2021-22 Roster Breakdown: The Ball Handlers
With the start of Celtics training camp just a few days away, it’s time that we break down the roster and provide an idea of what the team’s depth chart will look like heading into the 2021-22 Season.
Rather than classifying the players with the traditional 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 positional tags, we are taking a page out of President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens’ book by placing each athlete into one of the following three roles:
- Ball handlers – Typically played by the 1.
- Wings – A hybrid between the 2, 3 and 4.
- Bigs – A hybrid between the 4 and the 5.
We begin this series with arguably the most important role on the court – the ball-handling position.
Boston has several players who are capable of steering the offense, including a few wings and bigs, such as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford, among others; however, there are only three guys who fit into a true ball-handling role.
Here is the trio that will be largely responsible for controlling the pace for the Celtics this season:
The Ball Handlers
Marcus Smart has improved tremendously as a playmaker over the last couple of years and is coming off career-best averages of 13.1 points and 5.7 assists per game in 2020-21. This season, he’ll have a chance to shine even more.
Following the offseason departure of Kemba Walker, Smart will now be Boston’s primary ball handler, a role in which he should thrive.
Over the years, Smart has often either backed up Boston’s lead floor general or filled in when needed, such as last season when he stepped in for Walker while the former All-Star was working his way back from offseason knee surgery. Smart played roughly 45 percent of his minutes at the point guard position last season which, according to Basketball-Reference, was the highest mark since his rookie season (74 percent) when he was backing up Rajon Rondo.
Being Boston’s longest-tenured player should benefit Smart in this role, as he knows the system and his teammates’ tendencies as well as anyone. For instance, he’s built solid chemistry with Brown and Tatum over the last several years and understands how to facilitate open looks for the star tandem, and he had a special connection with Al Horford during Horford's first stint with the team.
Smart has always been relied upon to be a defensive stalwart for the Celtics, but this year, the team needs him to continue to step up on the offensive end as they put the ball in his hands.
The Celtics would have been fairly light on ball handlers heading into this season if it hadn’t been for the surprise addition of Dennis Schroder in mid-August. And what an addition he should be.
Schroder brings to the table eight years of NBA experience and career averages of 14.3 points and 4.7 assists per game. Last season, he started 61 games for the Los Angeles Lakers and finished second on the team in assists (5.8 per game) behind LeBron James.
In recent years, Schroder has been a facilitator for several Hall-of-Fame-bound, high-volume scorers including Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and James. Such experience should be helpful as the 28-year-old transitions into playing alongside a couple of rising superstars in Brown and Tatum.
Much of Schroder’s playmaking is initiated by driving to the basket. Last season, the shifty guard averaged 13.3 drives per game, which would have placed him first on the Celtics in that category ahead of both Tatum (12.4) and Brown (10.5). He chose to pass on 42.9 percent of those drives, a trend which should bode well for Boston’s shooters as Schroder will look to kick out to them on the perimeter if he can't find an open look inside.
Rounding out Boston’s trio of ball handlers is sophomore point guard Payton Pritchard. The 6-foot-1 University of Oregon product burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, averaging 7.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, all while shooting 41.1 percent from 3-point range. By the end of the season, it was clear that the Celtics got a steal in the previous year’s draft, considering how 25 players had been picked before Pritchard and he out-performed most of them.
Pritchard is primed to break out even more in his second season, especially after the Summer League showing he just put forth in Las Vegas, where he averaged 16.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 8.5 assists, and 1.8 steals while shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 46.9 percent from long range, and 88.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Now that there’s less traffic on the ball-handler depth chart, Pritchard should have plenty of opportunities to zoom into a more substantial role.