By the time Boston used the 58th pick in the 2016 NBA draft to select Abdel Nader, few fans were still paying attention. The TD Garden was all but empty as the highly anticipated draft night revelry turned instead to disenchantment.
Some fans were noticeably distraught over what seemed to them like a wasted draft night. Others, content with picking up Jaylen Brown and the other savvy moves made by the Celtics throughout the draft, were busy researching who the hell Guerschon Yabusele was, while also convincing themselves that a draft-day trade wasn’t the right move.
But perhaps the fans should have still been paying attention. With All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas’s journey from dead last in the draft to leading a contending team, perhaps Celtics fans in particular should have known better than to tune out. Danny Ainge, who was picked 31st in the draft himself, is well aware there’s often plenty of value to be found at the bottom end of the draft.
Abdel Nader might not be a name that electrified anybody on draft night, in fact it’s probably a name most people hadn’t heard mentioned at all until he was picked, and even then you might have missed it. But after a surprisingly strong performance in the Summer League, Abdel Nader is fast making a name for himself as well as making a worthy case that he’s ready to play at an NBA level.
So who is this guy?
The Egyptian-born, Illinois-raised, Abdel Nader comes to the Celtics after a solid season as a senior, playing with the Iowa State Cyclones, where he averaged 12.9 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Yet the young forward has had to overcome his fair share of adversity to get where he is today.
After dealing with relocating countries as a young child, learning a new language, and struggling to fit in, the young Nader found peace on the basketball court. He saw early acknowledgement of his game while still playing at North Niles High School and received accolades from the Chicago media.
Despite his early success, Nader had a somewhat checkered college career. He was part of a losing North Illinois team for two years before transferring to Iowa State where he sat out his first season due to ineligibility. He also faced suspension at one point due to an incident of driving while intoxicated. He was again embroiled in controversy when his friend, roommate and teammate, Bryce Dejean-Jones was charged with ‘hosting a drug house.’
However, this past year Nader has turned a corner in his game and his attitude, with coaching staff and others around him impressed with the young forward’s newfound drive. As a result of his positive turnaround, Nader saw significant improvements in his numbers and was rewarded with more playing time.
His improvements were obviously noticed by Celtics scouts, as Boston picked Nader 58th in this year’s draft, just shy of the dubious honour of being Mr. Irrelevant.
Can he play?
If you missed Summer League this year, then you missed a lot. With the Celtics roster loaded with young players there was plenty to pay attention to: Terry Rozier’s breakout performance, Jaylen Brown’s admirable athleticism and aggression, Yabusele’s fast feet and surprising hops, and of course Abdel Nader’s consistently solid play.
Nader didn’t exactly turn heads in his first few games. But while he saw limited minutes overall in the Summer League, when he was on the court he looked to be one of the Celtics’ best rookies. This might not be that impressive a boast to be a man among boys on a team of boys, but the Celtics Summer League squad hosted several second- and third-year guys that Nader made look like high school players.
Nader exploded on offense in a few games, sinking threes with surprising accuracy and cutting to the rim where he was able to bounce and bully his way to the basket. His defensive efforts were even better, with few players able to get by him and his constantly assertive play.
By the time the Celtics’ squad were done in Vegas, Nader ended up averaging 10 points and 2.8 rebounds in 16.4 minutes per game throughout Summer League play. But his numbers weren’t what stood out for Nader. Rather, it was his tenacity and drive, as well as his versatility and multifaceted abilities. Beyond anything, he looked like the type of player that would make a fantastic fit for Brad Stevens’s system as a competent player who could give decent minutes when called upon.
By the end of Summer League, Nader had done more than make a name for himself. In fact he made a few names for himself, with Boston fans quickly coming up with clever monikers for their newest fan favourite and Nader being dubbed Darth Nader, Naderade, and the Termi-Nader.
Ordinarily with the type of performance Nader put in during the Summer League, he would probably have already earned himself a roster spot, if not a spot in the regular rotation. But after having accumulated so many draft picks and young players over the last few seasons, the Boston Celtics are struggling for roster room.
So, this is where things get a little complicated. I’m not exactly an expert in NBA contracts, but as far as I understand it Boston currently has thirteen players on contract out of a maximum of fifteen. The current roster includes returning Celtics Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder as well as Jonas Jerebko and Amir Johnson, who have both had their contracts picked up. New Celtic Al Horford is also on board, along with Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, James Young and Jordan Mickey, who all remain on rookie-scale deals, and Jaylen Brown, who will obviously join the team as well. With Guerschon Yabusele stashed in China and Ante Zizic also playing overseas, neither will be taking up valuable roster spots. Meanwhile if the Boston Celtics choose not to re-sign Tyler Zeller that will leave them with some extra roster room, but they’ll still have only two remaining roster spots for their three second-round picks from this year.
Nader has already agreed to be ‘stashed’ in the D-League, though whether or not this means he’ll be on assignment—as in still on an active Boston Celtics’ contract but assigned to play in the D-League—or contracted to the Maine Red Claws outright is currently unclear. If he is contracted to the Red Claws, that would save Boston some additional roster space but limit their options when it comes to getting Nader minutes in Boston, as this would require them to call up Nader from the D-League, which would of course use one of their roster spots, making the notion of 'stashing' him there redundant.
When it comes down to it, whether Jackson and Bentil end up on contracts or stashed in some way will heavily influence Nader’s future playing time with Boston.
Of course it’s likely that Bentil, Jackson and Nader will all play in the D-League, but even still, there are so few spots on Boston’s roster that the team’s options are limited. Since second-round picks’ contracts are non-guaranteed, the Boston Celtics are under no obligation to sign any of their three second-round picks from this year’s draft. But it hardly seems wise to let all three walk. The option exists to send all three players to Maine without guaranteed contracts, but this somewhat hinders the Celtics’ ability to call on any of their newest batch of rookies when needed, and it may lead to players asking for their tender offers if they receive interest from elsewhere.
Could Nader make the cut?
Another thing working against Nader getting playing time is that Boston already has strong players at the small forward position. The team has a secure starter in Jae Crowder, and they’ll be looking to get Jaylen Brown minutes at his preferred position as well.
Yet at the end of the day it’s unlikely we’d even be talking about Nader had he not put in such a consummate performance at the Summer League. So if he continues to play with passion and drive and energy, he could very well carve himself a position on the team.
I’m sure the coaching staff were as impressed as the fans with Nader’s breakout play, and they’ll be watching him closely during training camp before making any final decisions. Personally, I think Nader has all the tools necessary to be a valuable swing-and-wing in Boston’s beautiful system. For now, we’ll have to wait and see how the rest of the offseason shakes out before we know if there’ll be any chance for Darth Nader to reveal the true power of the dark side.