Boston Celtics: the rise of supergiant center Tacko Fall

Part man, part meme, all amazing. Analyzing the development road map of  the Boston Celtics’ rookie big man Tacko Fall in the context of today’s NBA landscape.

Basketball is and has always been a tall man’s game. From it’s inception, those players who are physically closer to the peach basket have always been predisposed to succeed — It’s geometry. Some nerd once said that the shortest point between point A and point B is a straight line, however, in practice there are obvious and countless exceptions to the rule, and ultimately I think Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach put it most elegantly when he (may have) said: “you can’t teach height!”

Which is where we come to Tacko Fall, the enigmatic 7-5 center out of UCF that the Boston Celtics signed as an un-drafted free agent last summer. Fall quickly endeared himself with fans and coaches alike during summer league with his incredible standing dunks, otherworldly shot blocking range, and elite caliber memeability. He managed to play himself into a two-way contract after entering the summer as just an intriguing fringe prospect. It seemed the only thing that could stop Tacko Fall was low-hanging entryways.

Yet despite having such a productive summer, Fall is still a long way from becoming even a rotation-level player. He has about as much touch around the rim as a porpoise and struggles mightily with defensive rotations. I hardly think the team would waste a precious roster spot on someone just to make memes or to reach things on high shelves without a development plan in place.

Fortunately this is mostly a risk-free proposition on Boston’s part, considering Fall’s minuscule salary hold and the relatively low opportunity cost in letting world-beater (*Borat accent* not) Max Strus walk. But the track record on seven-footers is spotty at best, and getting the Tacko project off the ground will be no easy task. That’s not to say it’s completely impossible. There is certainly a roadmap.

Only three players in NBA history were as tall as Tacko Fall; Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley, and Gheorge Muresan. All three had relatively long, yet injury plagued careers. However, they also played in a completely different era of basketball. The physical demand on Fall is going to be magnified even further. 15 years ago if you were seven feet or taller, they basically just plopped you under the basket and told you to “be tall.”

Not any more!

Basketball is moving in a direction where most teams are deploying a more spread out offensive approach, increasing the physical demand on players and particularly big ones. Now, big men are being asked to do more than ever. They need to be competent on the pick-and-roll, able to come out to hedge or even switch on to guards, and recover in time to defend lobs and dump-offs. They also need to close out on stretch 4’s and 5’s trying to pull them away from the basket, and recover from the weak side to block shots from the opposite block.

In short, they are asked to do a lot.

As a result of this shift towards mobility, there is now an increased premium on durability for big men. All this switching onto guards and chasing around stretch 4’s starts to take its toll. Injuries mount up. Availability is perhaps the NBA’s most undervalued skill, and the list of tall NBA players plagued by injury is quite long.

Look at the best big men in our league today. Joel Embiid (7-0) spent his first two NBA seasons sidelined after a series of foot surgeries. Kristaps Porzingis (7-3) spent nearly two seasons recovering following a torn ACL. Anthony Davis (6-10) has played more than 70 games just twice. The list goes on and on!

The greater physical demands, specifically as it relates to mobility and versatility, have taken their toll on the modern center and has rendered the traditional back-to-the-basket center virtually extinct. It’s why Roy Hibbert went from All-Star to Parks and Recreation cameos in three seasons, and why Tyson Chandler is still playing at age 37.

A skilled and mobile big man is now perhaps the most coveted type of player in the league, and unfortunately in most cases you must sacrifice one for the other. There are three players I think illustrate this dynamic best, and can help shed light on Tacko Fall’s development and deployment; Kristaps Porzingis, Rudy Gobert, and Boban Marjanovic.

Porzingis is perhaps the best example of an uber-tall center able to forgo this trade off, however his game is more geared towards that of a stretch 5. It’s also wildly unfair to compare a rookie like Fall to a generational talent like Porzingis. I also don’t envision Fall suddenly developing a killer step-back three or polished low/mid post game, but crazier things have happened. After all, Brook Lopez shot 37% from three last season.

Gobert is probably a more accurate analog, measuring in at 7-1, however again he is a unique talent and does not serve as an entirely fair comparison. Gobert is an explosive and fluid athlete with incredible timing, and a knack for getting in passing lanes and altering shots. Fall’s movement style can be described as somewhere between “lumbering” and the Iron Giant. And he’s still a little lost on defense.

I think looking at the deployment of Boban Marjanovic offers some clues as to how Fall plays into the Boston Celtics plans. Marjanovic has had stints with the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers, and Philadelphia Sixers, and is now with the Dallas Mavericks. He has proven to be a dominant player while on the court. However, the key phrase here is “while on the court. ”

Marjanovic has really only been able to play in tactical situations like ATO’s and end of clock scenarios, and to his credit he has flourished in those roles. He has a surprisingly soft touch, particularly on his hook shoots, that allow him to score over virtually anyone. And it almost goes without saying that his sheer size makes him an elite rebounder and shot blocker. Imagine trying to inbound the ball under the basket with Marjanovic in your face. It’s like passing around a billboard.

Brad Stevens is one of the premier tacticians in the league, and I can envision him using Tacko Fall in a similar role. Imagine Fall guarding an in-bounder in an end of game situation forcing a 5 second call. Or him catching a lob under the basket like UNC-Asheville used to do for Kenny George. It’s basically un-guard-able. Stevens has proven to be one of the most creative and effective ATO and set-piece tacticians in the game, and I think he is salivating at the idea of drawing something up for Tacko that leverages his natural and utterly unique talent.

I don’t think we should be counting on Fall to be the next cornerstone big-man. But he can become a formidable and unique weapon that can be used in a more tactical, one-off situation. I don’t think it’s insane to suggest he could win us a handful of games down the road, but there’s a lot that needs to go right between now and then.

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He’s got a lot of development to do and fortunately he will get plenty of burn in Maine with the Red Claws. In the mean time, I do not doubt that Fall will be a fan favorite as long as he is wearing green and I would bet my life-savings that the memes will keep on coming.

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