Analysis

5 things to watch as Celtics open preseason against Magic

Who will start? Can Al Horford mesh immediately? The preseason begins on Monday.

Celtics preseason preview
Boston Celtics forward Aaron Nesmith will be an important piece this season. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

The Celtics and Magic open the preseason against one another at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, as Celtics fans get their first look at a re-tooled (but familiar) roster.

Here are five things to watch.

Who will the Celtics start? 

Ime Udoka cautioned everyone not to read too much into the starting lineup on Monday, but pardon us if we don’t entirely believe him.

Certainly, if the opening lineup struggles the Celtics might look elsewhere, but the starting group is likely a collection of players who have separated themselves from their peers. Will Al Horford — who has made a “huge” case for himself — start? Will Rob Williams join him in a double-big look? Or will Udoka give Dennis Schröder or Josh Richardson the final slot?

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The starting lineup might not be set on Monday evening, but the first look at it will be interesting. 

How does Al Horford look with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown?

In 2017-18, Horford was likely the best player on the team that made a precocious run to the Eastern Conference Finals, even though the team’s top scorers were Tatum and Brown. Horford made the entire operation smoother, while Tatum and Brown cut their teeth against playoff opposition. 

This year, Horford’s dynamic with Tatum and Brown will be similar in an ideal world for the Celtics, but now the talented young duo is significantly stronger — both coming off All-Star appearances, and both hoping to compete for more. If Horford does win the starting job, his pairing with Tatum and Brown will be interesting in part because it could measure the progress of all three players. 

How much progress have Aaron Nesmith, Romeo Langford, and Payton Pritchard made?

The rookie learning curve has perhaps never been more obvious in NBA history than last season when first-year players were thrown into the spotlight without the benefit of Summer League, a real offseason, or a real training camp. 

Of the Celtics’ rookies, Nesmith looked the most raw, although he made up for it by rocketing around like Brad Stevens lit his shorts on fire. Still, Nesmith didn’t look comfortable until late in the season. Pritchard was solid, but his Summer League performance was eye-opening as he was one of the best players in Las Vegas. Langford, meanwhile, has dealt with injuries throughout the first two years of his NBA career — this year is a huge one for the former Indiana wing.

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The Celtics’ depth was a weak point (to say the least) last season. This year, they have more veterans, but their second unit could be one of the better groups in the NBA if some of their young players deliver on the promise Danny Ainge saw in one of his final drafts as President of Basketball Operations.

How does Marcus Smart look as the official starting point guard? 

Smart told The Athletic he was excited to finally get an opportunity to start. 

“We hear it all the time that I take shots away from those guys, but we’ve all seen that that’s never really true. I’m far from that,” Smart told Jay King. 

Smart is motivated to prove himself as a distributor, and the Celtics look good when he acts primarily as a table-setter for others. Our first look at Smart in that role will be a fun litmus test for the season.

Who will win the final roster spot?

At first glance, Jabari Parker looks like the most likely candidate to be the 15th man — the Celtics signed him to a two-year deal last season and talked about their desire to see what the former No. 2 pick could do next season. 

But the Celtics have a new coaching staff and some interesting players in camp including Garrison Matthews and Ryan Arcidiacono. Matthews in particular could raise some eyebrows as a 6-foot-5 shooter who can hit from deep both off the catch and off movement.

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Parker certainly isn’t out of the running, but he was most useful as a small-ball five last year and is not a threat at the 3-point line. This season, the Celtics have a ton of options at center and even Juancho Hernangomez to fill in some bench minutes. Parker, meanwhile, only has $100k guaranteed on this deal. If he is outplayed, his spot might be in trouble. 

Of course, none of that will be decided after the first game of the preseason. But a first look at the end of the bench will be interesting.

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