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Sam Hauser is the NBA’s biggest surprise

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The NBA leader in offensive rating entering Sunday was on the ground at Boston’s TD Garden … and it wasn’t the visiting Wizards’ All-Star guard, Bradley Beal. The present league leader in net rating played 27 minutes on the identical floor Monday … and it wasn’t All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum. The player with the NBA’s fourth-best plus/minus entering Monday night, trailing Stephen Curry and Nikola Jokić and sandwiched between Mikal Bridges and Jrue Holiday, is a key member of the Celtics’ rotation … and isn’t Jaylen BrownAl Horford or Marcus Smart.

It’s Sam Hauser.

All of those distinctions belong to: Sam. Freaking. Hauser.

Hauser, the undrafted free-agent signee who played more minutes for the Maine Celtics (335) than Boston (158) last season; who competed for enjoying time with Aaron Nesmith—and lost; who in college drew scouts to Virginia, though lots of whom also got here to see his teammate Jay Huff.

That Sam Hauser.

In a season full of improbable story lines, Hauser’s emergence as one among the NBA’s most statistically impactful players ranks amongst essentially the most wacky. His three-point percentage (48.9%) trails only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Damion Lee. He has the next offensive rating (125.6) than Jokić. One NBA assistant compared him favorably to former NBA journeyman Jason Kapono. A yr ago Hauser was home watching Joe Wieskamp, David Johnson and Scottie Lewis get drafted over him. Today he’s a number one candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

“Truthfully,” says Hauser, “it’s type of crazy.”

It’s been an improbable journey. At Virginia, Hauser averaged 16 points as a senior. He shot 41.7% from three. But when NBA teams checked in, recalls Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett, there was numerous “we are going to watch and see.” There have been questions on Hauser’s athleticism. About his defense. About what position he would play within the NBA. “I feel teams thought he was intriguing,” says Bennett. “But there have been numerous questions. Sometimes teams bet on upside, and he was older. You knew he was going to need to go in there and earn it.”

Still, Boston liked him. And the Celtics needed shooting. That they had missed on Duncan Robinson, the Recent England–born sniper who went undrafted in 2018. In ’19, they cut Max Strus. In Hauser, the Celtics saw upside. It didn’t hurt that his agent, Jason Glushon, represented Brown, Horford and Smart. Immediately after the draft, Boston signed Hauser to a two-way contract.

“I had a sense I might go undrafted,” says Hauser. “I used to be grateful when Boston called.”

In Maine—home to the Celtics’ G League affiliate—Hauser’s potential became apparent quickly. The shooting was there. “That was never an issue,” says Maine head coach Alex Barlow. Hauser grew up shooting. His father, Dave, was a Wisconsin highschool coach. Hauser’s mother, Stephanie, told The Virginian-Pilot that Hauser’s first sentence was “Me shooty.” Within the gym, Dave’s message was easy. “Just have faith in yourself,” says Hauser. “Irrespective of in case you’re making or missing, shoot the following one such as you’re going to make it each time. That’s the foremost thing that he tried to drive home.”

But there was more. There was the work ethic. “Ask him to run off 20 screens in a row; he’ll do it,” says Barlow. And the defense. Barlow, then an assistant, recalls an early-season game against Delaware when Hauser was matched up with Jaden Springer, a Sixers first-round pick, and Shaq Harrison. Hauser, says Barlow, “held his own.” A number of games later, against Westchester, Hauser played well against Miles McBride, a Knicks second-round pick. “Teams tested him, put him in numerous actions,” says Barlow. “And he looked like he belonged.”

There was the spacing. In Maine, where Hauser was a focus of the G League Celtics’ offense, he showed a knack for getting open. “He just finds windows,” says Barlow. “And he never stops moving.” In Boston, Celtics coaches rave about Hauser’s ability to relocate when the ball moves. As Hauser sees a play develop, he instinctively shifts to open spots on the ground. It’s created some bonkers lineup data: Hauser and Horford have played 68 minutes together, per NBA.com. In those minutes the Celtics’ offensive rating is 141.8. It bumps to 153.8 within the 43 minutes Hauser, Horford and Tatum have played together. “Not getting in the way in which is a skill,” says Barlow. “Being in the appropriate spot is an underrated skill. He’s so good at that.”

Says Hauser, “I do not really think much of it once I’m on the court. It just type of happens, and I are inclined to be in the appropriate place once I’m purported to be.”

Shooting got Hauser on the ground. But there are signs there could also be more to his game. “He knows when to chop; he knows when to shoot,” says Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. “He knows tips on how to do things that could make an offense higher.” Against Washington, Hauser arrange Payton Pritchard for a 3 after getting a defender to bite on a ball fake. Later, he finished a midrange jumper while drawing a foul on Will Barton. Bennett believes there may be a mid-post game in Hauser that may be unlocked, while his playmaking continues to enhance.

“Sam knows who he’s,” says Bennett. “So many guys don’t know who they’re. They’re so eager to turn into someone that they aren’t, or they’re attempting to prove it, that they find yourself disqualifying themselves or hurting themselves. Sam could be very clear on who he’s as a player and an individual. And that’s gold if you got that. He understands clearly, ‘That is my identity. That is who I’m.’ And he’s not going to veer from it.”

Boston advanced to the Finals last season behind a stingy defense, and while a bludgeoning offense has carried the Celtics early, Hauser might want to defend to remain on the ground. He’s targeted often. “Each time I check in it’s like I’m mechanically within the motion,” says Hauser. And while he’s not a robust defender yet, Hauser believes he can get there. “I’ve been working my butt off,” says Hauser. “I still need to enhance. Sometimes you only type of need to hope they miss, and you will have to simply do your best to make it as hard as possible for them to make a shot.”

For now, the Celtics are winning.

And Sam Hauser is an enormous reason why.

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