Nov. 15—Back in Portland after opening the NBA G League season with a pair of road losses, the Maine Celtics are in full learn-from-everything mode.
"Everybody has something to work on. That's what we learned," rookie guard Jordan Walsh said after Wednesday's practice at the Portland Expo.
Maine opened the season last weekend with a 137-127 loss to the Capital City Go-Go in Washington, D.C., followed by a 125-107 loss to the Westchester Knicks in White Plains, New York.
The Celtics play their home opener at the Expo at 7 p.m. Friday against the Long Island Nets. Maine hosts the Nets again on Sunday afternoon before hitting the road for a pair of games next week in North Carolina against the Greensboro Swarm.
The Celtics have a new head coach in Blaine Mueller, who joined the team after working with the Milwaukee Bucks since 2018. A 2014 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Mueller replaces Alex Barlow, who left to become an assistant coach at Butler, his alma mater. When Charles Lee left the Bucks to join the coaching staff of Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla, he recommended Mueller to Mazzulla and Celtics President Brad Stevens for the Maine job.
This is Mueller's first heading coaching job, and he takes over a team that last season reached the G League playoffs for the first time since 2017. Mueller said finding a balance between developing Maine's young roster and winning games is the key.
"The priority is their development, but I don't think those two things are really mutually exclusive. When you talk about players, especially young players, developing winning habits, it's a big piece for all these guys," Mueller said. "They have dreams and aspirations of playing in the NBA. That first step for all them is going to be as a role player, as a player that helps come in and contribute and do all the little things that impact winning."
That's the same for every player, whether he's a rookie getting his first taste of professional basketball, like Walsh, or someone with significant NBA experience. The Maine roster includes veteran guard Tony Snell, the 20th overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft who has 601 NBA games on his resumé, and forward Nate Knight, who spent the last three seasons in the NBA with Atlanta and Minnesota, playing 108 games.
Knight, guard JD Davison, and center Neemias Queta are Maine's three two-way contract players. Two-way players are NBA contracted players with fewer than four years of NBA experience, and are allowed to play up to 50 games in a season with their NBA team. Queta is currently on the injured list because of a foot injury.
For Knight, playing in Maine is the chance to work on aspects of his game that are more applicable to the NBA. In his previous G League stints, Knight was a top option in the offense. Not so this season, he said.
"I know once I go up to the next level, that's not always going to be the case," Knight said. "Finding my way to impact the game off the ball, whether that's screening, playing defense, communicating on either side of the ball, just trying to be an all-around better teammate. The small stuff that doesn't show up on the stat sheet."
Walsh was taken 38th overall in June's NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings, then traded to Boston. Rather than keep him at the end of the bench in Boston, where his minutes would be limited, the Celtics sent Walsh to Portland, where he can play and develop. Last season at the University of Arkansas, his only season of college ball, was Walsh's first time not being the top player on his team. He's adjusting to that at the pro level now. Like Knight, Walsh is looking to improve the little things, like spacing the floor and setting screens.
"The main focus is just developing a routine and having something I can fall back on when I return to the (Boston) roster," said the 19-year-old Walsh. "Becoming a better player means learning the game a little more. Being all-around more competitive. Knowing your role and playing your role."
Now in his second season with Maine, Davison averaged 14.1 points in 18 games last winter. He isn't concerned about the 0-2 start.
"It's just the first two games. I don't see give up in this team. They're fighting. Everybody's focused. Everybody's here to win," Davison said.
Mueller said a focus on finishing defensively has to come out of the two season-opening losses. Capital City shot 52.2% in rallying from a 16-point deficit to beat Maine, while Westchester shot 54.4% and built a 29-point lead. Combined, the opponents shot 44% from 3-point range (30 for 68).
"Some of it is controllable, like looks we don't want to give up," Mueller said. "We have to get back in transition. We have to protect the basket. We have to finish possessions on the defensive glass, and we have to keep teams off the free-throw line."