On Saturday night, fans at Madison Square Garden chanted Tacko Fall’s name and the 7-foot-5-inch Celtics center threw down his first NBA dunk, on basketball’s biggest stage. And less than 48 hours later, Fall’s new reality had arrived, as he took part in his first practice with the Maine Red Claws, another face on a roster full of NBA dreamers.
As two-way-contract players, Fall and fellow rookie Tremont Waters, the 51st pick of June’s NBA Draft, will spend the majority of this season in Portland, refining their games, getting big minutes and working toward a real chance at the highest level. They had both been almost daily visitors to the Celtics’ practice facility since the summer, and both had promising moments during the preseason. But on Monday they opened training camp with the Red Claws.
“The main goal is to play them and develop them as much as possible,” first-year head coach Darren Erman said by phone. “Let them play.”
While Fall has generated as much attention as any NBA player since he arrived at the Las Vegas summer league in July, Waters probably has the more promising pro future. He averaged 10.5 points and 4 assists and made 54.5 percent of his shots during the preseason, and never looked out of place.
“He has a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous feel for the game of basketball,” Erman said. “Great feel, great IQ, great poise, great pace. It’s hard to speed him up. He’s wise beyond his years. He’s an NBA player.”
Erman said that the 5-10 Waters shot the ball better than expected during the preseason. He said his greatest challenge will be learning how to play against size and length. There were times this summer when Waters carved into the lane, but then things became more difficult than they had been at other levels.
“And he’ll figure it out,” Erman said. “Everyone does. Everyone learns to play, everyone gets used to the speed and length of the game eventually. It just takes a little bit of time. And he’ll get there.”
Erman said that Fall, meanwhile, has improved each year, and that he has even taken clear steps since joining the Celtics just four months ago. For Fall, getting consistent repetitions in the G League will be much more valuable than watching from an NBA bench.
Fall spent much of the summer focusing on his conditioning and his touch. Erman said that in Maine they will put an extra emphasis on working with the ball away from the basket.
“He just needs more comfort handling the ball on the perimeter,” Erman said. “Everyone runs dribble handoffs with bigs, and bigs handle the ball 25-30 feet from the basket, but he just has to be comfortable making simple plays with the ball in his hands, especially in Brad [Stevens’s] system.
“But I think he’s shown improvement. He’s got to continue to set screens and dive to the rim at a quick pace.”
Inside, Fall is clearly an intimidating presence. But he will need to show continued growth defending the pick-and-roll. Specifically, when a guard is moving toward him and the opposing big man is starting to roll to the hoop, Fall will need to learn how to be a deterrent to both without overcommitting to either.
In some ways, there might actually be more pressure on Erman than on Fall. From summer league to the preseason, at home and away, fans have constantly chanted for Fall to play. They have booed when he is taken out of games and celebrated when he simply walks to the scorer’s table to check in.
But Erman, who spent the last four seasons as the associate head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, isn’t worried about how fans react to his decisions regarding Fall.
“It’s no different than being at home,” he said with a chuckle. “My dog barks at me when I bring him in when he wants to be out playing, and my wife boos me when I mess up at home. So I’ll be fine.”
The Red Claws roster also includes Celtics training camp players Kaiser Gates, Yante Maten, and Bryce Brown. Maine opens the season Nov. 9 at Delaware.
In the mix
Rookies Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards have worked their way into the Celtics rotation through the first three games. Williams has played both forward positions and center and Edwards has played both guard positions. Both have played extended minutes.
“I’m not worried about Carsen missing [shots] much, I think he’s worried about it more,” Stevens said. “As long as he’s guarding, I know he’ll make shots.”
Williams enjoyed solid games in wins over Toronto and the Knicks, combining for 11 points and eight rebounds in 41 minutes.
“I’m just trying to do my job and learn as much as I can defensively,” he said. “Where to be positionally, whether it’s the [center] or the [power forward] and also there’s a lot more I can do in the league, it gives me more confidence, too. Boston is a city, is a team where you want to be.”