In the Olympic semifinals against Slovenia, France forward Guerschon Yabusele drained a 3-pointer in the first half in a tight game. What happened next may surprise Celtics fans.
There was no dab. There was no bow-and-arrow pose. Yabusele just ran down the floor on defense.
He is a considerably different player than during his Boston days, when he battled with weight issues and could never carve out a role despite being a first-round pick. Yabusele became a fan favorite because of his celebrations and affable personality, but it never translated to production on the floor. The “dancing bear” was waived by the Celtics after just two years and 74 games, a prime example of Danny Ainge’s draft failures over the past decade.
Fast forward to the Tokyo Olympics and a svelte Yabusele is making hustle plays for Team France. It doesn’t need him shooting threes. It needs him to hustle, rebound, and play defense. And that’s exactly what he’s done to help France to the gold-medal game.
The 25-year-old Yabusele is resembling the player the Celtics thought he could be. He’s not focused on launching 3-pointers. He is a utility player on the floor, diving for loose balls and giving France extra possessions.
It’s a role he’s learned to relish and it’s earned him a contract with Real Madrid of the EuroLeague, the second-best league in the world.
“I learned a lot,” Yabusele said of his experience the past few years. “I’m not going to say my role is the same here, but it’s just coming off the bench, just get ready, and when the coach calls my name go out there and compete.”
Yabusele was given his chances in Boston, but when he didn’t dominate the Las Vegas Summer League in his third try, the team decided to move on, wasting a first-round pick. Yabusele then went to play in China.
“I’m definitely more mature,” he said. “I grew up. My experience over there and then coming back to China and playing EuroLeague this year definitely helped me more, and I definitely feel like I have more confidence and just ready to compete at the high level so when I go out there give 100 percent.”
It wasn’t that Yabusele was out of shape, but he carried too much weight to defend small forwards and was too small to play the stretch-4 position. He lacked flexibility and the Celtics knew he couldn’t play in the NBA unless he made changes.
“After Boston, I had to get myself together, lose some weight, be careful what I’m eating, stuff like that,” he said. “Right now I’m working more and playing more and I just feel good on the court.”
Yabusele said he harbors no ill feelings toward the Celtics.
“It’s just how it is. You can’t complain, man,” he said. “I was happy to be the 16th pick, go over there and learn with the best players. We had some of the best players in the league. Be over there, be with Brad Stevens, one of the best coaches. It’s just a big franchise. I’m definitely not mad at them. It happened like this. I’m always happy. I take all the good. I’m a different player now. This has really helped me a lot in my career, so it’s for sure good for me.”
It’s a one-year contract with Real Madrid and perhaps this Olympic performance along with a strong season there could garner another chance at the NBA. Yabusele said he’s open to a return.
“For sure, the NBA is always something I have in my mind,” he said. “Whenever they make the call, I’ll always be ready, so I work every day. I try to compete at the best level so for sure if they call me I’ll go over there.”
When Yabusele was waived by the Celtics, no other NBA team called. He headed to China, where many former NBA players head for a payday and career reclamation. Real Madrid is one of the top teams in the EuroLeague and Yabusele doesn’t plan to waste the opportunity to play for another top franchise.
“I’m pretty happy about the situation,” he said. “I didn’t know much about the EuroLeague before this year, and for me to find a contract for Real Madrid for next season it’s really important for me and it’s something big and I’m pretty happy about it. I’m going to keep working and try to do the best job.”
Team France is loaded with NBA talent, including former Celtic Evan Fournier, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, Clippers swingman Nicolas Batum, and Nets guard Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot.
“It’s definitely a lot of guys from the league, but there’s a lot of guys from the EuroLeague teams,” Yabusele said. “So we’ve got some of the best players out there and to be able to compete and win some games is definitely something that’s big for me as a young player. It’s something I never taken for granted.”
Yabusele viewed the chance to play for Team France as a redemption of sorts, a chance to play with NBA players and take his country to new international heights.
“As a player when you can represent your country, it’s always something you’re looking for,” he said. “With the season that I just did, the coach was talking to me a lot and he was thinking about getting me on the team. It’s always motivated to play for my country. It’s always something big. My family’s proud. My friends are proud, so it’s just a big opportunity for me to be here and I’m happy about it.”
