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2022 Boston Celtics Media Day Notebook: What did we learn?

2022 Boston Celtics Media Day Notebook: What did we learn?

NBA Media Day is typically a wellspring of optimism and excitement for teams across the Association. But in Boston, Celtics players have simply been trying to collect their bearings.

Ime Udoka's sudden one-year suspension as the team's head coach has rocked the organization and sent unprecedented questions toward a roster trying to rebound from falling two wins short of an NBA title. While Monday's press conference still included on-court questions, most of the dialogue revolved around Udoka, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla and the players' ability to even process this past week. 

Here's what we did learn about the Celtics' muddled circumstances, plus some unanswered questions that will hopefully be answered before the season:

WHAT DO THE PLAYERS KNOW ABOUT IME UDOKA'S MISCONDUCT?

Based on their answers, very little.

Jayson Tatum said he found out about Udoka's suspension on Twitter. Grant Williams said he learned "same as everyone else." Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that members of the Celtics franchise first learned of Ime Udoka's relationship with another woman in the organization in July.

Marcus Smart said that Udoka visited him and other players in Los Angeles over the summer, and he noticed nothing unusual about the suspended head coach.

"I think that's why (the news is) so off-guard for us, because everything just seemed so normal," Smart said.

Since the announcement, the players have obviously met and had conversations. But several indicated that, as of Monday, the players don't know much more information than the public. Tatum has not spoken with Udoka since the suspension.

"It's been hell for us, caught by surprise. Nobody really knows anything. So we're just in the wind just like everybody else. So the last couple of days, as far as this, have been confusing," Smart said.

"I wish we had more details," Jaylen Brown said. "From what we know, it's hard to make a decision based upon whether it's consensual or not in the workplace or whatever is going on — which we've known has happened before in the workplace — but I guess there's more to it possibly, which we don't know. I don't know. I don't have all the details; [they're] not being shared with me. So it's hard to really comment on something that you're not filled in with all the details. So I don't really have a feeling or comment on my emotions about it because I don't have the details."

Celtics players generally seemed to understand that legal and privacy reasons have slowed the information process. That doesn't mean it's easy being left in the dark on the full story.

"If you read the statement, and if you watched the press conference [Friday], obviously, apparently there's a lot of things that they can't, can't speak about," Tatum said. "So I think I'm kind of in the same boat, as — I don't know. So it's hard for me to answer if things were handled the right way [or] if they weren't because I guess for a lot of reasons, I don't know all the details."

Added Smart: "We don't know what the organization knows. So it's kind of hard to say that — we don't know what they know, so we don't know what they are supposed to tell us or what we're supposed to know. And I think this is where this is at and why it is what it is, because literally, no one knows anything. We're still waiting just like everybody else. As a player, you would like it to be known, but at the same time, that's none of our business. It's their lives. It's the people involved, it's between them, you know, and we should respect their privacy and we understand, just like we want our privacy respected. So, although, as a player, you would like to know, like I said, it's it's not an obligation."

DOES JOE MAZZULLA HAVE THE BACKING OF THE PLAYERS?

Like Brad Stevens and Wyc Grousbeck did on Friday, the players gave positive reviews of Mazzulla. The 34-year-old was hired as an assistant on the C's staff in 2019, and is a holdover from the Stevens coaching era.

"He knows and understands us as players. He's built relationships with us. So we love Joe; we're excited to be able to work with him in this opportunity that he has," Smart said.

Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser have both played under Mazzulla when he was at the helm of the Summer League Celtics.

"I think he's gonna be an unbelievable coach," Pritchard said. "He's intelligent, he knows the game and I think he is the right amount of, like, pushing players, but also understanding [them]."

"I think he is a hard-nosed type of coach," Hauser added. "He kind of says it how it is, but he also really cares about you as a person — not only a basketball player, but he really cares about the off-the-floor stuff. I'm excited for Joe, and I can't wait to see how he takes advantage of this opportunity."

Malcolm Brogdon certainly didn't expect this past week to happen when he joined Boston as a high-profile trade acquisition. Brogdon said the Indiana Pacers gave him a few options for trade destinations, and he picked Boston because, "I want to win."

In his short time knowing Mazzulla, Brogdon has admired his discipline. Mazzulla often lifts weights with Brogdon early in the morning. One time he approached Brogdon, who was doing a breathing exercise, and started explaining the theories behind different techniques. Brogdon has also heard of Mazzulla's reputation for putting together quality opponent scouts.

"He's a guy that is so detail-oriented; I am like-minded with people that are detail-oriented, that care about the small things, the little things that get you through the day," Brogdon said.

WHAT WILL MAZZULLA CHANGE FROM UDOKA'S SYSTEM?

Of course, the Celtics have all the on-court pieces to replicate and even improve upon last season. Mazzulla does not want to drastically change course from Boston's success under Udoka. 

"It's about carrying on the identity of our players," Mazzulla said. "We had our struggles early last season, but at our best, we knew what our identity was. It was our defense, it was our buy-in from a defensive standpoint, and then it was sharing the ball and moving quickly on the offensive end. So as much as we can stick to the things that we were great at last year, and then find small areas to improve in, is the right way to go."

