It’s uncertain whether Tacko Fall will ever be something other than a novelty. He’s almost irresistible to root for, a 7-foot-5-inch gentle giant who works feverishly to adapt to the NBA, relishes the Celtics experience, and is completely comfortable in his own skin.
If there had been fans Friday night at TD Garden, they would have been brought to their feet and into a frenzy several times as Fall was more than just a late-game sideshow. The Celtics were missing three big men because of COVID-19 protocols, so Fall was elevated from bench cheerleader to backup center.
He played meaningful, quality minutes in the Celtics’ 116-107 win over the Washington Wizards, showing the Celtics faithful his behind-the-scenes work is paying off. He finished with 4 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and a handful of changed or altered shots in his 19 minutes.
It’s encouraging for coach Brad Stevens that he can depend on Fall, who has been in the organization 18 months after going undrafted out of Central Florida. He became a summer league sensation in Las Vegas because of his height, fans chanting his name as he entered games and screaming when he scored a bucket.
He had become a rock star and the Celtics signed him to a two-way contract, despite being a project, partly because of his potential and partly because of his popularity. While Fall is still a wildly popular figure, especially around Boston, he has sought to make more of an impact as a player.
Friday served as considerable progress, with Fall showing he had enough endurance and game savvy to compete in critical stretches.
“I thought in a lot of ways he changed the game,” Stevens said. “One of things we’re missing without those guys here is some physicality and some rim protection and he provided both of those things in a big way. I thought he was terrific.”
The organization roots for Fall because he is such a kind man and tireless worker. While in college, Fall wasn’t asked to chase bigs shooting 3-pointers or dip in and out of the key to avoid defensive 3-second calls. The NBA pace is faster and more intense. The shot clock is shorter. Fall had to adjust.
“I’ve been constantly working, working on my speed, working on my stamina, making sure the game is not too fast for me,” he said. “The game has slowed down a lot, which has made my job a lot easier. I can see things that maybe a year ago I couldn’t see. It comes down to the work I put in with the help of the coaches.”
Fall got off to a stunning start, as former MVP and athletic maven Russell Westbrook challenged him at the rim on a dunk attempt and Fall blocked it clean, the impact knocking Westbrook to the floor. Fall added two more blocks in the second quarter and then capped his night with a putback dunk that sparked a 7-0 Boston run after the Wizards cut a 28-point deficit to 4.
It was the biggest basket of Fall’s short career.
“We singled him out in the locker room; I couldn’t be happier for the guy,” Stevens said. “He goes from undrafted to two-way to still on a two-way. Last year in the bubble, he didn’t dress half the time. All he does is smile. He’s a great teammate, as good as I’ve been around. And he works. He’s a good one for sure.”
Fall is still trying to prove he can be a productive NBA player, and he has spent the past 18 months learning the idiosyncrasies of the game, such as pick-and-roll coverage and switching on defense. Opposing teams aren’t going to give Fall a reprieve as he learns. They are going to go at him to draw fouls or create easy baskets.
His ability to rim protect as well as adequately defend without fouling are keys to his development. There are times when he’s going to get a foul simply because he’s big. In one third-quarter sequence, Washington guard Bradley Beal challenged him at the rim and rammed into Fall, who stood straight up with his arms raised.
Beal ended up flat on the floor because of the contact. Foul on Tacko. Still, Fall finished with a plus-13 in his 19 minutes, third-highest on the team, and he pulled down six rebounds in a 4:11 stretch of the fourth quarter that helped the Celtics preserve the lead.
“Tacko’s gotten better since the first day he’s gotten here,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “His body has improved. His timing has improved. He’s ready. As you seen [tonight], he did everything we asked for and that was just his first [meaningful] game. He’ll get better the more opportunity he gets.”
The Celtics will need Fall much more over the next week as Tristan Thompson, Grant Williams and Robert Williams miss games because of the COVID-19 protocols, so Fall will get more opportunity to show he can contribute at a high NBA level.
“To have people who have believed in you since your first day they met you, the organization has, from my teammates to the coaches to the front office to the workers, everybody believed in me,” Fall said. “They stay patient with me and that’s something I’m really thankful for. They have constantly pushed me to be a better player.”