On the night of the NBA Draft, Guerschon Yabusele crammed his 6-foot-7-inch, 260-pound body into a small seat among the fans at Barclays Center and hoped for the best.
Although he was not among the 20 or so elite prospects who had been invited to the arena’s floor level as the league’s special guests, he was eager to hear his name called at some point. Still, he was not ready for what happened next, as the Celtics selected him 16th overall, ahead of several players who remained in the green room.
“No, nobody was expecting,” the 20-year-old Frenchman said. “I knew there was interest, but I don’t believe that I’m going to be the 16th pick.”
Just like that, Yabusele became one of the Celtics’ more intriguing prospects of this summer.
The Celtics entered draft night with eight picks, and since they were unable to pull off a big trade, it was logical that they would pursue a player such as Yabusele, who would likely be a “draft and stash” candidate who would spend at least one season overseas without taking up a roster spot.
According to a league source, Yabusele has agreed to a one-year deal with the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association. Although the deal has not been officially signed yet, with bonuses Yabusele could make as much as $1.5 million next season, the source said. The Celtics will retain Yabusele’s NBA rights.
The CBA is generally thought of as less competitive than many high-level leagues around Europe, but the offer was the most lucrative one Yabusele received. The Sharks are owned by former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming. Former NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas played for the Sharks in 2012-13, and former Celtics guard Delonte West had a brief stint with the team in 2014.
Yabusele has known since draft night that being stashed overseas would be a likely option, and he remained open to the idea from the start.
“I’ve got to be better and come back better, more stronger,” he said last week.
Yabusele entered summer league play as something of an unknown, and in his first game in Salt Lake City he appeared lost at both ends of the floor. He was 1 for 5 from the field and committed six fouls in 22 minutes.
But Yabusele said he was a bit overcome by nerves in his debut, and that he was unprepared for the speed of the game. “Really fast,” he said. “Much faster than Europe.”
He developed a rhythm quickly over the next two weeks, averaging 8.2 points and 6 rebounds over eight summer league games. Although he made just 3 of 16 3-point attempts, he displayed a soft shooting touch and good form that should ultimately translate into better results.
“I just tried to be better,” he said, “tried to help my teammates and have less mistakes and try to play and have fun on the court.”
During Boston’s loss to Cleveland in the Vegas summer league playoffs, Yabusele rumbled through the lane and threw down a powerful one-handed dunk. It was just one play, but it offered a glimpse of his potential.
“When [other players] saw a big guy like this, they were like, ‘I don’t think he can run fast,’ and all that,” Yabusele said. “But I’m just playing, trying to show my skills, trying to show that I can run, trying to show I can defend, can shoot and a lot of stuff like that.”
Yabusele said he developed his agility at a young age. He was an avid soccer player growing up and also boxed.
Yabusele knows that if he wants to find a permanent spot with the Celtics, though, the work is just beginning. He would like to improve his ballhandling and conditioning, in addition to refining basic skills such as shooting and defense. He was told by the Shanghai Sharks that the team has an elite strength and conditioning program that is led by a former Houston Rockets staff member from Yao Ming’s time there, so the belief is he will be in good hands.
“The NBA will be my dream come true,” he said, “so I can’t just lay down or be slow or lazy. I just give everything on the court.”