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Behind the NBA’s Biggest Surprise

Sam Hauser’s emergence as one of the NBA’s most statistically impactful players ranks among the most bizarre storylines.

The NBA leader in offensive rating entering Sunday was on the floor at Boston’s TD Garden … and it wasn’t the visiting Wizards’ All-Star guard, Bradley Beal. The current league leader in net rating played 27 minutes on the same 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.

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 playing time with Aaron Nesmith—and lost; who in college drew scouts to Virginia, though many of whom also came to see his teammate Jay Huff.

That Sam Hauser.

In a season filled with improbable story lines, Hauser’s emergence as one of the NBA’s most statistically impactful players ranks among the most wacky. His three-point percentage (48.9%) trails only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Damion Lee. He is just behind Jokić in offensive rating (124.1). One NBA assistant compared him favorably to three-point specialist Jason Kapono. A year ago Hauser was home watching Joe Wieskamp, David Johnson and Scottie Lewis get drafted over him. Today he is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

“Honestly,” says Hauser, “it is kind 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 a lot of “we will watch and see.” There were questions about Hauser’s athleticism. About his defense. About what position he would play in the NBA. “I think teams thought he was intriguing,” says Bennett. “But there were a lot of questions. Sometimes teams bet on upside, and he was older. You knew he was going to have to go in there and earn it.”

Still, Boston liked him. And the Celtics needed shooting. They had missed on Duncan Robinson, the New 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 feeling I would go undrafted,” says Hauser. “I was 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 a question,” says Maine head coach Alex Barlow. Hauser grew up shooting. His father, Dave, was a Wisconsin high school coach. Hauser’s mother, Stephanie, told The Virginian-Pilot that Hauser’s first sentence was “Me shooty.” In the gym, Dave’s message was simple. “Just have confidence in yourself,” says Hauser. “No matter if you’re making or missing, shoot the next one like you’re going to make it every single time. That’s the main 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 few games later, against Westchester, Hauser played well against Miles McBride, a Knicks second-round pick. “Teams tested him, put him in a lot of actions,” says Barlow. “And he looked like he belonged.”

There was the spacing. In Maine, where Hauser was a focal point 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 floor. It’s created some bonkers lineup data: Hauser and Horford have played 68 minutes together, per In those minutes the Celtics’ offensive rating is 141.8. It bumps to 153.8 in the 43 minutes Hauser, Horford and Tatum have played together. “Not getting in the way is a skill,” says Barlow. “Being in the right spot is an underrated skill. He’s so good at that.”

Says Hauser, “I don't really think much of it when I’m on the court. It just kind of happens, and I tend to be in the right place when I’m supposed to be.”

Shooting got Hauser on the floor. But there are signs there may be more to his game. “He knows when to cut; he knows when to shoot,” says Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. “He knows how to do things that can make an offense better.” Against Washington, Hauser set up Payton Pritchard for a three 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 is a mid-post game in Hauser that can be unlocked, while his playmaking continues to improve.

“Sam knows who he is,” says Bennett. “So many guys don’t know who they are. They’re so desperate to become someone that they aren’t, or they’re trying to prove it, that they end up disqualifying themselves or hurting themselves. Sam is very clear on who he is as a player and a person. And that’s gold when you got that. He understands clearly, ‘This is my identity. This is who I am.’ 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 will need to defend to stay on the floor. He’s targeted often. “Every time I check in it’s like I’m automatically in the action,” says Hauser. And while he’s not a strong defender yet, Hauser believes he can get there. “I’ve been working my butt off,” says Hauser. “I still need to improve. Sometimes you just kind of have to hope they miss, and you have to just 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 a big reason why.

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