With 3 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter of the Celtics’ game against the Mavericks on Friday night, coach Brad Stevens turned to the bench and told guard Brad Wanamaker to check in for Terry Rozier.
Sure, the Celtics were without point guard Kyrie Irving, so their backcourt depth was limited. But Irving has been sidelined before, and it never resulted in Wanamaker entering an important game so soon.
In fact, before Friday he’d played just 98 minutes all season, mostly when a game’s outcome had been decided and stars were being given rest. So when Stevens called his number, Wanamaker was as surprised as anyone.
“Honestly, I was like, ‘What? What? What?’ ” Wanamaker said, smiling. “Nah, but I just tried to go out there and do the right thing, make the right plays, and keep the guys going that were in there.”
It did not take long for Wanamaker to find a rhythm. After Dallas sliced the Celtics’ 10-point first-quarter lead to 3, he calmly drilled two 3-pointers over the final 38 seconds, helping Boston take a 34-23 lead to the second quarter.
Wanamaker finished the 114-93 win with 8 points, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 2 rebounds in 22 minutes.
“Oh, man, that was good,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “I’m glad. I was ecstatic for him to see him get in there. That guy, he comes into practice every day and he works, not knowing if he’s going to play or not, but he comes in with a great and positive attitude every day. So to see him finally get in there and get some minutes and get a great sweat going and actually knocking down shots is something this team enjoys.”
As a cluster of reporters surrounded Wanamaker after the game, one asked him what it did for his confidence as a young player to hit those two 3-pointers so quickly. Wanamaker smiled.
“I’m not young,” he said. “I’m 29.”
Yes, Wanamaker is an NBA rookie, but he spent the past seven years playing professionally in Europe, most recently for the Turkish EuroLeague powerhouse Fenerbahce.
Last summer, Wanamaker passed up a much more lucrative deal to stay in Europe in order to chase his NBA dream, as he signed a one-year, minimum-salary contract with the Celtics for $838,000.
Wanamaker had seen former EuroLeague teammate Daniel Theis make a similar move the year before and emerge as a consistent contributor for Boston, and surely he envisioned something similar for himself. But the Celtics are impossibly deep this season, and there simply have not been many opportunities for Wanamaker.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “The key word is challenging. I’m just trying to stay mentally prepared. I’m getting a lot of feedback from my family, friends, just saying, ‘Stay ready.’ They’ve seen the story many times where guys don’t play and then the second half of the season the coach finally starts calling their number. Tonight was my turn and he called me and I just tried to do the best I could do.”
Smart said it is common for players with roles as small as Wanamaker’s to simply blend into the background during practices. They understand where they stand, so they almost feel out of place asserting themselves among their more established teammates. But Smart said that has not been the case with Wanamaker this season.
“It’s the opposite with him,” Smart said. “He’s in the drills. He’s doing things like he’s playing 30 minutes a night. And that’s good for him and his confidence. And then for the team, because as you can see we’re down a couple of guys, it’s going to take other guys to step up.”
Irving, who has missed the last two games after being scratched in both eyes during the loss to the Spurs last Monday, is expected to return against the Nets this Monday. And it is certainly possible, if not likely, that Wanamaker will now go back to waiting for his next chance. But his performance against Dallas showed that if it arrives again, he will probably be prepared for it.
“You’re really happy for him,” Stevens said. “This is a guy that probably turned down a ton of money overseas to get a chance to play in the NBA for the first time. He doesn’t get to play, and has never been through that before in his life, where he doesn’t get to play. So you’re really, really happy for him. That’s one that the whole team feels good about, for sure.”