LAS VEGAS – Brad Stevens has raised eyebrows in the past by likening Guerschon Yabusele’s playmaking potential to the playmaking ability of five-time All-Star Al Horford.
Yabusele raised eyebrows Saturday afternoon by substantiating Stevens’ claims during the final minutes of Boston’s 74-72 win over the Miami Heat.
The Celtics led by as many as 14 points during the fourth quarter of the contest, but Miami stormed back to make it a four-point game entering the final three minutes of play. That’s when head coach Jay Larranaga decided it was time to run the offense through Yabusele in the post, after the big man was primarily utilized only in pick-and-rolls during the first 37 minutes of the contest.
Yabusele began posting up just outside of the left elbow for the next two minutes, and as a result, Boston began creating quality and game-altering looks around the basket.
The first arrived off of a give-and-go between Yabusele and point guard Pierria Henry. Henry tossed an entry pass to Yabusele outside the elbow and then rubbed off of Yabusele, using him as a screener, for a cut to the basket. Yabusele quickly read the defense and tossed a soft pass over the top of the defense to Henry for an uncontested layup under the basket.
Henry inexplicably missed the layup, but the wheels had already been set into motion for what Boston would run during its next two offensive possessions.
After Miami cut the Celtics’ lead down to two, squeezing them into a pressure-filled possession, Boston went back to Yabusele in the same location. This time, Yabusele waited for Henry to clear through, and then locked in on Justin Bibbs, who was cutting off of a screen set by Jarell Eddie on the opposite side of the court.
Bibbs came free off the screen, and Yabusele tossed a perfect jump pass to him into the center of the paint. Bibbs then turned and dropped in a beautiful kiss off the glass to double Boston’s lead up to four.
Miami turned it over on its next possession, and you might be able to guess where the C’s turned after they brought the ball up the court: right back to Yabusele outside the left elbow.
Boston ran the exact same action yet again, and this time, Yabusele tossed a perfect bounce pass to the cutting Bibbs for an uncontested layup.
That stretch of play, which built a six-point lead for the Celtics with only 1:17 left on the clock, was the most critical juncture of the game. Boston turned to Yabusele’s playmaking to lead it to victory, and it worked – three times in a row.
“He’s a ball-handling big guy,” Larranaga said of Yabusele after the win. “He has very good court vision. You compare him to a Kelly Olynyk, a Boris Diaw, guys like that that are most dangerous when they have the ball in the post as passers.”
That comment sounds a lot like those Stevens has made about Yabusele in the past. Maybe it’s time to start believing in them.
Yabusele is entering just his second season with the Celtics. As such, his working knowledge of the offensive system is far more advanced than it was at this time last year.
He also has a full season under his belt of observing one of the top playmaking big men in the league in Horford. Those factors combined to teach the youngster many lessons during the last year, all while helping to improve his comfort level in the system.
“It’s better,” he said of his comfort level, “because I’ve spent one year with the Celtics and with Al Horford, and I was looking at him and the way he plays and the way he comes at the game. So just spending one year on the bench, looking at him, was very important for me.”
It must be noted that it’s rare for a player to enter the league a rookie and immediately understand how to play with the ball in his hands. Sharpening that ability is a process, and Yabusele, as he enters his second season in the league, is beginning to run instead of walk when it comes to that process.
“You remember even guys in our past like Evan Turner and Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart,” said Larranaga, as he explained the development path for players who are asked to make plays with the ball in their hands. “All of these guys have been the most physically gifted players their age, and they were able to get away with a lot of things until the NBA. Now in the NBA, you have the most physically gifted of the most physically gifted, and you need to adjust.
“You need to figure out, ‘OK, what can I do here? Am I going to get my shot blocked if I drive against this guy? How quick can this guy close out on me? Can I get my 3 off?’ So I just think that’s repetitions of playing against the elite athleticism that we have in the NBA.”
Yabusele has now been doing so for a full 12 months. That time has allowed him to better understand Boston’s offensive system, and how to read defenses in the NBA and make quick decisions.
At the ripe age of 22 years old, he’s still in the development stage of his career. But if Saturday’s clutch-time performance was any indication, maybe Stevens is on to something when he says that Yabusele has the potential to become a playmaker with the ball in his hands, in the same mold as Horford.
After all, Boston is moving on to the quarterfinals of Summer League because of such skills. Without them, the Celtics would likely be heading home.