Celtics

Celtics look like a great team that got better in preseason opener: 8 takeaways vs. Hornets

It's early, but ...

Celtics Hornets
The Celtics took on the Hornets to open their preseason slate on Sunday. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics opened their preseason slate on Sunday with an eye-opening 134-93 win over the Hornets.

Here are the takeaways.

1. After fans and media called for improvements to his handle all summer, Jaylen Brown was fantastic in his 2022-23 debut — scoring a game-high 24 points, which included several strong drives to the rim and 3-for-5 shooting from behind the arc. Maybe his best play, however, showcased his handle and vision.

Brown finished with four turnovers and four fouls in just 23 minutes, but with the first of many “It’s early, but …” caveats, he looked ready to make a push for his second All-Star team (and maybe more) on Sunday.

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“It’s preseason, you are trying to get your body going,” Brown said. “Started off with an early game, that was a setup. You come out and you play basketball, the same thing I’ve been doing my whole career.”

2. With Robert Williams sidelined for several more weeks, the Celtics started Derrick White in his place to open the game. That lineup could leave the door open for rebounding issues, so Noah Vonleh was the first sub off the bench, and in the second half, they started Vonleh — who does not have a guaranteed roster spot — in White’s place.

Joe Mazzulla told reporters afterward that starting White meant nothing going forward, but he did say he liked how Vonleh fit in quickly with the starters. Vonleh is an excellent rebounder, and he helps relieve some of the pressure on Al Horford to protect the rim, switch defensively, and rebound all at once. Vonleh does need to play deep in drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, which isn’t quite as effective for him as it is for a hyper-athletic and bouncy defender like Williams.

The Celtics will need to run some early experiments and figure out the best way to keep Horford from burning out before the postseason, but Vonleh getting an early look was a nice sign for him.

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3. The Celtics finished with a staggering 41 assists on their 48 field goals, while holding the Hornets to just 13. They also outshot the Hornets 22-5 from 3-point range.

Less good: The Celtics turned the ball over 23 times.

An optimist might chalk the ball movement up to familiarity and the turnovers up to rust. A pessimist might point out that turnovers were a massive issue last season.

Again: It’s early, but …

4. In his continued quest to maximize every iota of his basketball potential, Grant Williams appears to have spent the summer working on attacking closeouts — scoring around the rim and dropping dump-off passes to his teammates. He also buried a pair of wide-open 3-pointers in the first half, which should be available early and often if the Celtics move the ball during the regular season the way they moved it on Sunday.

5. Of all the rotation players who looked like they had something to prove, Sam Hauser might have put together the best afternoon. He made his first four 3-pointers and finished 5-for-6 from the floor, but that’s hardly a surprise — Hauser has the potential to be one of best shooters in the NBA.

Much more noteworthy: The Hornets tried to attack Hauser repeatedly with suboptimal switches, and Hauser largely held his ground. He needed to make isolation offense inefficient when he was targeted, and he passed up to his first real test comfortably.

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Whether that holds up remains to be seen, but if it does, Hauser should have a big role this season (and a very lucrative NBA career).

6. Malcolm Brogdon finished with 11 points and nine assists in his first Celtics game. He told reporters afterward that there are challenges fitting in with a talented team, but at first glance, those challenges aren’t exactly clear. With defensive coverages zeroed in on Brown and Jayson Tatum, Brogdon had a ton of space to operate. His willingness to both score and facilitate was a big reason the Celtics made 22 triples.

“These guys, this is a team full of unselfish guys that clearly have an objective to just win,” Brogdon said. “We want to win it all this year, so we’re trying to build for that.

“We’re not really concerned about statistics and all that. We know JT and JB are going to lead us every night on the offensive end. It’s up to the rest of us to play our roles and to support them but to also play to the best of our abilities every night.”

7. Mfiondu Kabengele signed a two-way contract with the Celtics after an impressive Summer League performance, and he was clearly fired up for Sunday’s debut.

Kabengele left the game with several rotation players in the fourth quarter after electrifying the crowd — and especially the Celtics’ bench — with an energetic performance at the end of the third. His spring-board athleticism and long arms could offer a diet version of what Robert Williams brings to the table.

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If nothing else, Kabengele appears highly motivated to earn his spot.

Kabengele said he was grateful for his opportunity in the G-League last year, but being back in the NBA is a relief.

“At warmup, coming around, I was looking up and just saw all the banners and I was like, ‘Man, it’s good to be back up top’ because it’s something you dream about,” Kabengele said. “And now that I’m back, I want to stay here for a long time. So I’m definitely grateful.”

8. Joe Mazzulla was asked after the game how he felt about his first preseason contest as an NBA head coach.

“Felt like I was coaching a great team that wanted to win,” Mazzulla said simply. “That was fun to coach.”

Mazzulla later told reporters that he made mistakes — some bad ones, even.

Still, Mazzulla has a massive advantage over many first-time head coaches — he’s taking over an excellent basketball team. It’s early, but the Eastern Conference champions appear to have gotten significantly better with their offseason additions.

An experienced head coach can matter quite a bit, but the Celtics’ pursuit of a championship is far more likely to be determined by whether Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown take another step, and whether Malcolm Brogdon fixes the depth issues, and whether the defense can continue to switch and annihilate opponents, etc.

If Mazzulla makes mistakes, he has the safety net of a talented, motivated and increasingly experienced basketball team to help him along.

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“Don’t let this game fool you, we have a lot of work to do,” Brown said. “We have to take care of the ball better, we got to get more connected on offense and defense, rebound a lot better. Those are the type of things we want to build now in the preseason.

“We’re not patting ourselves on the back here for winning a preseason game. It’s a lot of work to be done so better get to it.”

The Celtics take on the Raptors on Wednesday.

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