LAS VEGAS — Jabari Bird does not give off the vibe of someone who is navigating the pressures of playing for an NBA roster spot. On the court, whether ignoring gravity for a moment as he hangs in midair, or slicing toward the hoop with a sudden and forceful cut, he appears at ease.
And off the court, his countenance is even more comfortable. He smiles when he talks about trying to make it onto an NBA team. He smiles when he talks about uncertainty.
“Just try to have fun with it, that’s the main thing,” Bird said late Saturday night, after a sparkling 24-point performance against the Nuggets. “I’ve worked all summer and I’ve worked hard my whole life. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves on the court. I’m just thankful to be a part of a great organization right now, and they’re letting me showcase my skills.”
Bird, who was selected by the Celtics with the 56th pick of the 2017 draft, is in a somewhat unusual position at the Las Vegas summer league. Last season he was one of Boston’s “two-way players,” spending the majority of the season with the team’s G-League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, while also crafting a few eye-opening performances with the Celtics.
The 6-foot-6-inch wing displayed NBA promise, and the Celtics ultimately extended him a qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent. If Bird signs an offer sheet with another team, Boston will have the right to match it. He could also just sign with the Celtics, or if no NBA contract is on the table, he could just sign the qualifying offer and return as a two-way player for another season.
But the bottom line is that every time he steps on a court this week, he is at once auditioning for the Celtics and the rest of the league. In an odd way, it might even be best for the Celtics if Bird does not play so well, because that could simply drum up interest elsewhere.
“You have to compete each and every day because there is always someone trying to come for your job,” Bird said. “Being on a two-way last year, I was hungry and trying to prove myself. Going into the summer as a restricted free agent, I’m just trying to prove myself again, so I can be on a roster. Whether it’s a two-way or a 1 through 15 [roster spot], I’m just trying to be an NBA player full time, really.”
Despite the recent stalemate, the Celtics are expected to bring back guard Marcus Smart, most likely on a one-year, $6 million qualifying offer or by matching whatever offer sheet he signs with another team. That would leave Boston with one available roster spot.
The Celtics often prefer to enter training camp with an open spot to maintain roster flexibility. But if Bird signs an offer sheet with another team this summer, it could force the Celtics’ hand if they view Bird as a potential contributor.
The Celtics have plenty of big-money contracts, a number that figures to mushroom in the coming years, as Kyrie Irving enters free agency and Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and eventually Jayson Tatum move off of their rookie deals. So for the Celtics there is and will continue to be great value in finding low-cost pieces capable of contributing, and Bird would seem to fit that classification for now.
“He’s an excellent cutter, he’s an excellent shooter,” Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga said. “He’s growing as a defender, which I think is going to be the next big step for him, because he’s incredibly talented and makes some spectacular plays. So just as he improves at the defensive end of the floor and embraces that, I think he’s got a really bright future.”
Larranaga said Bird can continue to grow as a defender by becoming more efficient at that end of the floor. But his offensive arsenal is already quite polished, as evidenced by several spectacular plays in Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets, from a 180-degree baseline slam to the use of a jarring hesitation dribble that led to a layup.
Bird understands that each one of these plays could pique a prospective suitor’s interest a bit more. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to start stressing about those possibilities.
“It’s part of being a pro,” he said. “All I can do is worry about what’s in front of me. I can’t worry about what’s going on behind the scenes. I have a great agent and he’s handling it for me. If he has some news for me, I’m pretty sure he’ll tell me.”