The Battle of the Big Man’s Boot Camp


Training camp may be over a month away, but the groundwork for a battle for a roster spot has already been laid. Noah Vonleh, Bruno Caboclo and Mfiondu Kabengele will face off as they seek to earn one of the Celtics’ open spots for the upcoming season.

Things could have been different though. Because, at any time, Brad Stevens could have chosen to acquire a veteran big man in the free agency market, but instead opted to acquire young talent who had previously struggled to make an impact at the league level. NBA.


In fairness, Kabengele is guaranteed a place in the squad via a two-way contract, and cannot be seen as a direct threat to Vonleh and Caboclo’s chances. But, if the Summer League star turns out to be the best candidate, his presence could certainly become a hindrance for the two hopeful veterans.

At this point, it’s worth looking at what each potential big man brings to the table and how their skillset would fit into Ime Udoka’s offensive and defensive scheme.

Mfiondu Kabengele: Great multidimensional

Unlike Caboclo and Vonleh, Kabengele has many layers to his game, allowing him to be a threat on both sides of the pitch and in different areas of attack. First off, as we saw in Summer League, the former 27th pick is a capable rim runner, blocking shots on defense then running to the ground to explode for a lob finish. Sure, the Ontario native doesn’t possess the same type of athleticism as Robert Williams, but who does?

Beyond his lob threat and rim protector abilities, Kabengele is also adept at making his presence felt in both the dunker spot and the restricted area, as he uses his sturdy frame to command his space and dislodge defenders, which is beneficial for generating scoring opportunities. , and to track offensive rebounds.

However, Kabengele is more than just a lob-and-recoil threat – he’s also a capable screener and can create offense as both a small roll, pick-and-popper and traditional role man. As we saw during his time in Las Vegas, Kabengele is able to extend his reach beyond the three-point line and has potential as a short passer from the extended three-point line region. free throws.

Take the game above for an example of Kabengele’s small upside down roll. We see possession start with the big man operating as the big transfer in a Zoom action before he makes small rolls towards the middle of the post. A quick inbound pass catches Kabgengele slightly off guard, but he still manages to swing the ball to the open man in the weak corner, generating an easy three-point opportunity.

And while we’re on the subject of play, Kabengele is also a willing passer above the perimeter and has also shown advantages as a mid-position facilitator – two areas in which working with Al Horford could certainly help him improve. to improve.

It was this type of attacking versatility, coupled with his defensive potential as a drop defender that convinced Stevens to extend Kabengele on a two-way post-Summer League deal. However, we’ve already seen the president of basketball operations convert two-way guys to a full-time contract, and given Stevens wouldn’t be under any immediate pressure to do so, it would give the Celtics some extra wiggle room. in the future. month.

Noah Vonleh: Defensive Glass Cleaner

Before agreeing to join the Celtics, Vonleh plied his trade in China. While a season average of 15 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2 steals and 1.5 blocks per game is impressive, the fact remains that an NBA-level talent should dominate. to a higher degree in the Chinese Basketball League.

This got me wondering what kind of role Vonleh was playing while he was overseas, and if that role translated to what Boston would ask of him if he made the final roster.

In short, Vonleh was the Shanghai Sharks’ star weapon, while also being their main defender and rim protector. In short, his role was all-encompassing and at times it seemed like he was trying to do too much.

Vonleh still over-dribbles the basketball, as he looks to set his defenders up for the rebound, rather than using his size, strength and athleticism around the edge and as a roll man.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a big man who’s comfortable putting the ball down, but there has to be a limit to what he’s allowed to do, and when he has to. trying to get the rock out of his hands. It was part of the downside of Vonleh’s time with the New York Knicks, too often games stalled once he was in perimeter possession or around the midrange.

Although over-dribbling can be a problem, Vonleh displayed impressive growth in his ability to attack space by sliding screens or rolling while the defense trapped, shielded or simply paid too much attention to the ball handler. .

Beyond his ability to attack the rim in space, Vonleh has improved his hook shot and has the footwork to generate a low post attack when needed. But most impressively, during his season in Shanghai, the former lottery pick has improved his perimeter play, averaging 38% since the start of the season.

Of course, scoring at a respectable clip in China doesn’t require Vonleh to be able to repeat the feat in the NBA, but the upside is intriguing enough to give him deeper insight into training camp. On the defensive side of the floor, Vonleh was a rock as a drop defender, often pushing his man off the edge or forcing him into hard, contested shots, allowing him to clean up their failed attempts on the glass.

And therein lies Vonleh’s true value to an NBA team, on the defensive side of the floor and as a defensive rebounder – two areas where he has proven himself capable of performing on saves with other teams in the league.

Unfortunately for Vonleh, his offensive play will have to translate during training camp or he’ll find himself sitting behind Kabengele in Boston’s extra big man pecking order this season.

Bruno Caboclo: Interpolator

Unlike Vonleh and Kabengele, Caboclo is a wing with the skills to play small ball five minutes, which means his defensive and attacking play is not positioned to be dominant around the glass, or have a deterrent effect on the defense.

Instead, Caboclo is more of a catch-and-shoot, catch-and-drive, and offensive-side transition threat, while also being a more switchable defender than his two counterparts in the roster battle. Of course, under Udoka, being switchable is a huge plus, but you still need to make an impact in other areas of the floor, and that’s the biggest question mark hanging over Caboclo’s head right now.

The former Toronto Raptors draft pick has some NBA experience, but in truth, he struggled to play everywhere he went and only started posting big numbers once he took his talents to Brazil.

Once Caboclo returned to American shores and competed in the Las Vegas Summer League, his production went down to what you’d expect from a years-long veteran who rarely broke a rotation. Still, that’s not to say Caboclo doesn’t have untapped potential, but in reality, he’s going to struggle to break up Boston’s rotation as a winger – especially given his limited ability as a spacer. on the ground.

However, with versatility comes opportunity, and that could be Caboclo’s saving grace, as his presence on an NBA roster allows for multiple rotation adjustments, counters to mismatches, and creative storylines throughout. throughout the regular season. Unfortunately, unless Caboclo has drastically improved his three-point shooting and his explosiveness out of dribbling around the rim, he projects to be the likeliest victim of the Celtics’ trio of prospects this summer.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Kabengele, Vonleh, and Caboclo have room to earn spots in the upcoming season’s rotation, and given their diverse skill sets, you can tell each of them impressive enough to warrant a further examination. However, in reality, both Kabengele and Vonleh are better placed to make an impact in the coming season, while Caboclo is more of an insurance policy.

Still, given the direct competition for the backup center job, I can see the Celtics opting to move forward with Kabengele on his two-way deal and the potential to convert the contract down the line, and the versatility that comes with a tweener such as Cabocle. That means Vonleh could be the player to miss an NBA comeback this season.