PHOENIX — After the Celtics defeated the Suns Monday night, coach Brad Stevens stood in a hallway outside his team’s locker room and was asked about Brad Wanamaker’s impact, both in this game and this season.
Stevens’s eyes went wide as he nodded, essentially answering the question before he had even said a word.
“Like, huge,” Stevens said. “I mean, one of the more important things on our team, because you know what you’re getting every day. And he’s been really good. You can play with him with the ball, he can play off of it. He can guard bigger guys because he’s strong, and he’s very smart. So he makes the other players around him better when he’s in the game.”
For Wanamaker, this early praise was probably especially comforting considering the path he took to earn it. He signed with Boston last season after having a strong career overseas, and then the experience, well, kind of stunk.
He appeared in just 36 games, playing a total of 343 minutes, and mostly watched as the Celtics season spiraled with no real hope for redemption.
“There was just no chance for it to go the way he wanted it to last year,” Stevens said. “Any time you had a guy out, it was more time for everybody else that was in our top seven or eight.
“And as much as you know that coming in or you’re aware of that coming in, that’s just hard to stomach in the middle of it as you’re going through the 82 games.”
The safe play would have been for the veteran guard to go back to Europe, sign a lucrative deal, and at least feel good about the fact that he had given his true dream a shot.
But the experience left Wanamaker feeling incomplete. Yes, he had made the NBA, but he had not made an impact, and he thought he was capable of doing that.
And after Kyrie Irving signed with the Nets and Terry Rozier left to join the Hornets, it seemed Wanamaker could have the chance he had initially sought.
“Obviously, there were question marks, but this is the best of the best, and I wanted to give it one more shot,” Wanamaker said. “Brad called me, we talked this summer and just was like, ‘You may [play more], you may not, but you just have to earn it.’ And that’s how I’ve been my whole life, just trying to earn opportunity.”
So Wanamaker signed with Boston on another one-year, minimum-salary deal. Instead of dwelling on last season, he just blocked it out and came into this year with “a fresh mind.”
And even though this season remains in its early stages, Wanamaker is encouraged by his new role. He has appeared in all 13 games and is averaging 6.1 points, 2.5 assists, and 1.8 rebounds over 15.3 minutes.
On Monday, he helped settle the Celtics after Marcus Smart left early in the fourth quarter because of an ankle injury. After the Suns quickly whittled a 20-point deficit to 12, Wanamaker calmly hit a runner in the lane and a 3-pointer on back-to-back possessions.
Then he came up with a steal and fed Kemba Walker for a layup, and the lead was never in danger again.
Wanamaker finished with 10 points, 6 assists, and 3 steals in a career-high 29 minutes.
“His work ethic is second to none,” Walker said. “It’s no surprise when he comes in and does what he does. He’s just solid.
“He’s a leader, man, a natural born leader. He’s a great guy, very high character. He gets along with everybody. He’s just one of those guys that you need around.”
The Celtics tend to limit practice time once the season ramps up, but on off days rookies often complete voluntary workouts to stay in rhythm. Stevens said that most often this year, Wanamaker — the oldest player on the team at 30 — has joined them on his own.
Wanamaker said he has always played better when he gets as many repetitions as possible, but these side sessions also turn into mentoring moments.
He explains to the younger players how they must stay ready, and he talks about the importance of being engaged even if a few games pass without playing time.
“It’s helpful hearing him tell me that stuff, and he’s always trying to stay positive with me and tell me what he sees,” rookie guard Carsen Edwards said. “In a way this is new for him, but he’s been around so much basketball that he has that knowledge. So it’s good to have a player like him and be able to talk to a player like him and learn from him.”
Wanamaker said that after most games, he calls his four siblings and they all talk about how wild it is that this is all really happening. He’s in the NBA, and his team is winning, and he’s an important part of it all.
“It’s been cool,” Wanamaker said. “You don’t want to get too high. It’s still early in the season. But I’m definitely cherishing every moment just being out there on the NBA court with an NBA team. That’s always been my dream, so just cherish every moment and try to make the best of it.”