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Greg Stiemsma: ‘I’d love to pick Bill Russell’s brain’

02.16.12 at 1:50 pm ET
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BOSTON — Celtics rookie Greg Stiemsma won three Wisconsin high school Division 4 state championships in four seasons. Celtics legend Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. Needless to say, they’re worlds apart.

However, for one night at least, those worlds collided, as the two sat courtside to start Wednesday night’s Celtics loss to the Pistons — Stiemsma on the C’s bench and Russell next to team owner Stephen Pagliuca.

Of course, the the Development League project and the greatest winner in sports are forever linked after Celtics announcer and former Russell teammate Tommy Heinsohn compared Stiemsma to Russell earlier this season.

“His timing and how he goes about blocking shots does remind me of Russell,’’ said Heinsohn. “He makes guys commit, he’s quick to his leap, and he gets his hand up there right when the ball is leaving the shooter’s hand.’’

While Stiemsma has 22 blocks in 176 minutes this season for an average of 4.5 blocks per 36 minutes, Russell is considered the game’s greatest shot blocker, so even the Celtics rookie laughed off the comparison.

“I mean, I heard it. Like I said before, that’s pretty far out of my realm. I would never imagine that,” he said, adding, “It was an honor to get that reference. And then, for it to come full circle, for him to be in the arena, it’s all part of the experience, all part of this journey that’s brought me here, so I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell listens to a reporters' question during a news conference, in Boston, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Boston is building a statue of Russell,  honoring his role as a sports champion, human rights leader and youth mentoring advocate.

Celtics legend Bill Russell got his first live glimpse of Greg Stiemsma Wednesday. (AP)

The deadline for teams to cut players before their contracts become guaranteed came and went, and Stiemsma remains a Celtic. After sitting the first two games of the season, he played at least 12 minutes in the team’s next four games — a span that included his first and only NBA start, a breakout 13-point, seven-rebound effort.

“He can play,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “That’s the main thing. If he couldn’t play, but he’s a great guy, we’d probably send him on his way, but he can actually play. And he’s a big guy that can play, and we’re just hope we can keep developing him to make him a better player.”

Since then, Stiemsma saw a sharp decline in playing time. He’s played more than 12 minutes just twice, but one of those came Wednesday as a result of injuries to bigs Kevin Garnett (hip) and Brandon Bass (knee). Playing 12:48 in front of Russell, Stiemsma totaled one point (0-2 FG, 1-2 FT) and two rebounds but no blocks.

“It’s a season of opportunities, and sometimes there are going to be more than others,” said Stiemsma. “Some games you need to step up, and other games other guys have stepped up, so I’ve just got to be ready whenever my number is called. That’s just how the season goes.”

In order for his number to be called more often, Rivers has said Stiemsma needs to grow accustomed to the speed of the NBA game and develop his defensive technique, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. Still, the raw ability has always been there, even when team president Danny Ainge, assistant GM Kevin McDonogh and director of player personnel Austin Ainge first showed Rivers tape of Stiemsma.

“He peaked my interest immediately,” said the coach. “With tape, obviously we show a lot of the good things, but a lot of those good things were shot blocks that you thought no way he could get to. And he kept getting to them, so that was impressive.

“You just knew he had it. A good shot blocker, you can see it right away. Some guys can do it. Same thing with a great rebounder. They just have a knack, and he has that.”

By all accounts, Stiemsma is a tireless worker, learning how to turn that knack into a niche in the NBA. While Russell was in town for Mentoring Night as part of his Legacy Project, the best defender in history has yet to impart his wisdom on the former D-League Defensive Player of the Year, but Stiemsma hopes that time will come.

“I didn’t get a chance to talk to him this time,” he said. “Hopefully he’ll be around a little bit. He’d be a guy that I’d love to pick his brain a little bit. There’s just so much knowledge you can pick up from him.”

Knowing is half the battle. The other half? Well, thanks to Heinsohn, we already know he’s got the timing down.

Read More: Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Doc Rivers
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