The Celtics saw their Vegas Summer League play come to a close on Sunday after they fell to the Trailblazers 95-80. It was a game where the Celtics seemed to be outmatched from the opening tip, as they only led twice throughout the whole contest. As has been typical of the varsity squad, the summer Celtics hung around through standard scrappy determination. However it was clear by the end of the third quarter that the Blazers were simply too talented.
That’s not exactly a surprise, as the Blazers had forged an impressive roster (by summer league standards) of players with NBA talent. Wade Baldwin IV, John Jenkins, Georgios Papagiannis, Archie Goodwin, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and Anfernee Simons were all drafted in the first round. Jake Layman is a second round pick who would occasionally sneak into the regular Blazers’ rotation over the past two years. KJ McDaniels was also a second round pick and he has played over 2000 NBA minutes, some of them important. That’s a lot of pedigree for one summer league squad.
Comparatively, the Celtics fielded exactly one player on Sunday whom was drafted. This was due to first round pick Robert Williams sitting with an injury and former second round picks Jabari Bird and Semi Ojeleye’s DNP status due to rest. Instead, the Celtics fielded their 2016 #16 overall pick Guerschon Yabusele as the roster’s sole drafted representative. This reads as alarming to some parts of Celtics Nation, as Yabusele is the Celtics lone first round pick on the roster who has not cracked the rotation yet. The fact that the Celtics chose to rest Jabari Bird, a current restricted free agent who isn’t even on the Celtics current roster, over an almost lottery pick was going to give some people anxiety.
Perhaps this has contributed to the increased rumblings about what Yabusele’s role will be with the team going forward. The Celtics are slated to have a crowded roster heading into this season. Barring an exceptional instance of the Sacramento Kings doing Kings things, Marcus Smart seems destined to be back in Boston for at least one more year on his qualifying offer. Jabari Bird’s impressive end to the season and Summer League has Green Teamers baying for the Celtics to match offers he may receive. All of this is coming amidst the Celtics only having a single (non-two way) roster spot open and a (vaguely) possible tax cut down looming in preparation for the repeater tax in 2022-2023.
Fans are looking for possible cuts or inefficient spending and many are turning their spotlight on Yabusele. The Celtics will have a decision before November of this year on whether or not to pick up Yabu’s team option for the 2019-2020 season. That will have many asking the same question: “should the Celtics commit a roster spot and salary on championship squad to Guerschon Yabusele?”
As the scout in Keith’s piece mentioned, Yabu developed bad habits as a star in China. The NBA demands that Yabusele box out and rotate, two things that he has really struggled with early in his career. He finished the season behind the rest of the Celtics bigs and Semi in contested rebound percentage, clocking in just behind Smart at a 30.8 contested rebound percentage per NBA.com. Watching every one of Yabusele’s rebounds from the 2017-18 season, it’s miraculous that it was that high. Many of Yabu’s defensive rebounds came off of free throw misses or in an uncontested setting. This play highlights why that might be, as Yabusele fails to put a body on the corner crasher, but retrieves the ball due to a lucky carom.
By that same token, a truly stunning amount of Yabusele’s boards came on the offensive glass, as he would space to the three point line and rumble into the lane like a wrecking ball when a shot was hoisted. Yabusele’s nimble feet and solid body are often too much for the weakside wing defenders tasked with guarding him, and he continuously finds his way into the paint for really impressive boards. This is a real NBA skill.
Yabu’s solid body also allows him to get offensive rebounds more conventionally against today’s power forwards. Here, Washington is playing smaller with Markieff Morris at the 4, but Yabus simply asserts physical dominance and bodies him off the sport.
It’s also not as if a boxing out Yabusele has shown a propensity of being beat on the glass either. It’s rather that he simply doesn’t do it. Take for example, this set when he is tasked with keeping fearsome PF Derrick Favors off of the glass. Here, Favors tries to work around for step through to gain position but Yabu simply pins him down and collects the board.
Even beyond the rebounding, Yabusele has considerable upside as a passer. In his rookie season, he had the sixth highest AST/TO on the team, trailing only the four point guards (Smart, Rozier, Larkin and Irving) and Horford. He’s also a good willing shooter who has shown reasonable efficiency in his first NBA year. He’s got a tidy 55.9 TS% in spite of 60% of his field goal attempts coming from downtown. And for what it’s worth, the fact that he celebrates made 3’s with a bow and arrow dab isn’t particularly relevant, but is important to me.
