JUST IN: Celtics Waive Wenyen Gabriel After Neemias Queta Breakout…

Neemias Queta thrived in another opportunity in Thursday’s preseason finale, which led the Celtics to waive Wenyen Gabriel on Friday.

BOSTON — Neemias Queta arrived at shootaround in Charlotte after not playing on Tuesday against the Knicks to a conversation with Joe Mazzulla. The Celtics planned to play Queta on Thursday against the Hornets, but not for a rest game. They inserted him early alongside the team’s starters.

“I just got prepared and I was just trying to get ready for it,” Queta told CLNS Media in Quincy on Friday morning. “Fortunately, it worked out good and we got the win. I’m just trying to keep it going and help the team out whenever my name gets called.”

The Celtics rolled through the first full competition their regular cast faced this preseason in Charlotte, 127-99, and despite playing five of their top six players, excluding Al Horford, Queta became the story of the night. He built on success from earlier in the preseason and broke out with 12 points, seven rebounds and a steal, hitting all six shots while fouling twice in 13 minutes. Boston solidified Queta’s standing, arriving on a two-way contract last month, by waiving Wenyen Gabriel and making Queta one of four centers on the roster.

Luke Kornet, who did not play on Thursday after logging 12 minutes against New York, remains a frontrunner for third string center minutes following his success last regular season. The sentiment around the Celtics changed regarding Queta in recent weeks, improving from interest in him as a developing prospect cast off by the Kings this summer after they signed Javale McGee, to belief in him as an actual rotation center. The team plans to keep him with Boston when Maine’s G-League season begins at the Orlando Showcase Cup on Nov. 10.

“He’s earned minutes, he’s earned opportunity,” Mazzulla said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s come in every day and he’s worked. I really liked how he’s gotten better and better each time he’s been on the floor. We’re really excited we have a chance to develop him and over these next two preseason games, it’s definitely a goal to see can he continue to get better? Can he continue to execute on both ends?”

Queta did both late in the first quarter, setting screens for Jayson Tatum and scoring a tough floater from five feet and freeing Tatum for a driving finish. In the second, he grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds on one possession, the second a tough gather stutter-stepping along the baseline before nearly completing a pass to Dalano Banton in the corner. Later, Queta caught a pair of alley-oops from Payton Pritchard and hit a third shot on the roll, then flushing two more put backs to close the third quarter.

At 7-0, and roughly 250 pounds he brings a physicality to the position as a screener and he surprisingly reached the perimeter to contest shots in New York last week. The Celtics prioritize a solid screening game, and while Queta can’t shoot and struggles from the free throw line, his pressure on the offensive glass and vertical spacing skill could provide a different look than Kornet could provide.

“The game comes easy to him,” Al Horford said. “Especially around the basket. He has a really good feel for finishing and rebounding and just being there at the right place, right time. So that’s been the impressive part to me. He’s a bigger guy that can finish at the rim.”

Kornet will primarily log the backup center minutes, but it’s now worth considering whether part of the team’s reason for not addressing the center spot behind Kristaps Porziņģis and Horford involved a plan to transition Horford to the second unit. Horford embraced filling that role when necessary when asked on Friday, performing well with the second unit Tuesday. Boston plans to enter the season with 14 players and leave the spot Gabriel formerly filled empty. That would minimize Kornet and Queta’s roles, and lead to Gabriel’s release.

A smaller starting unit thrived against the Knicks and Hornets with Jrue Holiday next to Derrick White. Horford performed well in a second unit role on Tuesday, drawing praise from Tatum. The Celtics experimented with Oshae Brissett playing the four alongside starters, and Lamar Stevens’ strong closing effort on Thursday should secure his roster spot.

If Queta stays on a two-way contract, which appears likely, he’ll be eligible to play 50 out of 82 NBA games. While a new NBA CBA rule limits teams below the 15-man roster limit from having two-way players called up for more than 90 combined days, that shouldn’t become a problem for Boston.

J.D. Davison probably won’t log many NBA minutes again, and Jay Scrubb tore his ACL, effectively leaving the third two-way slot empty after the team waived DJ Steward on Friday. The only bridge the Celtics would have to eventually cross would be adding Queta to the active roster to make him eligible for postseason play.

Sacramento waived Queta in September after drafting him No. 39 overall in 2021 as the first NBA player from Portugal. He starred at Utah State and broke multiple school shot-blocking records, then averaged 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 66.7% shooting as one of the G-League’s best players over the past two season. The Kings only played him in 25 professional games — adding to some of the uncertainty around him entering 2024.

“I’m in a great situation here in Boston,” Queta said. “I’m feeling excited about the future. Everything is new … I’m just trying to keep it going, keep it rolling and keep working … I’m blessed. It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to play basketball at the highest level and having so much support from so many different people from different places. I feel fortunate for that. I try to keep working, so I keep making them proud. I’m enjoying it over here, having fun, enjoying the city. I’m definitely having fun with my guys and we’re over here playing great basketball.”

Queta called basketball a way of life since his youth and becoming one of the greats drives him. He arrived in Boston trying to absorb whatever knowledge he can, asking Kornet, Pritchard and Sam Hauser for advice and directions, already establishing some favorite restaurants for his Portuguese food. Queta feels at home off the floor.

On it — he doesn’t see himself as fully established, prioritizing consistency. Mazzulla likes how he acclimated to the team’s systems on both ends, and flashes of playmaking from the high post, which Queta credited to his development in Portugal and double teams he faced in college, recall the center that preceded him. Queta beat out Gabriel. Winning a consistent role on the roster, and a long-term deal, will require more than three good weeks.

“It’s always tough to see guys go,” Mazzulla said. “I thought Wenyen gave us everything he had and brought a great attitude, spirit and competitiveness to camp, so it’s tough to see that. As far as Q goes, I thought he’s done a great job of picking up defensive schemes, fives are really important in our defense because of the versatility they have and the matchups that we have. He’s done a really good job of that and he’s gotta continue to get better.”

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