Chris Forsberg

How Kornet has evolved into a consistent third center for Celtics

Luke Kornet's stay-ready approach has helped the Celtics thrive.

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Luke Kornet tends to draw attention for ridiculous on-court celebrations, an unscientifically proven 3-point defensive strategy, and a willingness to whimsically weave testosterone references into his postgame interviews.

Quietly, though, the 7-foot-2 Kornet has held the fort as Boston’s third center this season, this despite seemingly perpetual consternation from outsiders about the Celtics’ depth at that position.

Kornet, who had a career-high five dunks -- and maybe a career-high three successful Kornet Kontests -- in Saturday’s win in Phoenix, is averaging 5.0 points and 3.9 rebounds over 14.7 minutes per game in 45 appearances this season. He’s been a reliable big-man option whose personality brings much-needed levity to a team that tends to operate with a business-like demeanor.

Check out the best moments of Luke Kornet mic'd up during the Celtics' 50-point win over the Brooklyn Nets heading into the All-Star break.

What’s most jarring is Kornet's evolution in his multiple stints in Boston. When Kornet first arrived here amid the COVID roster churn of the 2020-21 season, the majority of his career field goal attempts came beyond the 3-point arc. Less than a third of his total career field goal attempts came at the rim.

In a league where big men tend to gravitate away from the basket, Kornet has done the opposite. This season, a staggering 91 percent of his shot attempts come at the rim. He hasn’t attempted a single 3-pointer. Kornet is now content to throw down alley-oops and clean up offensive rebounds for any offense he contributes.

Defensively, we tend to fixate on the Kornet Kontest, his penchant for leaping straight up with arms extended in hope of blocking a shooter’s vision of the rim when too far away from a shooter to truly contest. Anecdotally, we think it’s fair to suggest there’s high variance in success rate.

On a night when a team like the Suns shoots 29 percent beyond the arc, the Kontest shines. On other nights, shooters seem unfazed by his efforts (and we sometimes fret the rebounding position he might sacrifice). We suspect a deeper dive would find the Kontest is closely in line with Kornet’s overall 3-point defense.

But, it should be noted, Kornet’s 3-point defense this season has been excellent. Opponents are shooting 32.4 percent on 3-pointers with him as the closet defender, or 3 percent below expected output, per NBA tracking. Among the 35 big men (6-10 or bigger) defending at least three 3-pointers per game, Kornet is sixth in that group.

Overall, opponents are shooting 44.9 percent when Kornet is the closest defender, per NBA tracking. That’s also 3 percent below expected output. Among the 176 players who defend at least nine field goal attempts per game with at least 40 games played, Kornet is tied for 21st in the NBA in defensive field goal differential. Only Kristaps Porzingis and Jaylen Brown have better defensive differentials on the Celtics team, with the All-Defense tandem of Derrick White and Jrue Holiday both slotted close behind him.

Here’s what we like best about Kornet: He just does his job, and mixes in some humor regardless of his playing time. Kornet is just as fired up when Sam Hauser utilizes the Kornet Kontest as he is for a dunk in a big spot (or maybe some ice-in-his-veins free throws).

In mid-December, Kornet missed time due to injury and two-way center Neemias Queta played well in his absence, leading some to ponder if Queta should get promoted to the parent roster and see increased opportunity. In his first game back on December 29, Kornet got thrust into a starting role and scored a season-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a shorthanded win over Toronto.

At the trade deadline, the Celtics acquired big man Xavier Tillman for added depth. On nights that Tilman has been utilized for his defensive versatility, Kornet has logged DNPs. How has Kornet responded to those instances?

After sitting out against Dallas, Kornet brought much-needed energy late in the first quarter as the Celtics ripped open a game against the Warriors. After sitting out against Denver, Kornet chipped in 14 points and six rebounds against Phoenix. Kornet doesn’t let his playing time dictate his readiness.

The Celtics listed their entire starting five on the injury report for Monday’s visit to Portland. Al Horford will sit out one of the next two nights as planned rest on a back-to-back. The Celtics will continue to tread cautiously with Porzingis to the finish line of the regular season. All of which will create opportunities for Kornet to keep quietly having a positive impact on the best team in basketball.

There’s a reason that a Kornet clip remains the only like on Brad Stevens’ X account. Whether that was inadvertent or not, Kornet approaches the game exactly how a GM would want their third big to handle it, and his contributions have helped the Celtics thrive.

Time will tell just how much the Celtics might lean on Kornet when the postseason arrives. There could be matchups that limit his floor time. But coach Joe Mazzulla can trust that Kornet will be ready when called upon.

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