Theis is Nice: Boston’s Unheralded Hero

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You may have heard already, but the 2017-18 Boston Celtics are off to perhaps the most noteworthy start in basketball. The Celtics have rattled off 13 straight wins after an 0-2 start, and they’ve overcome a brutal, season-ending leg injury to Gordon Hayward, a concussion scare with Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving’s literal broken face to find ways to keep winning games, all with one of the youngest overall rosters in basketball.

The contributions are coming from everywhere. Horford looks like a genuine Defensive Player of the Year candidate and is drilling a ludicrous 49% of his threes – the numbers tell me he’s missed a few shots this season, but I just don’t think I believe them. Irving is applying himself on defense and dominating fourth quarters, and he hasn’t even settled into his established scoring efficiency yet. When those two aren’t on the court, the kids are stepping up around them – Jaylen Brown has been a fireball, providing tough defense and attacking with reckless abandon on offense (for better or worse), and Jayson Tatum has been more composed and consistent than a rookie has any right to be. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are lethal defensive guards, and rookie Semi Ojeleye has embraced his three-and-D role.

There’s a lot to discuss about all of these players – and this roster as a whole – but the player who perhaps interests me the most is the one that has received arguably the smallest portion of the team’s copious media attention: 25-year-old Daniel Theis.

Signed out of Germany this summer, Theis was on nobody’s radar coming into the season. He was a warm body, a guy who could fill a roster spot for cheap without sacrificing the team’s flexibility to pursue Hayward in free agency. I didn’t even expect him to play, and he honestly may not have if Hayward and Marcus Morris hadn’t gotten hurt so early in the year. Now, Theis is playing significant actual rotation minutes – even with Morris back in the fold – and he leads the Celtics in defensive rating (94) and defensive box plus-minus (+4.2) as of Tuesday. How does that happen?

For starters, Theis is active. You know that stereotype of the guy who shows up to pick-up basketball games decked out in shooting sleeves and sweat bands, laying out for loose balls and trying just entirely too hard? That’s Theis. He gets himself involved in every little thing that happens in the paint, keeping his hands and feet moving and causing chaos under the basket.

Excellent positioning and leverage allow Theis to excel on the offensive glass, and his bounciness allows him to generate a lot of second-chance scores; his offensive rebounding rate of 12.7% would be 10th-best in the NBA right now if he played enough minutes to qualify (the actual #10 is Aron Baynes, which goes to show how Boston has improved so dramatically on the boards the season compared to last)..

He’s smart enough to recognize when not to shoot as well, and won’t waste valuable second-chance possessions with doomed shot attempts. Watch here as he grabs the offensive board behind the taller Pau Gasol, passes out to Terry Rozier, and maintains positioning to compete for the next rebound (which he might have flipped in if Rozier hadn’t gotten too frisky):

Length has been a significant weapon for the Celtics’ league-leading defense this year, as almost every key contributor on the team has an above-average wingspan relative to their height. Theis is listed at 6’9″, but an exact number on his wingspan is hard to find (a testament to how much of an unknown he was before this year). Whatever it is, it’s long, though, and that length creates a lot of issues for offensive players at the rim. It’s no fluke that he’s averaging 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes.

Here, he outreaches the T-Rex-armed Julius Randle to steal an ill-fated inbounds pass:

Theis is quick on his feet, and able to hold his own against smaller, faster players off the dribble at times. Here, he switches on the pick by Raptors center Lucas Nogueira and keeps pace with athletic guard Delon Wright, anticipating the layup well to pick up the block. I particularly like the awareness he shows in tipping the ball back to Shane Larkin at the end of the play.

Theis is still very raw, of course. He’s fouling nearly three times per game while only playing an average of about 14 minutes – good for a whopping 7.4 fouls per-36. That’s just too many fouls for a more expanded role, but there will be nights he may have to see one, considering fellow big Aron Baynes is similarly foul prone and Marcus Morris is still working back into game shape (and is more of a small-ball four anyways).

This is something that experience can only help with, though, and he’s certainly shown flashes. He does a good job here of keeping his arms up and using his verticality to block Kyle Kuzma while avoiding the foul:

The offensive side of things has been a different story for Theis so far, but there’s reason for optimism on that end as well. Like basically the entire rest of the Celtics’ bench, Theis has come out negatively in terms of offensive box plus-minus (-2.7), as these units have just struggled to put points on the board. It’s not entirely Theis’s fault, though; he’s posted a 58.5% effective field goal percentage in his limited shot attempts by playing largely to his own strengths.

When the offense looks Theis’s way, it often comes off the pick-and-roll. He’s an eager screener with a good eye for cutting lanes, and this gives him upside as a roll man. Here, he sets a small screen for Marcus Smart in the paint, recognizes that Cody Zeller has left him to contest Smart and finds a pocket in the defense, clearing himself for the lay-in with Zeller now out of the play.

I particularly liked this play against Atlanta, where Theis catches Hawks rookie John Collins in a poor rotation onto Marcus Smart behind the arc (doubling Smart behind the three-point arc is like buying a Kevlar vest for a game of paintball). He barrels towards the rim as soon as Smart starts to pass off to Al Horford on the block, knowing that Horford will get him the ball on the move while there are no Hawks defenders big enough to stop him.

Boston’s bench has struggled to put the ball in the basket with any consistency, and one option I’d like to see explored a little further is using Theis in catch-and-shoot situations, where he’s taken only 13 attempts thus far (2-of-4 from inside the arc, 3-of-9 beyond it). There’s a slow wind-up to his jumper that probably needs to be tightened up, but he shoots it confidently and it looks fairly serviceable. In bench lineups that prominently feature a complete non-shooter in Smart and a streaky chucker in Terry Rozier, the added spacing from Theis knocking down these attempts could be invaluable.

Or hey, maybe he’ll just start doing whatever Anthony-Davis-kinda-stuff this is and become the greatest power forward alive.

The Celtics have been one of the most remarkable stories in basketball through the beginning of the season, and players like Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum are rightfully soaking up headlines because of it. If you’re not a Boston fan, I couldn’t blame you for being tired of hearing about them. Theis is a fascinating story, though – a relatively unheralded European player, signed as an afterthought, who is now contributing in a significant way to the current best team in the Eastern Conference – and he deserves a little moment in the sun.

He likely isn’t a future star, obviously, and he likely might not even cap out as a starter, but he’s gone from bench-warmer to valuable rotation contributor through his energy and commitment to the little things, and those kinds of blue-collar players are always welcome on NBA rosters. Of players that have played significant minutes for the Celtics this year, only Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Kyrie Irving have a better Net Rating than Theis’ 8.2. Much of that is small sample size theater, but that doesn’t make it a complete mirage, either; Daniel Theis is worthy of your attention, at least for a moment, and don’t be surprised if he’s playing meaningful minutes for the Celtics come April.


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