on the perimeter is Boston can make use of his underrated passing ability. When you’re 7’2’’, seeing over the defense isn’t a problem that rears its head very often. He’s certainly capable of hitting a cutter with a well-timed pass.

So, if you’re like me, and you came into the off-season with a concern about the big man rotation. But hopefully, you can see that Kornet is more than capable of being a serviceable center off the bench. Who knows, he could even go off for some impressive nights if given the right match-up and opportunity.

Sure, Boston could still do with one more big man in their rotation, if for nothing else other than added competition, but after watching the film, it’s clear that Kornet has improved during his time with the Celtics, and now it’s time he gets rewarded for his patience and professionalism.

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