Chris Babb couldn’t sleep. He lay in bed, restless with a replay from that night’s game repeatedly running through his mind. The Boston Celtics had landed an hour earlier from a road loss against the Indiana Pacers, but Babb hadn’t left that moment behind. Why did he commit that turnover? Why did he force the pass? Why didn’t he just play basketball like he knew how?
Around 2 a.m. Babb left the hotel where he has been staying during his pair of 10-day contracts and drove to the Celtics practice facility in search of clarity. He let himself into the dark, empty gym, flipped on the lights and began blasting music from his iPhone. The minutes – and the shots – began to pass. By the time he was nearing 4 a.m. he had put up, he estimates, five to six hundred shots. His arms felt weak, but his mindset was strong.
“That was the time I realized I’m not being myself,” Babb told Basketball Insiders. “I’m not playing basketball like I know how. I’m trying to play perfect. That’s all I had in my head – I’m thinking too much, I’m thinking too much.”
Babb recognized he had been trying to do far more than he should have been. The pressures of proving himself as an NBA player had snuck into his game and he began over-thinking his performance. Earlier in that particular night, he had grabbed a rebound and instead of bringing the ball up the court himself, felt he had to pass it quickly to Rajon Rondo, which resulted in a turnover. Attempting to force what he thought was the “right” thing to do ended as a wrong decision.
It is difficult, though, to step away from the implications of each game when he has a limited window to convince the Celtics he is qualified to be on the roster for all 82. Undrafted out of Iowa State, Babb made a strong impression during this year’s training camp, but was waived shortly before the start of the regular season. He played for the Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ NBA Development League affiliate, where the Cs kept an eye on him.
After the Celtics signed Chris Johnson from the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers in January, they suggested Babb watch his fellow guard’s game film. Babb’s coaches had him pay attention to how Johnson ran the floor and spread the offense. He began incorporating those improvements into his game and was signed to his first 10-day contract in late February.
The Celtics were shorthanded and with Avery Bradley dealing with a lingering ankle injury, they needed help in their backcourt. Babb stepped in, making his NBA debut on March 1 against the Pacers at the TD Garden. His first task: guarding Paul George. He was up for the challenge.
“It was awesome to get that first experience because I didn’t get to play in a game there in preseason,” Babb said. “I had never played on the floor before, so that I felt the emotions of accomplishing I had been working for.”
Babb was signed to a second 10-day contract in March, beginning another trial period. This time it was different. Teams cannot sign players to a third 10-day contract; either the player is signed for the remainder of the season or no longer on the team. The stakes are high when fighting for a roster spot.
“It’s kind of an overwhelming process, really,” Babb said. “I have 10 days to prove why I deserve to be there. At the same time I’m supposed to not worry about it and just play basketball. It’s easier said than done. So I’m telling myself, ‘Don’t worry about it, there’s no pressure, just play basketball.’ But at the same time, I’m a perfectionist when I play basketball. Any time I step out on the court I’m doing everything I can to do things the right way. I think that kind of magnified it in my mind. Being on a 10-day contract, you want to do things even more perfect. I think that kind of messed me up a little bit.”
Realizing his hangup was a critical step for Babb, 24, to refocus. He hit the gym in the early morning hours of March 12 as a way to get himself back on track. That day, on which he played seven minutes against the New York Knicks, he only told one member of the staff about his trip. Babb didn’t bring it to the attention of the coaches to highlight his work ethic — showboating isn’t his style.
“To me, people who do stuff like that are doing it for the wrong reason,” he said. “I wasn’t doing it for the recognition of doing it. I realized I was thinking too much and I wanted to clear my head. I wasn’t happy with my performance; it didn’t have anything to do with the coaches.”
With Bradley back in the lineup, Babb has not played since March 12. His contract is up on Thursday, a day he is not letting dictate his current time on the Celtics.
During this period he has been committed to being a good teammate on and off the court, hustling when he’s in the game and being a vocal supporter from the bench. Babb considers himself to have been a “role team player” his entire career, never the star in the spotlight, which lends itself to his constant support for those on his squad.
“He’s a perfect fit for what we need as far as, he’s not going to play 38 minutes a game — he’s going to come in, get open shots, hopefully knock those open shots down, play off of other people and then be a feisty defender for us and he really is an outstanding defender for a young guy,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s an outstanding defender as a team player and an individual.”
While his effortless-looking three-point shooting is flashy, Babb is proud of the praise on the defensive end. Facing a schedule of playoff contenders, he now has experience against some of the league’s toughest to stop.
“There’s film of me defending the best players in the NBA at my position and at the three spot — Paul George, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Andre Iguodala, guys like that who are NBA All-Stars at their positions,” Babb said. “What better opportunity than to guard those guys? That’s something I’ll take away from this and be able to say I held my own against some of the best guards in the NBA. That’s something that’ll make me stand out.”
Whether his performance stands out enough to the Celtics remains to be seen. Either way, the fight is only beginning for Babb. Regardless of if he finishes his season in Boston or Portland, ME, he is poised to keep hustling to attain his goal of becoming an NBA player.
“I’ve put it all out there,” Babb said. “I’ve done everything that I can. I’ve got all the workouts in that I can, I’ve worked as hard as I could, I’ve been as vocal as I can be on the sidelines, I’ve played as hard as I could when I’m in the game. I’m going to keep that same mindset, that whatever is supposed to happen happens.”
Babb continued, “I’d be happy [to be signed for the remainder of the season]. I’d have that same feeling of accomplishment, but at the same time I’d still have to be motivated. I couldn’t feel a sense of complacency because at the end of the day if they sign me for the season, there’s just a month or so left, and then the process is going to start all over again. I’d still have to stay motivated and ready to work.”
And if he ever starts over-thinking basketball again, he knows how to clear his mind.