The Celtics' coaching staff now has two openings with Udoka's suspension and Will Hardy's departure for the Utah Jazz head coaching gig. Mazzulla has not thought about replacements yet and would work with Stevens on filling out the bench. He believes the foundation of existing relationships should help the Celtics build solid chemistry early in the season.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CENTER ROTATION WITH ROBERT WILLIAMS III OUT?

Amidst the off-court bombshell, the Celtics also announced that Robert Williams III will miss 8-to-12 weeks as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery. This puts additional strain on an already-thin big rotation for a Boston team that sent Daniel Theis out in the trade for Brogdon this summer.

Luke Kornet could step into major minutes. The 7-foot-2 center spent most of last season with the Maine Celtics in the NBA G League, but has four seasons of experience at the top level. Kornet said that with the door for minutes certainly open, his mindset naturally changes, but not his approach to the game.

"There definitely is a bit of a switch in that, but in terms of still being a basketball player and conditioning and [wondering] how am I going to help this team do the best they can — a lot of those things stay the same. But there's some change," Kornet said.

A larger burden falls on Al Horford, now age-36 and older than his head coach, to shoulder some of the two-way responsibilities Rob Williams wields.

"For me, I have to step up a little more, Grant's gonna have to step up a little more, Luke, whichever one of our bigs, we just have to step up and do a little more," Horford said. "Even some of our guys, whether it's you know, [Tatum] playing more at the 4 or whatever it may be, I'm not sure about all that. But we all just have to do more until he gets back."

Williams, meanwhile, will start a road to recovery that began as he battled knee injuries throughout last spring's playoffs. Despite eventually needing surgery, he doesn't regret playing through the injury to compete in the NBA Finals.

"I'm playing the Finals, you know what I'm saying?" Williams said. "You win some you lose some, but I don't regret my decision at all. I was 24 years old, my dream was to play in the Finals, dawg. I can't regret that sh**."

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

What is the extent of Udoka's misconduct? — Ultimately, the players and public need more details as to the forces behind a year-long suspension and potential firing. Grousbeck said Friday that Udoka committed multiple violations of multiple team policies, suggesting the punishment came down for much more than the singular act of being in a workplace relationship. While the woman's privacy must be respected, there must be some level of clarity on the wrongdoing.

What has Mazzulla done to atone for his past arrests? — Mazzulla answered two questions relating to multiple arrests between 2008 and 2009, including a domestic violence charge in '09. Here were his quotes:  

"Listen, I've made mistakes. I'm not perfect. I've hurt people, and I've had to use the situations I put myself in as a younger man, I've had to use to learn from and to become a better person," Mazzulla said. "And that's what I've tried to focus on is: 'How can I recreate my identity as a person? How can I rely on my faith? And how can I just have a positive impact on the people around me?' And I've always had good people around me...

"...I can't talk about specifics of [the incidents]. But what I can talk about is: I'm not the same person that I was, and I think as you grow as a person, you're constantly having to build an identity, and you know, I didn't have an identity at a certain point in my life for whatever reason. And I think it's [about]: 'How can I develop an identity? How can I find a foundation which for me, is my faith, and then, how can I impact people positively around me? And that's something that I really learned throughout my life.'"

Mazzulla did not dodge any questions and he did acknowledge his past wrongdoing. But he also did not explain what led to his behavior, what in his faith prompted the change and how he has shown other people he has progressed.

Player and front-office endorsements are not enough in an NBA that has hired at least two other coaches with domestic-violence and sexual-assault histories in the last year-and-change — not to mention the recent reminders of troubling workplace environments in Boston and Phoenix. We need more assurance that this behavior does not have a tolerable place in the league.

How will Mazzulla manage his starters in the early goings of the regular season? — Among the many, many questions Mazzulla will face as he acclimates to the head-coaching gig is the impending usage for Tatum, Brown and others. Tatum played through a fractured wrist down the stretch of the postseason (he said he feels good on Monday).

Can Mazzulla give the high-usage players more rest to hopefully prepare them for another deep playoff run? Or will the Celtics have to go all-out just to stay on top of a stacked Eastern Conference?

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • Brown's name popped up in trade rumors surrounding Kevin Durant this offseason, and the 25-year-old said he discussed those rumors with members of the Celtics, but did not elaborate.

"I've talked to my teammates, I talked to ownership, the organization, etc. I'll keep those conversations between us," Brown said. "All I can say is now that I'm here, I'm ready to play basketball. I'm in great shape, probably the best shape of my life. So I'm excited to start the journey."

  • With Brogdon bolstering a stellar guard rotation, his addition leaves room to wonder about Pritchard's playing time. Pritchard is embracing the competition for minutes in training camp.

"Obviously, we have a lot of tremendous players. But I don't go through all summer and all year working on my game to just ride the bench," Pritchard said. "So for me, I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to go out there and compete, and earn minutes and see where that lies. Ultimately, we just want the team success though."

  • Grant Williams will soon be eligible for a contract extension, but said he hasn't let that distract him.  

"When it comes to that, I just let my agents and everybody handle it, because if you become too overwhelmed or concerned with it, that's when you start focusing on your play or you start doing things that aren't necessarily characteristic of yourself," Williams said. "For me, my number one focus and goal is allowing and helping this team to win a championship. Everything else takes care of itself."

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