Turn down Yabu’s option?
In some ways, I understand the dull, throbbing panic about Yabu’s develeopment. High draft picks are rarely offered much political leeway if they develop slowly, and many Celtics fans still have Bill Simmons’ fist pump from the James Young pick still dancing around their heads. We are only two years removed from the Celtics cutting first round pick RJ Hunter due to roster crowding, and they declined Young’s 4th year option not long after.
After a stash year abroad, I think some Celtics fans expected to see Yabusele enter the league more prepared than most rookies. Instead, as our own Keith Smith reported earlier this week, he developed bad defensive habits in China that now need breaking. As the injuries piled up, and the Boston Celtics gave way to the Hospital Celtics, Yabusele stepped in during particularly thin moments to provide some much needed bulk. Outside of a delightful bow and arrow dab celebration, most would say that the Frenchman had limited impact in those short minutes last season.
Celtics fans may look at an available mid-level free agent, consider that Yabusele is 10th highest paid Celtics right now, and decide that a potential upgrade stemming from cutting him may be worth it to a Celtics squad that has ‘win-now’ aspirations. Developing an end-of-the-bench player is wise to a certain extent, but perhaps with the entrance of the cheaper project Robert Williams, The Dancing Bear is no longer a developmental priority and thus, expendable.
All that said, I think it’s pretty silly to consider cutting Yabusele unless it is to add an All-Star caliber player. The circumstances that necessitated the exit of RJ Hunter and James Young were preparation for an ultimately fruitful run at Gordon Hayward. This iteration of the Celtics has few similarities, particularly as it has no future as a “below the cap” team unless true disaster strikes. Additionally, the 2016-2017 squad had made the selections and stashes of Yabu himself and Ante Zizic whom both needed roster spots in the coming year.
In fact, in terms of roster construction, there is a reasonably likely timeline that the Celtics would find themselves in dire need of cheap big minutes. The Celtics’ big rotation for the coming year appears to be set, as Horford, Baynes and Theis will handle the yeoman’s share of the minutes for a team that will play small for stretches. Should he remain on the team, Marcus Morris will likely be getting his minutes at power forward for the healthy squad. Semi Ojeleye is poised to handle a bigger role, too. However, the 2019-2020 Celtics could have more of a problem finding depth.
Both Baynes and Horford have player options for the 2019 season, and Theis will also hit restricted free agency. If Baynes has a similar season to 2017-18, he will likely opt out of his deal for the gold rush of 2019 free agency. Theis will be a restricted free agent, and it’s looking likely that his floor stretching potential could yield him a larger offer sheet than the “deep in the tax” Celtics could pay. Horford’s player option is quietly the biggest looming question under Irving’s certain decline on his own option, as Al’s play has been fantastic in green and a solid third year would command financial security for him deep into his 30’s.
The point here is that it’s not unrealistic to see a timeline where two of the Celtics’ rotation big men are not returning, and the Celtics will only have a mid-level exception to replace them. Perhaps Williams will be ready, or one of the Celtics possible 2019 picks could step in. That said, having Yabusele on a tidy $3.1M that year could be a godsend for team that projects to struggle with depth.
I’ve long been someone who harps on the need to keep and develop draft picks to maintain success, and the Celtics looming tax problems are a rash that will require balm. They are about to begin a stretch where franchise will only have draft picks, trades, small exceptions, and player minimums as options to add talent. Ignore the former, and you are stuck relying on a revolving door of also-ran buyouts like Deron Williams or a blockbuster trade to save your season.
On top of all of this, Yabusele is genuinely promising! Mid-first round draft picks often develop slowly and you can take a look at the notable recent Celtics players who fit this like Terry Rozier and Avery Bradley. Typically, players here who can figure out a way to get on the floor have a reasonable chance to develop into a rotation player. For Yabusele, that is going to need to start with defense.
It’s one thing to get flustered about rookies that are struggling, but it’s important to remember that they are rookies, particularly when their classmate is Jayson Tatum. It’s possible that Yabu might fail or that his slightly larger salary will be needed to make salaries match in a trade down the road. However, Yabu still looks to me like a player who could feasibly be in the rotation by 2019-2020 and it’s possible that he’s badly needed then. That alone makes him more valuable going forward than a more expensive, mid-level player who will want to get back on the market in 2019.
I would advise the Celtics to think long and hard about possibly declining Yabusele’s player option. Otherwise, they may find themselves dancing bare.
I refuse to apologize.