Boston’s 2015 trade with the Mavericks transformed their roster building approach.
Rajon Rondo’s methodical sets disappeared. There’d be no more charging drives by Jeff Green. Versatility and spacing soon engulfed the game, and Boston’s roster dump equipped them well to buy in.
Equipped with a first-round pick from Dallas and a packed roster, Danny Ainge held an array of talented college basketball prospects on the board in the 2016 Draft.
Wade Baldwin, Malachi Richardson and Malik Beasley shined as centerpieces for their respective squads. All four were also sophomores or younger.
Ainge opted instead for a 20-year-old French forward few fans knew. DraftExpress pinned him at 32 on their big board. Boston chose him at 16 with March Madness stars still sitting on the board fresh in the minds of viewers in June. The reaction was mixed at best, embodied by a man wearing a tall green hat shown on ESPN mouthing “who is this?”
Guerschon Yabusele has since been dubbed “The Dancing Bear” and Boston’s intentions for him are clear. They were not going to be the next team to swing-and-miss over draft day doubts about an undersized power forward.
Draymond Green can count the 34 players drafted in front of him in 2012 and the rest of the NBA has paid for it every day since as Golden State prepares to raise its second banner in three years. It was at that 2012 draft where Ainge drafted two traditional college superstars bigs, Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, with Green awaiting for a draft cap. Sullinger is out of the league and Melo was out of the league before tragically dying in Brazil last year.
Just to be clear, Guerschon is not Draymond. But Draymond paved the way for guys like Guerschon to follow.
The parallels between Yabusele and Green begin with body type and end with shooting. Teams talked themselves out of Green because he was what was once known as being “stuck” between the height of a small-forward (6’7”) and the approach of a power forward. That superseded the fact that he posted over 1 point-per-possession on post-ups, spot-ups, cuts and isolation plays in his senior season at Michigan State.
Conventional wisdom has changed because of Green. Instead of getting dwarfed, he switched effectively across all front court positions on defense. He developed shot-blocking in his game along with high-level shooting. He rolls to the basket hard off picks.
He’s become a force basketball had rarely seen before. Defenders struggle to get outside on him. He has hit 34% of his three-pointers over the last three seasons. He’s been in the top two of Defensive Player of the Year voting for three straight seasons.
He makes Golden State different.
Yabusele checks some of those boxes as a 43% shooter outside of the arc in his final season in France’s Pro B level. He upped his attempts to three per game in seven appearances with the Maine Red Claws and maintained a 38% clip.
That’s a fantastic sign, but big men who can shoot are becoming as common as hardwood floors. What sets Green apart is his ability to make stops, push the pace to the other end and then find open spots on the three-point line to crush the opposition in transition. He passes as well as he runs and shoots as well as he moves defensively.
Green roams the paint with some of the biggest bodies in the league. Here he stands with 6’11”, 270-pound DeAndre Jordan while Blake Griffin lurks on a typical small forward in Andre Iguodala. Green re-positions himself at the right moment, elevates and blocks Chris Paul who attacks him head-on. He never gave Paul the chance to dump to either big.
Los Angeles recovered the ball, but if they didn’t Green may have taken the ball coast-to-coast or sprung in transition to receive a pass and hit a three with the defense on the run.
Intensity has become cliche in sports, but Green’s success is a testament to him taking advantage of individual situations. Playing undersized at the level he has takes timing, footwork and a feel for how to use his strength. He’s even tested going over the line to get into opponent’s heads with hard fouls and kicks to sensitive areas.
Yabusele displayed craftiness during his stint in China last season. He sees where the ball is flowing to on a screen-and-roll with a backdoor dump, then sets himself up to block the shooter from behind. Then it’s onto offense. He finds open space in the corner and converts.
In the 2016 Summer League he displayed the same compact three-point stroke with a high follow-through and had no hesitation charging to the basket on the dribble, despite finishing routinely being one of his draft day concerns.
The consistency factor will determine whether he’s a franchise staple or useful bench piece. Uniquely-skilled Kelly Olynyk never got a second Boston contract or a starting role. Despite the flashes, his attributes weren’t present in every game.
The Green/Yabusele comparisons may be overstated, but coveting a Green is critical for a team that has emulated Golden State in its approach under Brad Stevens. They’ve valued rapid ball movement, high volume three-point shooting, small lineups with versatile, two-way impact at the four and pace.
Ball-handlers have replaced point guards. There’s now bigs where centers were. Wings and swings roam where there were three set positions from shooting guard to power forward. It has become Celtics lingo.
They now have a prolific scoring duo Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Marcus Smart ties the loose ends much like Iguodala. Al Horford has many of the skills the Celtics are looking at big, but Yabusele holds the promise of making the team unique long-term.
Before the Warriors became a champion in 2015, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were well known among the league’s best guards. What set them apart was their “center” who was quicker on his feet, faster to the ball and more aggressive and crafty than anybody sharing the front court.
Yabusele shares those tendencies. He possesses a chiseled frame that holds well over 250 pounds, his lower body struts up the court like he’s running on a cloud. He’s smooth and when he busts out a spin move on the way to the paint and dumps to a teammate it’s hard to not imagine the unprecedented fourth all-star on the defending champs.
The Warriors are currently an overwhelming 58% chance to win the title, according to ESPN’s BPI. The Celts, as much as they’ve progressed, still feel miles behind in second place at 12%. In Yabusele and others, Ainge and company want to create the next Golden State: the team that everyone wants to follow because of their unique construction.
When that happens, those teams may be staring at Yabusele’s big behind carrying Boston to greatness.