One of the more popular players on an NBA roster is often a rookie backup point guard. When they get minutes, generally in garbage time, they have the ball a lot. That allows them to make plays and gets fans to raise their eyebrows and say “This guy is pretty good!”. Tremont Waters is no different.
Waters has spent his rookie year on a Two-Way contract with the Boston Celtics. Because the Celtics have Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker ahead of him, Waters has spent most of the season with the Maine Red Claws in the G-League. In just 89 NBA minutes over 10 games, Waters has shown some flashes that have fans excited for his potential. There have also been times when Waters looks like he needs a lot more seasoning at the lower level before he’s ready for the NBA.
With Maine, Waters has been a scoring and playmaking dynamo. He started in 36 games for the Red Claws and averaged 18 points and 7.3 assists per game. Waters’ speed and quickness are too much for NBAGL guards. When he draws the defense, Waters was surrounded by a bunch of players on the cusp of making the NBA. That meant his passes often found scorers who got him an assist.
The reality for Waters is that he’s close to a standard roster spot with Boston, but he has some deficiencies that will be hard to overcome at the NBA level. In many ways Waters is like the classic 4A player in Major League Baseball. Too good for the minors, but not quite good enough for the majors. At 22 years old, Waters is young enough to make the jump to full-time NBA player, but time is closer to running out on that than you think.
So, what’s next for the pesky little guard? Unfortunately for Waters and a few others, the Celtics are facing a major roster crunch heading into next season. Boston likely only has one or two open roster spots. Waters will be in a mix of five to six players competing for those spots.
The Case for a Roster Spot
·Offense: Waters has your classic change-of-pace game for a point guard. He comes in with a frenetic energy. Whereas starters and high-minute reserves can’t race up and down the floor at 100 miles per hour, deeper backups can. And they often are called upon to do exactly that.
Waters is a lot like other backup point guards that Brad Stevens has had success with in his time in Boston. Guys like Phil Pressey, Shane Larkin and young Terry Rozier. Stevens asks them to come in and change the energy of the game by playing fast. If you look at the final stat-line for any of those players, the numbers look pretty “meh”. But their impact always felt bigger.
Waters strength lies in his ability to run a team. He’s a floor leader, which you need from the point guard spot. He gets the ball up the floor quickly and immediately gets the team into a set. Even with the Celtics, Waters wasn’t afraid to tell his veterans where to be during plays. That’s a skill that not enough young players have.
As the double comes against Jayson Tatum, you can see Waters direct Brad Wanamaker to the corner. This helps open up Javonte Green for a three-pointer off the swing from Waters.
For his own scoring, Waters is able to use his speed to break his man down and get into the paint. He also has a great understanding of relocating to get himself open when his teammates are handling the ball:
Mostly, Waters has improved his jumper. He knocked down over 35% on seven three-point attempts per game with Maine. Making jumpers out of pick and roll like this are key for a small guard like Waters:
·Defense: At just 5-foot-10, Waters has to be tough. He can’t let bigger players overpower him or he won’t play much. With the way Boston switches on defense, Waters has to be able to hold his own against much bigger players on a regular basis.
Here against Bogdan Bogdanovic, Waters is giving up about eight inches. He keeps his feet and keeps Bogdanovic in front of him. Then Waters uses his quick hands to get the strip:
Waters also shows a good sense of when to dig down and double. He shows that off here to create a turnover against John Collins:
Waters best defensive skill is his on-ball defense. He’s got enough quickness to keep up with most ballhandlers and his quick hands allow him to pick up steals. Essentially, his role is to be a pest on defense. Waters shows that off perfectly here against Trae Young:
·Intangibles: At both the NBA and NBAGL level, Waters has shown the leadership necessary for a point guard. It’s not an easy task in Boston with several veterans and young stars, but he did it in short minutes. He was known as someone who could run a team from his time at LSU, and that proved true in the pros as well. He also made the most of his limited NBA opportunities. Nor did he sulk about spending the majority of the season with Maine. That can be a tough pill for a drafted player to swallow, but Waters accepted his role without complaint.
·The Contract: Waters, like fellow rookie Tacko Fall, is in a unique spot because he’s coming off a Two-Way deal. That means he’s eligible for restricted free agency. All Boston has to do to keep match rights for Waters is to give him a qualifying offer. That qualifying offer only has to be for another Two-Way contract. Given his potential, that’s a virtual lock.
The Case against a Roster Spot
·Offense: Waters has to shoot it better. The 35% from behind the arc with Maine is encouraging, but it’s not quite good enough. Especially when he hit just under 50% on two-pointers. With Boston, Waters struggled to hit threes, but did hit 50% of his twos. Context is important as a lot of those buckets came in garbage time when teams weren’t giving great effort on defense.
Waters also has to get his turnovers under control. He averaged over 3.6 turnovers per game in the G-League. That would be a top-10 rate in the NBA. In just 89 NBA minutes, Waters turned it over 10 times. That’s something he’ll need to clean up.
·Defense: This is where Waters’ size works against him. He’s tough, but he’s not overly strong at just 5-foot-10. While many small players have made it work, it causes the defense to have to bend to compensate. Waters can hold his own against some guys, but the bigger, stronger wings will simply overpower him on switches. He also picks up fouls at a pretty high rate, because he spends a lot of his time battling bigger players.
If Waters is going to be a part of an NBA rotation, he’ll need to be surrounded by four good defenders that can help and scramble him out of mismatches. Brad Stevens pulled that off successfully with Isaiah Thomas, but that was an easy offset due to Thomas’ offensive brilliance. It’s a tougher ask for a backup guard.
·Intangibles: Waters is a popular guy right now because Celtics fans have largely seemed to have seen enough of Brad Wanamaker as the third point guard. That is how it tends to go with young backup point guards. Put Waters in the rotation regularly, and his limitations will test the patience of fans pretty quickly. Fortunately, that’s probably not the role Boston has in mind for him anytime soon.
On the plus side, Waters is well-liked by his teammates, especially fellow rookies Tacko Fall, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams. That’s important, especially for a point guard who might have to lead those young guys on the floor.
·The Contract: Like Tacko Fall, it’s almost a guarantee Boston will make Waters a restricted free agent this summer. There’s too much upside there to risk losing him for nothing. If no big offers materialize, Danny Ainge can bring Waters back as a Two-Way player again, or give him a minimum deal.
Also, like Fall, there are teams who like Waters quite a bit. That means he could end up priced out of what the Celtics are willing to pay for a third point guard. The Celtics roster is simply too expensive as it is to pay more than the minimum for a non-rotation player.
Lastly, this draft class does have some good point guard options. With four picks, Ainge could find his next lead guard at the draft. That would make it an uphill battle for Waters to make the main roster.
Tremont Waters will be back on a standard contract, unless Boston lands a point guard in the draft. Like Phil Pressey and Shane Larkin before him, Brad Wanamaker’s time with the Celtics is probably short-lived. That leaves an opening behind Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart. Waters is young, cheaper and has more upside than Wanamaker. That means he’s probably getting one of Boston’s open roster spots.
In many ways, this is the most easily projected roster battle. It’s Wanamaker vs Waters vs draft pick. Waters has a leg up on both Wanamaker and a draft pick. And the flexibility to potentially bring back Waters as a change-of-pace guard on a Two-Way contract again lends further reason for him to be back with Boston.