The Celtics signed Mfiondu Kabengele after the team’s loss to the Nets concluded Summer League. The pick-and-roll duo of rookie JD Davison and Kabengele now fill the team’s pair of two-way slots. Those contracts allow the players up to 50 regular season games in the NBA, $502,000 this season and no playoff eligibility.
Kabengele, a 24-year-old center entering his fourth professional season, showed out throughout Boston’s slate of games, averaging 14.8 PPG, 8.2 RPG and 2.2 BPG, shooting 58.7% from the field and 40% from three. This marked the final year he would’ve been eligible for a two-way deal, joining the Celtics in Summer League to compete for a NBA role after a full season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ G-League affiliate.
“With the Celtics, (when) they traded for (Malcolm) Brogdon, a lot of spots were available with players that moved for Brogdon,” Kabengele told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog last week. “There was a need for an energy big that can make plays. (My agent) thought it was good fit, so he did his thing and talked to Brad (Stevens) and everybody and brought me here and since I’ve gotten here it’s been great.”
Kabengele, a Canadian born to Congolese immigrant parents and the nephew of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, was drafted No. 27 overall in the 2019 draft and sent from the Nets to the Clippers. He landed on a team that acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George that offseason, effectively ending any chance of consistent playing time through his first two seasons. He got traded to and released by the Kings after 52 games in two seasons in LA.
The Cavaliers picked him up on a 10-day contract early in 2021 before waiving him before the next season after 16 games where he averaged 4.3 PPG on 42.1% shooting. He signed with the Rockets after, who released him to send him to their G-League affiliate, who’d go on to win the championship thanks in large part to a breakout season from Kabengele. He averaged 17.5 PPG, 10.6 RPG and 1.0 BPG on 57% FG.
“Coming to the G-League, it kind of solidified my beliefs of who I am as a player,” he told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “Because you aren’t able to go up-and-down (in the NBA) and practice can only show you so much compared to a game, so coming to a game and playing G-League games against guys who could go to the league, some call down guys, some vets that came out like Isaiah Thomas, Lance (Stephenson) were there. Going against them, it gives you a big gauge of where you are. So, playing that year helped me out a lot to solidify what I thought of myself as a player.”
The Celtics brought in Kabengele and rookie Trevion Williams to fill center minutes around their pair of second-year guards and shooting wings from last season. Despite the need for a big man following Daniel Theis’ departure, Brodric Thomas and Matt Ryan returned to the roster after filling the two-way contracts last year, Davison claimed one before the games began and age wasn’t on Kabengele’s side. Kabengle, however, complemented his teammates and played with intensity throughout the Vegas schedule. He knew Thomas and Ryan from his Cleveland stint, studied Davison before joining the team and as a French speaker could speak fluently in Juhann Begarin’s first language.
He earned the starting role in training camp though and ran with it, becoming a menace on the offensive glass right away, providing some pick-and-pop ability along with providing a lob target for Davison and others. The rookie and Kabengele quickly developed chemistry and head coach Ben Sullivan came away impressed with his rim protection ability, pick-and-roll coverage and asked him to switch some.
“He was contesting shots around the rim, making it difficult for them, he was able to execute what we’re looking for,” Sullivan told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “By and large, he did a good job.”
The Celtics still have three active roster spots and both Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka mentioned the team’s intention to acquire a veteran big man to relieve Al Horford and Robert Williams III. The team has the $17-million trade exception until Monday, as well as small exceptions through the trade deadline to help fill that gap. Luke Kornet also re-signed, likely making Kabengele’s role a deep emergency one as well as a helpful and familiar partner for Davison to work with while in Maine this season.
Kabengele’s ability to complement his young teammates shined in Summer League. He gave the offense 15 second chance opportunities. He got involved as a passer on the roll, handling the ball more offensively to fit the team’s offense. His shot is a bonus and while his rim protection isn’t elite, it became a separator over Williams as the younger big man struggled on that end of the floor. It didn’t hurt that Kabengele, playing against Golden State, raced into the back court chasing a loose ball and nearly leveled Udoka and Mike Zarren as they sat court side where Kabengele crashed into the chairs alongside them.
Between wins over the Bucks and Warriors, Kabengele combined to score 35 points with 24 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks — a dominant run that likely solidified his standing. Kabengele noted the Summer League experience began with a stern, inspiring speech from Stevens, emphasizing the Celtics’ values and the legitimate opportunity for the players to advance their careers with Boston.
“My goal was to make sure to get the little things right,” Kabengele said before the Bucks game. “The coaching staff’s talking about how to (set) good screening angles and making sure I roll, create dips in help side (defense), so I can kick out (passes) for the other guys. The way I can roll, that’s my main thing. Focus on the little things, crash the glass, set good screens and make plays on the offensive glass … I’m just playing the way I play and (with) how I carry myself, I think I have an opportunity anywhere. So if Boston loved me, I would love to be here as well.”