When France faced the United States in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals in China this month, 6-foot-11-inch backup center Vincent Poirier found himself in an unusual situation.
His team was playing against a squad that included four of his new Celtics teammates: Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. But Poirier had never met them before, and this was a pretty big game for both countries, so he was unsure about how to proceed with pleasantries.
Then France pulled off the stunning upset, knocking the Americans out of medal contention.
“After the game I think they were a little bit mad, so I don’t come to them and say, ‘Hey, I’m Vincent,’ ” Poirier said in a phone interview. “But they knew who I was, so that was good.”
Poirier briefly told the others he looked forward to seeing them in Boston. And even though he was not able to join their chemistry-building busman’s holiday in China, the World Cup experience was quite valuable for him anyway.
Poirier, who signed with the Celtics in July after spending the last three years playing for the Spanish club Baskonia, said the World Cup resembled NBA play more than the Euroleague. And the styles and schemes gave him an early primer on what to expect in Boston. Also, he was backing up the NBA defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, who willingly dispensed advice.
“He helped me a lot, especially on all the defensive stuff,” Poirier said. “I knew the defense we played with the national team would be more like Boston’s. So [Gobert] helped me a lot. I come now, and I know how to play defense.”
Poirier said he also peppered Gobert and teammates Evan Fournier (Magic), Nicolas Batum (Hornets), and Frank Ntilikina (Knicks) with questions about NBA life, from the games to the fans to the travel.
“I asked them all I can,” he said, “because I don’t want to be surprised when I get there.”
Poirier averaged 5.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in 13.6 minutes per game in the World Cup, and unlike his Celtics teammates, he won a medal, as France took bronze with its win over Australia.
“That was a big moment for me, playing with the best players in the world,” Poirier said. “For me it was an experience to grow and be ready for the next season. And we did pretty good in competition so I’m really glad I was a part of that, and I hope it’ll be a plus.”
Now Poirier’s focus has shifted to the Celtics. He arrived in Boston last week and is eager for training camp to begin Oct. 1. The size of his role remains unclear, but with the departures of Al Horford and Aron Baynes, it appears there will be opportunities for all of the Celtics’ big men to claw for playing time.
For Poirier, 25, it’s still all a bit hard to believe. He grew up just south of Paris, and as a child he was focused on soccer. As he began to sprout as a teenager, though, the inevitable suggestions to play a new sport poured in. When Poirier was 17 and about 6-9, he relented.
“One day I just moved on and said, ‘OK, let’s try basketball,’ ” he said. “I’d never tried basketball before and I didn’t know the rules or anything. So I had to learn fast.”
He joined an amateur club before being signed by the French pro team Boulogne-Levallois about a year later. In addition to his height, he had obvious and unusual athleticism. He impressed with thunderous dunks and blocked shots, and he ran the floor well for a player his size.
Poirier parlayed his strong play in France into a pair of NBA summer league opportunities, first with the Magic in 2016 and next with the Nets a year later. That was around the time he caught the eye of Celtics brass, but in 2017 he signed with Baskonia.
Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge and international scout Benas Matkevicius saw Poirier play in person more than 10 times over the last two seasons. They were impressed by his improved understanding of the game, and smitten with his athleticism.
The Celtics carried an open roster spot last year and tried to sign Poirier late in the regular season. But Poirier said the timing was not right for him. He knew the Celtics had interest, though, so he began to watch their games and scan their highlights to become more familiar with their style.
“The way they play basketball, they’re one of the team that plays like European teams,” Poirier said. “They play a lot of pick-and-roll. Their coach is really smart. So it’s kind of like playing overseas. And they play to win. That’s what I want. I want to win. So it makes a good, good fit.”
A few days after free agency opened, the Celtics offered Poirier a two-year, $5.1 million deal.
“It was pretty fast and I was pretty pleased, so I said yes right away,” Poirier said. “It was the best for me. It’s almost the perfect team for me. And I’ve got more confidence. I told a couple people I think this is the best year for me to go to the NBA, because I’ve got 100 percent confidence in myself. I trust my basketball and I think it’s a perfect moment. Last year wasn’t a good moment, but this year is a perfect moment.”
When Poirier, a strong rim-running big man, is asked what he will bring to the Celtics, he does not hesitate before talking about his dunks. He said he will also block shots and defend and make the kinds of plays that generally get fans riled up.
“I will be fun to watch,” he said.
He has even been working on a 3-point shot a bit, but he acknowledged that it is not quite game-ready just yet.
He knows last year was a disappointment for the Celtics, but he’s been encouraged by the makeup of the current roster. He said that whenever he sees an interview with one of his new teammates, their desire to win comes across with great emphasis.
“I think we all want to do something big,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure we’ll be ready for that.”