BOSTON — The Boston Celtics unleashed exuberant celebrations throughout Monday night’s blowout victory over the Charlotte Hornets. Luke Kornet flapped his hands like the wings of a bird after a dunk. Blake Griffin’s alley-oop connection with Derrick White sent the entire team into a blissful state. Mfiondu Kabengele had more reason to have a blast than anyone after his own late slam but followed the bucket simply by pointing the finger at his teammate who set up the play.
“I was locked up,” said Kabengele Athleticism. “I remained present.”
In his own way, Kabengele was taking an important step. He quickly returned to defense after his dunk. Although his score pushed the Celtics ahead by 37 points, he wanted to continue to run his business. Once upon a time, the 27th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft would have cared more about his individual success, but a rocky start to his professional basketball career taught Kabengele to embrace the team concept. Still, it was a night for Kabengele to cherish on a personal level. He was appearing in an NBA game for the first time in over a year. For the first time since the Cleveland Cavaliers waived him and he finally landed a G League contract, not even a two-way deal. For the first time since a rugged journey forced him to re-examine the vision of basketball he once wanted for himself.
Kabengele spent the final eight minutes of the Celtics’ 140-105 win trying to do all the right things. Define screens. Bounce. Play with the beat. He couldn’t let the weight of the moment hit him on the ground. Not while he still had work to do.
“I was happy that we finished the game with the unity we had and I played a good brand of basketball,” Kabengele said. “But coming out, in the locker room, I was proud of myself. Looking back, all the work I did, it was really good.
Kabengele needed to rework. Mentality. His way of seeing basketball. Back at Florida State, where he led the Seminoles in scoring on a team that also included future NBA rotation players Devin Vassell and Terance Mann, Kabengele pictured himself as the guy. He wanted the post-up touches, the return-to-the-basket looks, a big share of his team’s shots. He knew his role would have to change at least somewhat when he reached the NBA, but still wanted his game to look a certain way.
“As a player entering the league, you have this idea of the player you want to look like, the image you want to project, the style of game you want to play,” Kabengele said.
Kabengele had to abandon this idea. It took him a long time. After appearing in just 12 games as a rookie with the LA Clippers, the team declined to take their third-year option in December 2020. Although LA Technique could still have kept Kabengele past his second season, the decision sent a clear message about his position in the organization. He was the only first-round pick in the 2019 draft whose team decided not to guarantee at least the third season of his rookie contract. Months later, the Clippers dealt Kabengele to the Sacramento Kings in a wage-dumping maneuver. He was waived by Sacramento days after the trade.
Kabengele resurfaced with the Cavaliers towards the end of the 2020-21 season, but the organization waived him during training camp the following season. He knew the valuable nature of NBA opportunities. And that he had let go. When he signed with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G League, the reality was that he would have a long climb to the NBA.
“I had my chance,” Kabengele said. “So I had to start over, do another. I knew once I got to RGV, I was a regular G-League player. I wasn’t a two-way or an NBA assignee. So I’m like, okay, I have to give you some work. That’s when I realized it was going to take a while. I had to pull myself together. Being on day 1, having these thoughts from day 1, knowing it was going to take a while, was probably the hardest part, and then once you get over the fact that it’s going to take a long time, let’s go, you just go with the flow.
Kabengele had an impressive G-League season, averaging 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He said the way he played “justified” his thoughts on the player he could be. He is no longer the same player he wanted to become. He needed to stop worrying about hits and shot attempts. He needed to recalibrate his game around how he could have the most impact on winning basketball. He needed to cast the picture of his future that he had once painted in his mind.
“Once I let go of what I wanted to look like and (decided it was about) the impact I wanted to have, and whatever that looked like, I was going to be d okay with that as long as the impact was there, that’s when I felt like a switch changed,” Kabengele said. “Because now I wasn’t worried about getting a certain number of shots, to shoot in a certain type of way. It’s more a question of impact. And whatever that leads to in a game, if it leads to a win, I was satisfied.
After turning a solid Las Vegas Summer League into a two-way contract with the Celtics, Kabengele is not yet back where he wants to be. Like anyone else on a two-way contract, he wants to earn a full contract with the NBA. He commuted from Maine. He’s averaging 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds in eight G League games. And the Maine Celtics are 8-2 right now.
“Now I have the idea that I can still have the impact I had in college, now it’s just going to be different,” Kabengele said. “And I’m okay with what it’s going to look like. I have no concerns about this. I’m just worried about the impact I will have on the pitch. That’s all.”
At least for now, the celebrations can wait. Kabengele has a team to help and an opportunity to hunt.
(Photo: Brian Fluharty/USA Today)