The NBA G League (or, as it was once known as, the D League, with the “D” standing for “developmental”) has its success stories. Plenty, in fact. C.J. Watson and Jeremy Lin come to mind, for whatever reason. As does Chris “Birdman” Andersen, the first call-up from the minors in NBA history. Shaun Livingston, Danny Green, Hassan Whiteside, and Gerald Green, too... okay, actually, this is a solid list. Sure, it feels a bit like reading off playoff rosters from NBA 2K14, but who doesn’t love a little bit of nostalgia? And, better yet, who doesn’t love an underdog story?
Perhaps it wasn’t a common instinct, but I can distinctly remember feeling like Tremont Waters had the ability to be a halfway-decent-to-possibly-dependable backup point guard in the NBA. Admittedly, it was heavily influenced by the fact that he just continued to travel back and forth between the big league Celtics and the G League Red Claws (now Celtics), riding the pine in Boston but torching the competition in Maine. It was a matter of time; when he finished third in G League MVP voting and won Rookie of the Year in 2020, it felt like destiny just biding its time until it could perfectly manifest on the parquet of TD Garden. A year later, hope still lingers. But it’s hanging on by a thread.
The numbers: 37 career games in two years, and per-game averages of 3.8 points, 0.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists for the H20 Kid (his nickname, apparently). In his G-League awards campaign, he averaged 18 points, 7.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.89 steals in 36 games. He ranked sixth in the G League in assists per game and 14th in steals per game. G League numbers always feel inflated, given the lesser competition, but these aren’t schmucks rolling in off the street to play a series of “we got next” matchups. These are former NCAA Tournament heroes and ACC stars. Waters torched most of them with ease.
He never had much of a torch to wield when he suited up for the Celtics because Brad Stevens always had two options to field first. In 2019-20, Kemba Walker started, and Brad Wanamaker played second fiddle. Though Kemba was intermittently healthy in 2020-21, Stevens was keener on running Marcus Smart at the point in his absence and backing him up with rookie Payton Pritchard. That left Waters — and fellow 2019 rookie/point guard/bench-warming presence, Carsen Edwards — desperately searching for a moment to shine. Those rarely came for Edwards. For Waters, while the chances were fleeting, he made do.
Take his performance in the regular-season finale against the New York Knicks, for example: 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists, plus a game-high +20 net plus-minus, all in 25 minutes. And while that was wildly encouraging, especially given the fact that it came against the Knicks starters in a game they wanted to win, there was always something more impressive about the games in which he played less and did more. Or, better yet, when he’d do just as much in a seven-minute spell as he would in a 20-minute outing.
In Orlando against the Magic on Jan. 15, Waters had just three points, but five assists in nine minutes. In Atlanta against the Hawks on Feb. 24, he had 11 points, five assists, and a steal in under eight minutes of play. Sure, his stronger performances came when his offensive opportunities were more bountiful (i.e. when he saw more time) but he was a consistent and efficient creator for his teammates in otherwise inconsiderable team minutes.
Waters checks in at a generous 5-foot-10, a familiar-ish height for Celtics fans and a remarkable deficiency for most point guards looking to create at the rim. Fortunately, this point has an eye for making the difficult pass. Even simpler: he has an eye for finding an open teammate in scoring position, and does so at a high level despite his lack of time. Cleaning the Glass’ assist to usage ratio, which tracks how often a player gets an assist given how much they had the ball, places Waters in the 80th percentile among point guards (his official ratio is 1.38, up from 0.81 last year, which was in the eighth percentile).
Now, let’s reverse and revert for a second. These players are not representative of what Waters could become, nor is comparing the percentiles and measurements without context at all an effective way to analyze what this all really means. There is a significant disparity in these players’ total/per-game minute counts, the amount of touches they receive on a nightly basis, and, in Waters’s shoes, whether or not he even sees the floor. But it’s worth noting that when he did, albeit against some competition that most would call lesser, he made an indelible impact. He’s a player that, sample size notwithstanding, ranked amongst some of the game’s elite in this particular category.
Can he do that against competition that most wouldn’t call lesser? No, most likely. Which is why he’s received minutes in frugal doses, and why his (very) few starts still amounted to 25-minute runs at the maximum. He’s a player with a knack for passing but limitations that stretch from his scoring prowess to his strength. As a defender — remember, he was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 while he was at LSU — he’s a bit too dependent on using quickness over rotational IQ, even though he has both and could create a lethal mix if he could put them together on a nightly basis. But beyond that, he’s limited as a player. Not necessarily by his size nor his IQ, but by his raw abilities. He has an unrefined touch as a scorer, one that could hardly match his sporadic brilliance as a passer.
He’s an imperfect prospect, really, one who has taken opportunities to grow and sprinted with them, and yet still runs into a wall due to, as Brad Stevens said in 2020, being “in a tough spot” in the Celtics long-term plans. Stevens continued: “[He] has not been with us the whole year, so it’s hard when you’re bouncing back and forth between the G League to come in and organize things and get everybody to their spots and kind of be a leader, especially from an offensive perspective, on the court. But we need him to do that. ... He did do a lot of good things, but as a guy that sees the game and understands the game the way he does, plus with his understanding of what everybody’s strengths are around him and his ability to get the ball to him, we need his voice to be louder, and he really, I think, understands that.”
There’s no doubt that Waters knows that. Is there an opportunity for him to show that he knows it? Who knows. And who knows how much longer he has to wait for one before he becomes that guy who was almost the G League MVP that one time.