There were rumblings as far back as two years ago that the Boston Celtics were interested in Italian League standout Gigi Datome. In fact, the Celtics were intrigued enough that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge traveled to Rome to watch Datome compete for Virtus Roma near the tail end of his MVP season in Italy's top league, Serie A.
Nothing came of that visit and the Celtics, who ushered in a full-fledged rebuild in July 2013, watched the Detroit Pistons ink Datome to a two-year, $3.5 million deal. Ainge kept an eye on Datome as the Pistons struggled to find floor time for him, then pounced when a chance to land him for virtually nothing presented itself last month.
With Boston playing without starting shooting guard Avery Bradley the past three games, an opportunity opened for a shooter and Datome got his chance. The 27-year-old swingman matched his NBA career high by scoring 13 points Monday on 6-of-9 shooting with three rebounds over nearly 21 minutes, this after scoring 10 points in 10 minutes in Saturday's loss to the Orlando Magic.
Datome, with his scruffy beard and man bun, has quickly elevated to cult figure in Boston. Choosing obscure No. 70 (a nod to the year his first Italian squad was created), Datome built an immediate curiosity factor that hasn't diminished.
And by the end of Monday's TV broadcast, even Celtics end-of-the-bench legend Brian Scalabrine was commenting on the phenomenon of his Italian brother.
Datome endured healthy DNPs in seven of his first nine games with Boston, playing extended minutes in only a lopsided loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. His recent emergence hasn't been lost on coach Brad Stevens.
"I'm drawn to people that are ultimate pros," Stevens told reporters in Miami on Monday night. "I said that about [veteran swingman] Gerald [Wallace] and how he’s handled being in and out [of the lineup] -- just guys that don’t complain, guys that come to work and do their very best. But you still have to take advantage of your opportunity and [Datome has been] putting the ball in basket."
The 6-foot-8 Datome was regarded as one of the top marksmen in Italy while shooting 51 percent overall and almost 40 percent from beyond the arc in his final season overseas. He has showcased that shooting ability the past two games, knocking down open jumpers and displaying a deep range. What's been more surprising is his ability to create off the dribble. Datome has finished a couple of dunks at the rim and has shown a Dirk Nowitzki-like one-foot step back jumper at times, including one make over Wade on Monday night.
Playing important minutes for a Boston team in a bit of a must-win game on Monday, Datome has become a face of the Celtics' improbable playoff push. And fans, particularly on social media, have embraced him with his offensive highlights being distributed in video form almost immediately as they occur.
Datome began endearing himself last week against the Utah Jazz when television cameras caught him dispensing some advice to Tyler Zeller before the young big man converted a buzzer beater to lift the Celtics to victory. Zeller credited Datome with reminding him that he had enough time to not rush the final shot.
By the time the Celtics get back from this three-game road trip, some fans will be clamoring for Datome's No 70 jersey to head to the rafters. In reality, his playing time could dip if Bradley is healthy enough to return.
In Datome's four appearances so far, the Celtics own a net rating of plus-10.2 when the Italian is on the floor behind solid ratings on the offensive (104.5) and especially the defensive (94.3) ends.
Datome can be a competitive defender when he stays in front of his opponent, but he's been beaten badly off the dribble at times the last two games. Miami's Dwyane Wade had a highlight moment Monday by shaking Datome on the baseline and ultimately forcing him to foul for a three-point play.
But give the ball to Datome and he's going to help put points on the scoreboard. And his legend grows in Boston with every bucket.
On Monday night, the Internet took particular notice of Datome's presence when he got matched up with Miami's Mario Chalmers. For those raised in the Nintendo generation, seeing Mario vs. Luigi -- with Mario in red and Luigi in green -- was a noteworthy experience.
The way Datome is playing lately, you get the sense that he would win over the heart of a fictional Princess Peach Basket.