Over the last three years, basketball has taken Guerschon Yabusele to Rouen, France, Shanghai, China and Portland, Maine. Even at the young age of 21, it’s safe to say that Yabusele has already been around the world and back — but now he’s looking to make a permanent home in Boston with the Celtics.
The Celtics, for all their innumerable headlines about the arrival of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, are still significantly short on game-changing rebounders. Last season, the Celtics pulled down 42 rebounds per night, tied for the fourth-worst mark in the NBA. Of those 42 rebounds, Al Horford led the team with 6.8, followed by Avery Bradley (6.1), Jae Crowder (5.8), Kelly Olynyk (4.8) and Amir Johnson (4.6). Besides the oddity of a 6-foot-2 guard starring as an Eastern Conference finalist’s second-best rebounder, the other thing worth noting is that, outside of Horford, they’ve all since left the franchise.
Given their clear need to upgrade in the rebounding department, a large portion of Boston’s summer signings were made with that detail in mind. Of course, the Celtics began free agency by officially signing Ante Žižić, another overseas stash akin to Yabusele, but the center was included alongside Isaiah Thomas and Crowder in August’s blockbuster deal for the aforementioned Irving. In addition to Yabusele, Boston signed both Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis to bench unit roles by the end of July as well. Still, Baynes and Theis own career rebounding averages of just 4.1 and 4.6, respectively, so neither are likely to be Boston’s much-needed savior in that realm anyway.
Heading into his rookie season with the Celtics at long last, there’s a clear niche that the nimble-footed Yabusele can fill immediately.
“My mindset every time I step on the court is to give everything, up and down the floor, offense, defense and I just want to be the best,” Yabusele said at last week’s media day in Canton, Massachusetts. “Defensively, I’m gonna be there. If you have the jump on the ball, I’m gonna be here. I just really try to give everything on the court, then [I] have no regret after the game.”
Although none of his stops thus far will completely prepare Yabusele for the bigger, faster and stronger competition that awaits him in the NBA, he’s passed the eye test each time with flying colors. With Rouen in 2015-16 — Pro A of Ligue Nationale de Basket, France’s highest level — Yabusele averaged 11.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game. Despite the team’s 17th-place finish and subsequent relegation, Yabusele’s impressive season-long performance convinced the Celtics to reach on the power forward with the No. 16 overall selection back in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Shortly after summer league, the Celtics decided to stash Yabusele for another year and the affectionately nicknamed Dancing Bear ended up with the Shanghai Sharks for most of the season. In China, Yabusele flourished and he averaged a healthy 20.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, even earning a berth as a CBA All-Star. To finish the year off, Yabusele joined the Maine Red Claws, Boston’s G-League affiliate, where he averaged 18.5 points and 10 rebounds over the final two regular season games.
Sure, the sample size and weaker competition is definitely a factor in Yabusele’s inflated statistics up until this point, but there’s a fair chance that he’ll quickly stand out as one of the Celtics’ best rebounders.
“That kid can play,” Horford told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. “You look at his body and the way that he can move. . . he can really shoot the ball. He has a really good feel for the game. He just has a really good feel, and he plays hard, so I just think that people are going to love him.”
On top of being an able rebounder, Yabusele has steadily improved as a three-point shooter since Boston selected him. During his final season in France, Yabusele attempted just 1.8 three-pointers per game and although he made 42.6 percent of them, it’s not really enough to draw any significant conclusions. But following the draft and his one summer league stint with Boston, Yabusele was firing away in China to the tune of 1.9 makes to 5.2 attempts per contest, good for a manageable 36.4 percent conversion rate.
From the season’s outset, Yabusele will be a reasonable replacement for Olynyk, a solid stretch four when presumed starter Marcus Morris needs a breather. Already, Yabusele seems extremely confident as a ball handler and his body control is uncanny for an athlete his size. Perhaps surprisingly, Yabusele isn’t often found posting up, but instead driving at defenders as if he had the chemical makeup of a guard, all 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds of him. His versatile scoring abilities will help the Celtics take full advantage of the attention funneled toward Hayward, Irving, Horford and the rest of the roster’s adept scorers.
Offensively, there’s no denying Yabusele’s talent and that extra season overseas has become a massive win for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
“I’m getting better in my shot and I have no fear putting the ball on the floor, just do what I can do to go to the rim and finish strong,” Yabusele said. “So, I’m not even afraid about the travel [even though] I know it’s a little bit different than in Europe.”
For all of the well-deserved praise Boston has received this summer, it’s been easy to look past the quiet arrival of Yabusele. However, the Celtics still have extremely high internal expectations for 2017-18 despite the return of just four players from last year’s roster. Needless to say, if the Celtics want to reach the Eastern Conference Finals again — and perhaps even further — they’ll need some unheralded heroes to step up and provide quality minutes off the bench.
The smart money, at least in the frontcourt, is on Yabusele, the Celtics’ former international man of mystery. If the Frenchman can become a reliable rebounder and three-point shooter for Boston, he won’t likely stay unknown for much longer. As for his permanent move to a new country and lifestyle, Yabusele sounds like he’s already made a smooth transition off the court as well.
“I always say that America is not really different from France, it’s pretty much the same,” Yabusele said. “So, it’s not really a big transition for me to be here and, I don’t know, I’m just happy to be here, so I just enjoy every moment and everywhere I go.”
Sooner rather than later, the Celtics will be really happy to have Yabusele here too.
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