Mfiondu Kabengele parlayed a strong Las Vegas summer league performance into a two-way contract with the Celtics. And with big men Robert Williams and Danilo Gallinari injured, he has been in Boston for a good chunk of the team’s powerful start.
But the 2019 first-round pick knows that if he is to regain more permanent footing in the NBA, his most important work will come in the G League, where he is an essential piece of Maine’s team.
So he has embraced the opportunity — and the Portland lobster rolls — and helped the Maine Celtics roar to a 6-1 start that has put them atop the Eastern Conference. Kabengele, 25, is averaging 17.9 points, 10 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 58.8 percent from the field.
“It’s a balancing act, because although you do want to win because then everybody gets the shine in some way, I understand fully that guys are trying to make it out, make a name for themselves, take care of themselves and their families and use the G [League] as a vessel,” Kabengele said. “But [coach Alex] Barlow puts a good system in and lets guys know that if we fall into these kinds of concepts and play for each other, everybody will have a chance to shine and be seen in that light, especially if we’re winning.”
He said that when he is not playing or shuttling back and forth between Portland and Boston, he is devouring film from multiple sources. After G League games, he often receives clips of himself from Celtics staffers who are monitoring his progress from afar. When he practices with the Celtics in Boston, he often gets clips from his Maine coaches who have access to that footage.
“So I’m getting feedback from all throughout the staff all the time,” he said, smiling.
Kabengele said he has also been studying career clips of Celtics big men Al Horford and Robert Williams, as well as Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo.
“He’s really good at pick-and-rolls, especially in switching groups,” Kabengele said of Adebayo. “He’s really good at making advantages off switches. He’s really good at sprinting out.”
Kabengele said he has been primarily focused on pick-and-roll offense and defense, and becoming more comfortable guarding multiple positions, a central facet of Boston’s switch-heavy schemes.
The time in Maine has also allowed him to continue to build chemistry with rookie point guard JD Davison, his former summer league teammate.
“It’s been great off pick-and-rolls, lobs, we have a good connection,” Kabengele said. “But he has a really good feel, knowing when to push in transition and when he sees angles and gaps. He’s really good in one-on-ones, especially in space. And for a guy that young, still having his legs under him able to make plays off the dribble, still able to see the floor, especially all those long arms, in his first year? Super impressive.”
The Boston-to-Portland commutes and long hours are generally more palatable during October and November than they are in January and February, of course. But Kabengele shrugged off what might come next.
“There’s not much sunlight but everyone there is nice,” he said. “Stores close at like 9:00 so you’ve got to get out and get in early. The snow hasn’t hit yet, but I’m Canadian, so I’m prepared.”
Jayson Tatum, who erupted for 37 points in Boston’s 125-112 win over the Mavericks on Wednesday, has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate. But guard Marcus Smart believes one of his other teammates should also be in that discussion.
“When [Jaylen Brown] is playing the way he’s playing at his highest peak, he’s in that race, too,” Smart said. “I was joking with Jaylen. In the Old Westerns, when you’re in a shootout, you’ve got a gun on [one hip]. And I told him we also have another one with you over here. We got two sharpshooters that can do some damage, so when JB is playing at his highest, he’s an MVP candidate as well.”
Horford was 0 for 9 in his team’s loss to the Bulls on Monday night. But he was confident that it was just one off night rather than the start of a slump.
“Shooters shoot, man,” Horford said. “So I’m going to keep shooting the ball. Spent a lot of time this summer and this season understanding what my role is. Have to stay ready and confident and keep shooting it.”
Horford was 5 for 5 from the field and 4 for 4 from the 3-point line against Dallas. He said he got a boost when coach Joe Mazzulla drew up a game-opening play for him to get an open 3-pointer.
“Coach told me I was going to get that first play,” Horford said. “Marcus gave me a perfect pass there and I just took the shot and knocked it down, and it was on from there.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.