March 9, 2018, 6:10 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature (on a brand new website!) where we will be taking a look into German rookie Daniel Theis and his transformation into a very important piece for the Celtics.
For anyone following European hoops, Theis has been a known commodity well before the Celtics signed him this offseason. The 6’9” forward went undrafted in 2013 and remained in Germany, where his team won three straight league championships. The 25-year-old gained valuable experience playing in the EuroLeague and German Bundesliga, leading the league in individual defensive rating last season while also being named the Defensive Player of the Year in the top-level Bundesliga.
The Celtics had their eyes on Theis for nearly six years even though he failed to impress teams in five games with the Wizards in 2014’s Summer League. The wait was well worth it as he has already been a regular contributor in his rookie season, validating a scouting department that was adamant about his ability to effectively make the transition to the big stage.
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Born in Germany, Theis went through his town’s youth sports system and while soccer was his initial love, his brother, with whom he played, was successful in swaying him away. He made his debut in the German top-tier level league, the Basketball Bundesliga, during the 2010–11 season where he played alongside Dennis Schröder, earning the Eurobasket.com website’s All-2.Pro B Most Improved Player of the Year honors. After a breakout season with Ratiopharm Ulm in 2013–14 season, Theis won the BBL Best Young Player award and put himself in the NBA radar. He went undrafted but he moved on to sign with fellow German Bundesliga club Brose Bamberg where he won three consecutive German championships.
A Backup Center Turned Stretch Four
When Brad Stevens first watched Daniel Theis over the summer, he saw the makings of a backup center.
Given his skill set, that was the position that made the most sense as he possesses an all-around physical package, topped off by his superior athleticism, explosive jumping ability and fearlessness. Stevens’ offensive philosophy cannot be categorized into one specific, pre-existing system like the Triangle or the Princeton offense. It’s a structure that borrows elements from every other offense, yet remains unique and original in its own way. And while the Triangle is undeniably a winning formula, the biggest reason it appeared so unstoppable was because it’s an offense whose biggest ability was to isolate Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two of the best iso scorers of all-time.
Boston had to compensate for their lack of star power with a “pace and space” uptempo offensive game plan where each lineup variation plays an entirely different brand of basketball served to maximize each player’s strengths. The common ground is a series of pick-and-pop and DHO actions that create 3-point or mid-range shots. And for this system to succeed, teams need to manufacture maximum spacing and have several 3-point options on the floor to force their defenders outside the paint and onto the perimeter. So while Theis was known to be athletic and long-armed, a defense-first player who could rebound and block, Stevens had to find a way to fit him in a system that requires big men to step out, hit jumpers and spread the floor.
The Pace and Space Offense
With the action that the Celtics run, if opposing big men decide to cover their big men behind the arc, there won’t be enough rim protection opening the road for uncontested buckets. The Celtics have a plethora of point guards that can attack the rim and teams are reluctant to leave open lanes for them. Theis is an efficient inside scorer with good hands that can catch the ball off pick-and-roll and can play above the rim as a target for lobs. Look at Anthony Davis being too slow in his recovery back to the basket after a great screen by Theis that allows Smart to be aggressive and deliver a perfectly timed lob to the German forward.
If, on the other hand, the opponent keeps their big man in the paint, Celtics will light them up from three. Boston is averaging 11.8 triples per game – tied for fifth best in the league with the Warriors. Look at the Pelicans clogging the paint in order to discourage Kyrie from driving to the rim. Theis gets a wide open three and easily converts as the shot clock expires.
Theis has been very familiar with this principle as his former coach in Europe, Andrea Trinchieri, is a big time proponent of spacing. His team spread the floor really well which afforded him many good looks for finishes near the basket out of the pick-and-roll and from deep as a floor spacer. He has a decent looking catch-and-shoot jumper from mid-range while he has improved his shooting mechanics throughout the years. What works best for his advantage though is the element of the unknown, as teams and NBA players are not familiar with his game and will not show him any respect as a shooter even though he is making 49 percent of his shots from mid-range and 32 percent from deep. Look at Mason Plumlee not even bothering to raise his arms as he opts to shut the lane for Kyrie Irving instead.
The German forward is averaging only 0.9 assists per game but he has a better assist-to-usage ratio that estimates how pass-first a player is. Players who have the ball in their hands obviously have higher assist percentages just by having the ball more. Assist-to-Usage ratio does a better job capturing how good of a passer a player is. The tape validates Theis as he’ proven to understand the importance of sticking to the game plan and making the extra pass. Look at how he finds himself in the paint against a smaller Gary Harris, after horrendous defense by Will Barton, but opts for the pass to the wide open Semi Ojeleye in the corner instead of finishing around the basket.
Fitting into Boston’s Defensive Philosophy
Moving on to the other side of the ball, Brad Stevens keeps crafting his entire defense and recruiting philosophy over hard hedging on all ball screens. This requires bigs that can move and become more of an asset defending the perimeter. What made things easy for Theis is that his European team in Germany ran the same principle as he was asked to hedge and recover beyond the arc. And while he is not a stiff body and he doesn’t impress with his agility defending out in space, he is able to defend stretch big men on straight line drives and effective closeouts to the three-point line. Basically that’s all he has to do as from a schematic perspective he switches well, moving his feet around the perimeter in pick-and-roll coverages, and rotates at a solid level. Look at how effective he is against Ramon Sessions after switching on a high pick-and-roll set. Theis is able to quickly close out on him and force a very tough shot.
His active hands also make him extremely valuable in ICE, the preferred method of defending the pick and roll today. ICE defense cuts off the driving lane to the middle created by on-ball screens and forces opponents to the side by double-teaming the ball handler. Here’s Yogi Ferrell getting trapped and trying to dribble himself out but failing miserably as Theis picks his pocket.
The German forward is indeed an athletic body but what really distinguishes him as a defender is his above average footwork and basketball IQ that enables him to protect the rim from the weak side while also disrupting the passing lanes. His lateral quickness isn’t anything special but he understands how to timely move his big body around the floor and cause turnovers for opposing ball handlers attacking downhill off the pick-and-roll. Look at the Sixers getting the ball to Dario Saric down in the post against a smaller Terry Rozier. Theis understands the mismatch and moves back and forth before using his hands to steal what looks like a lazy pass by Saric that would have led to an open layup by Amir Johnson.
Theis has the tendency to foul too much, averaging 6.1 fouls per 36 minutes and he understands that he needs to become stronger in order to be able to deal with bigger bodies in the low post. The German forward is a very good one-on-one defender who can guard multiple positions, but he is struggling against bigger, faster and more agile players although this should be expected. Here is Nikola Jokic forcing his way to the basket as Theis clearly is outmuscled while also being called for a foul.
Minutes Will be Hard to Find
Theis ranks among the league leaders for first-year players in a number of categories such as rebounds (4.4, ninth among rookies) and field goal percentage (54.1, fourth among rookies) even though he is playing just 15 minutes per contest. He is a strong rebounder with a knack for second chance opportunities but he is best suited for the starting unit as a complementary pierce to a dynamic offense. When the Celtics added Greg Monroe to their frontcourt a couple weeks back, his playing time situation got a little bit murky. The team clearly wants Monroe to anchor the second unit with his strong post up game which could be very useful in the playoffs when defenses get stingy. At the same time it’s not a surprise to see Theis develop from simply a talented big to a solid contributor with a winning team and his future in the league definitely looks bright.
Hope you enjoyed reading this article and don’t forget to check us back again next week. With fantasy playoffs rapidly approaching, make sure you follow all of our breaking news and rumors on our brand new website and on Twitter @HoopBallFantasy .
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 9th.