Team USA bonding on and off floor
Team USA realizes it has the least chemistry — or at least started off that way — of any team in the Olympic tournament. The other 11 teams have played together for years, and the chemistry is so powerful that Slovenia reached the bronze-medal game despite having just one NBA player other then Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic.
Team USA is realizing that success will be difficult to attain by just throwing players together, even if they are stars. Bonding on and off the floor has been critical over the past few weeks. Jayson Tatum has grown close to Spurs forward Keldon Johnson. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant are buddies again after a difficult ending in Golden State.
“All the players in the NBA now play with so many foreign players,” US coach Gregg Popovich said. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, the NBA players didn’t realize that, but they do now. They understand there are good players everywhere. But we started camp, we start with a little information about appropriate fear, we call it. And you need to have some appropriate fear of your opponent.
“And that’s not fright, but it’s a respect that allows you to have respect for your opponent. And before you prepare, you have to have that respect, or you’re a little bit full yourself and it doesn’t work the same way. So, these guys understood from the get-go how the coaching staff respected other teams. And we watched film on it, and they’ve all seen that, and they know that there have been some close calls in the past years against a lot of these teams. And you have to bring it to win. They’re all more experienced. They’ve all played together longer. They’ve developed their cultures. And we’re starting a little bit behind the eight-ball. And if we don’t realize that and understand what it’s going to take, then you’re in trouble.”
Guard Damian Lillard said Team USA hasn’t overlooked the competition. What’s more, the process of jelling has been more complex than many players expected. Talent can get you only so far, but the reason the US has improved is because the players learned each other’s tendencies and strengths.
“We respect our opponents,” Lillard said. “We respect every team here. A lot of these guys have played together for years and years. They come play FIBA, and Olympics, and all these things all the time together. For us, we’re just putting a team together of a bunch of talented individuals trying to become a team in a short amount of time. I think now we’re starting to jell and become more of a team, and we’re starting to play better. But for me, I’m just embracing being a part of the team. We all go our separate ways for our NBA teams and we have major roles, and here sometimes you’re going to be the guy and sometimes it’s going to be another guy. But that’s the fun part of being a part of this.”
NBA rosters change so much that chemistry can be fleeting. Most teams are in the same situation. They are constantly trying to bond. Team USA is the only team bonding on the fly in the Olympics.
“You’re not just going to come over here and walk through teams,” Lillard said. “We’re here representing a lot of people, and so are these other teams, and they have a lot of pride about that. And that’s what they play with, a lot of pride and a lot of passion. So, you’re going to get teams’ best. We have a history of winning, so you have to know that you’re going to go up against some really competitive, fiery teams, and it is what it is. We came here with one goal and that’s to win a gold medal, and now we’re in a position to do it.”
Celtics saving up for something special?
The Celtics are saving money for next summer, with their primary target Bradley Beal of the Wizards. But there are other alternatives such as Chicago’s Zach LaVine, who could be an unrestricted free agent. Of course, the Bulls could extend him, but that may depend on how well the retooled Bulls fare next season.
The Celtics could also workout a sign-and-trade with their salary-cap space or sign multiple players. The team’s focus shouldn’t be entirely on Beal because he may decide to stay with the Wizards and their reworked roster. But NBA teams don’t save salary-cap space like this unless they have already targeted a player.
US doesn’t have monopoly on talent
Watching the Olympic tournament is a reminder that not all the elite basketball players in the world are in the NBA. There are several players who are NBA-caliber who choose to play in Europe because of lucrative contracts or the desire to play close to home.
NBA teams search the world for talent, but the challenge is to get foreign players to take a chance on an NBA experience that may not work out. Several players in the tournament, such as Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, and Alex Abrines of Spain, as well as Guerschon Yabusele and Vincent Poirier of France, tried the NBA before opting to return to Europe to play.
