Christmas eager to prove he belongs
After playing three seasons overseas, versatile rookie embraces his NBA chance
Dionte Christmas' new reality hasn't sunk in quite yet.
He's a Boston Celtic, signed by the team to a partially guaranteed, two-year deal shortly after he wrapped up two weeks of impressive summer-league play for the club in Orlando and Las Vegas last month. But the ratio of time he spent chasing the NBA, as opposed to the amount of time he's been one of its newest members, is rather lopsided -- approximately three years to three weeks -- so you'll have to forgive him if his elation for his new situation hasn't yet outweighed the memories of the rigorous journey it took to get here. But it's certainly making a strong push.
"I'm still excited over it," Christmas said of his new deal in a phone interview with ESPN Boston on Friday. "It's been like a week or so since I've signed the deal, so it's still been very exciting for me. I'm overwhelmed and all of the congrats I've been getting from Boston fans, I've been loving it, and I just want to repay them by just going into camp and going into the season giving everything I've got."
Christmas spent the past three seasons playing overseas in Israel, Turkey and, most recently, Greece, but he never lost sight of his NBA goal.
Training camp in October will be his first true test. As of now, the Celtics are poised to bring in 16 players (that number could go up or down over the next two months) for a 15-man roster. The Celtics are already stocked with shooting and combo guards (Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling), but at 6-foot-5 Christmas could also get time at the small forward spot, and that versatility should help his chances of making the final cut.
Christmas will have to earn his spot on the roster like everybody else, but should he fall short of that goal he could join the Maine Red Claws and be a mere injury away from helping the Boston team (not uncommon for the Celtics in recent seasons). But he's adopting a mindset built around the belief that he will make the final squad. As hard as he was working prior to signing his contract, the new deal has motivated him to take the step beyond making the roster and contribute once the season begins.
"This is even more motivation. Before, my motivation was just to get to this point, but now my motivation is to, first of all, just stay on the team and, second of all, just help the team out in any way possible," said Christmas, who went undrafted in 2009. "I know the history of the Boston Celtics and I know what Doc Rivers expects out of his players. My motivation is to go in there and just try my best to get some playing time and show Doc and show Danny Ainge that I can be a great asset to the team, and that I can help out more than in practice and things like that.
"That's my motivation right now. I'm just going to take it one day at a time, step-by-step. My first step is to go into camp and just play hard, just play 110 percent, like I did at summer league, and make those guys not regret their decision on giving me this contract," he said.
Preparing to make the team is an integral part of actually making the team, which is why Christmas has been going through daily workouts with his trainer, Chuck Ellis, at Temple, his alma mater, to prepare for October.
"I go through a heavy routine I go through every day. I work out, just trying to keep my body right, just trying to stay in shape for camp," Christmas explained. "Going into camp, you definitely have to be in shape. I know with our vets, they're not going to have that from the young guys. With [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], Jason [Terry], [Rajon] Rondo, all those guys, I know they're not really going to have too much slack from the young guys, so we've got to be in tip-top shape and get ready to run with those guys."
Christmas, known in his Temple days purely as a scorer, showcased an all-around game while playing for the Celtics this summer. He averaged 12.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and four assists per game in Orlando, and followed that up a week later with averages of 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists in Vegas. For Christmas, the past year or so has been all about remodeling his game in order to be an impact player in a variety of areas, particularly on defense, which should appeal to Boston, given its defensive focus over the past five seasons.
"Basically that's what this summer and last summer and even last season in Greece, that's really what I was working on -- my all-around game," Christmas said. "If I can just better that just keep bettering myself as an all-around player, that would be great. But you know, everybody knows me as a scorer and a jump shooter, so I'm definitely going to do what I'm best at. But just to keep perfecting my all-around game would be great. I just want to better myself. I want to become a great defender, not just a good defender, I want to become a great defender. I think I have the size and the speed and everything to do that."
Christmas said he plans to relocate to Boston in mid-August either just before or right after the NBA's mandatory Rookie Transition Program in New York City, which runs Aug. 17-20. Once in Boston, Christmas will be better able to embrace the many Celtics fans who have poured in their support and notes of congratulation ever since his deal was signed.
"I've been getting great feedback. I literally haven't been getting any negative feedback," Christmas said. "I think all the fans that had been watching me play in summer league can respect the way that I play, and I just want to thank them for everything. They've really been supporting me the last couple of weeks, since summer league started. Since summer league I've gotten like 3,000 new followers on Twitter and they hit me up every day and it's crazy. That right there just gives me a taste of what it's going to be like during the season in Boston."
Boston was always Christmas' preferred destination, despite him correctly pointing out in Vegas that he was really auditioning for every team in the league. He was hoping that the continuity he built up with the Celtics during summer league could carry over to a full season.
"This is a top-of-the-line, all-around great program," Christmas said. "Now that I'm signed with these guys, I see people and we talk, the first thing they say is, 'You are with the best program in the NBA. They're very professional. Everything they do is professional.' It's great. To say I'm a Boston Celtic is great.
"You have very few guys who come into opportunities like this, and like I said before, I'm very lucky, very blessed to be in this opportunity to help this team get the 18th banner."
It's all part of Christmas' new reality. It'll sink in, eventually, as it helps him to further appreciate the long journey he hopes will yield a brighter NBA future.