Here are the top five players in the Olympic tournament who are not in the NBA:
Mike Tobey, Slovenia — Tobey is a former University of Virginia standout who said he couldn’t have located Slovenia on a map a few months ago but was invited to play with the national team and has flourished, averaging 13.8 points and 11.6 rebounds. Tobey, listed at 7 feet, is likely to do his best work overseas, but the 26-year-old has made an impression with his ability to rebound. He saved several critical possession for Slovenia in its run to the bronze-medal game. Tobey had a short stint with the Hornets, playing mostly for their G-League affiliate, before heading to play in Spain.
Jan Vesely, Czech Republic — We’ve been down this road before. Vesely was the sixth overall pick in 2011 by the Wizards and made more headlines for the kiss he planted on his girlfriend after being drafted than for anything he did on the floor. His career lasted 162 games before he signed with Fenerbahce in Turkey, where he has been All-Euroleague three times. Vesely is now 31 and a more polished player, which makes him a candidate to join an NBA contender. He was a factor in the paint for the Czech Republic.
Thomas Heurtel, France — The shooting guard has had his moments against Team USA over the years. He is capable of big plays in big moments and made key shots in each of France’s wins over the US in the last two years. Amazingly, Heurtel has never gotten a sniff at the NBA. He has played most of his 11-year professional career in the Euroleague, most recently with Real Madrid. At 32 and with financial stability in Europe, it would likely take a guaranteed contract to lure Heurtel to the NBA.
Simone Fontecchio, Italy — He is the best NBA prospect in the Olympics. The 6-9 swingman has range and a solid post game. He could be considered a younger version of teammate Danilo Gallinari. Fontecchio was eligible for the 2017 NBA Draft but not selected and joined Olimpia Milano. He signed with Baskonia in Spain before the Olympics. He averaged 19.3 in Italy’s four Olympic games, 57.6 percent shooting and 45.5 percent from the 3-point line. He will be on NBA radars when his contract with Baskonia expires. Fontecchio’s rise was unexpected in Italian circles, so his best basketball could still be a few years away.
Maodo Lo, Germany — A tough point guard who outplayed Golden State’s Nico Mannion of Italy in their matchup, Lo played at Wilbraham & Monson Academy and then four years at Columbia University. He had a stint on the 76ers’ summer league team in 2016 and has played in Germany since. Like some of the others, Lo’s age could be a factor. He’s 28 and established in Germany, so likely nothing short of a guaranteed contract — similar to the one signed by Argentina’s Facundo Campazzo with the Nuggets — would make him leave Europe.
It was an awkward situation for coach Gregg Popovich as he coached Team USA against Australia on Thursday. First, he was trying to stop his beloved longtime guard, Patty Mills, who played 10 years in San Antonio. Mills signed with the Nets on Wednesday. Second, Popovich was trying to contain Australia center Jock Landale, who signed with the Spurs on Wednesday. Landale, 25, is one of the best big men in the Olympic tournament and should help San Antonio’s youth movement. As far as anybody can guess, Popovich, 70, will coach the Spurs next season and be present for their rebuild. The club worked a sign-and-trade with the Bulls to send DeMar DeRozan to Chicago, and Rudy Gay signed with the Jazz … Kemba Walker gets a chance to prove he’s completely healthy and play for the Knicks, his hometown team. Walker agreed to a buyout with the Thunder, which wasn’t easy since he had two years and $47 million remaining, to sign what likely will be a league minimum deal with New York. Walker is from the Bronx and has long coveted playing for the Knicks. He’ll join Evan Fournier as the Knicks try to improve on their first-round exit this past season. Oklahoma City is becoming the place where superstar players can get traded, bought out or traded again, and then play for contenders. The Thunder acquired Al Horford from Philadelphia in a salary dump and eventually traded him back to Boston for a first-round pick. They also have taken on the contract of veteran forward Derrick Favors, who could be another buyout candidate. Favors, who will earn $9.7 million this coming season, is the highest-paid player on the team who is actually on the roster. Walker’s salary will count against the cap. The Thunder are banking that their slew of draft picks and recently extended Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort will begin a return to prominence … Another player who may have earned himself some money with his Olympic performance is Spanish forward Willy Hernangomez, the former Charlotte big man who gave Team USA problems with his rebounding and touch around the basket in their quarterfinal game. Hernangomez is a traditional space-eating big and solid perimeter shooter. He could serve as a valuable reserve center.