Call him French Draymond or Dancing Bear, Celtics rookie forward Guerschon Yabusele has earned a number of nicknames for his distinctive size and playing style.
“That kid is a freak of nature,” Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown told ESPN earlier this year, adding that he had never seen “somebody so big and so mobile.”
A nimble 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward, Yabusele grew up in France playing soccer and boxing as his first sports. After playing the 2015-16 season in the top French league as a 20-year-old, he was drafted by the Celtics with the 16th overall pick.
But unlike Brown, a fellow first-round pick who played with the Celtics last season, Boston stashed Yabusele overseas. In 43 games with the Shanghai Sharks, he averaged 20.9 points and 9.4 rebounds. He then joined the Maine Red Claws for two G-League regular season games, in which his strength and outside range garnered headlines.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) April 2, 2017
Yabusele missed this past NBA Summer League due to dual ankle surgery, but is now healthy and pleasantly surprising his Celtics teammates in training camp.
“That kid can play,” Al Horford recently told the Boston Herald.
What the scouts say:
“We used to call guys like this ‘tweeners, but now we call them a small-ball four man,” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said during the 2016 NBA Draft, describing Yabusele as a Larry Johnson-like player with shooting range.
“He can block it. He can dunk it. And this what he does that the Celtics like: He can stretch the defense,” Fraschilla said.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 14, 2017
According to DraftExpress, Yabusele’s 7-foot-2 wingspan and above average leaping ability help compensate for his relative lack of height (for a power forward). In addition to his physical strengths — light feet, explosiveness in space, running the court — the 21-year-old is said to have good offensive upside as a shooter and scorer.
Yabusele shot 42.6 percent and 36.4 percent from three-point range during his last two seasons abroad. But his scouting tape also features a soft finishing touch — and even a floater — inside, along with more than a few powerful dunks.
The Frenchman is not, however, without his weaknesses. Despite being a skilled offensive rebounder, the same cannot yet be said for Yabusele’s ability to collect boards on the other end of the court, due to his size, awareness, and average standstill jumping ability.
“I’d say the key to his development will probably be improving as a defensive rebounder,” said ESPN analyst Kevin Pelton. “His translated defensive rebound percentage is 16.9 percent, which is below average for a power forward (18.4 percent). Through two preseason games, Yabusele has grabbed 15 rebounds (10 defensive, five offensive) in just 31 minutes on the floor.
According to Draft Express, Yabusele is also somewhat undisciplined on the defensive side and, despite his quick-footedness, often errs reaching for steals, falling for shot fakes, and navigating screens. His preseason debut last Monday looked particularly shaky. In addition to posting zero points and two turnovers in 15 minutes, Yabusele looked “lost” at times on defense.
Yabu's defense scared me tonight. Gets turned over by Lamb here, knocks the ball out, then loses him in the corner as CHA recovers the ball. pic.twitter.com/ZUrCm8HPIn
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) October 3, 2017
Yabusele seemed to be floating without much purpose on defense. It looked like the footwork is off. CHA players gave him trouble on dribble.
— Bobby Manning (@RealBobManning) October 3, 2017
Still, Pelton says the Celtics rookie’s offensive versatility and “solid block rate” are encouraging and projects him to average 13.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per 36 minutes in the NBA this season.
Guerschon Yabusele is ? from the corner pic.twitter.com/rRx5my9Ynq
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) September 28, 2017
What will his role be?
“I think he’s going to have an opportunity,” Horford told the Herald. “I had no idea. I had no idea that he could play like this. This has been a really good surprise.”
According to the Herald, Yabusele “figures to be in the rotation” as opposed to being at the end of the bench. He’ll be bidding for time against big men like Horford and Aron Baynes (who, listed at 6-foot-10, are the Celtics’ tallest players) and forwards like Marcus Morris and fellow rookies Jason Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis.
Hardwood Houdini frames Yabusele’s current role as a battle with Ojeleye to be Marcus Morris’s backup. Another possibility would be for the bruising big man to anchor the Celtics’ small ball unit at the five.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens, the man who will ultimately decide how much Celtics fans see the Dancing Bear, told the Herald that Yabusele looked a lot more polished this training camp than he did last summer.
“He’s had a good start,” Stevens said. “You know, he’s going to learn the spacing of things, he’s going to learn kind of what we’re trying to do on both ends, but he’s very smart and he provides another big body that can shoot the ball and pass the ball.”
Off the court:
According to ESPN, Yabusele relaxed during his limited free time in China dining at Morton’s Steakhouse and touring the world’s second tallest building, the Shanghai Tower. But he called the transition living in a new city and country a “challenge.” In comparison, coming to the United States has been much less of a culture shock.
“I always say America is not much different than France,” he told reporters during Celtics media day. “It’s pretty much the same. The lifestyle is the same. You can find the same restaurants and the food is pretty much the same.”
Plus, Boston also has a Morton’s.
Yabusele also seems to embrace the playful nicknames he’s been bestowed. Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry reportedly coined “Dancing Bear” last year as a compliment of the big man’s “impeccable footwork.”
“People like it,” Yabusele told NBA.com earlier this year. “He said that because of my footwork, so to me that’s too funny and I laugh when people call me like that.”
His friend and draftmate Brown has concurred that he thinks the Dancing Bear nickname is best.
But Yabusele isn’t opposed to the comparisons being drawn to Draymond Green, the ever-versatile Golden State Warriors star.
“Our game is similar… [we] really try to help the team get the win,” he told NBA.com. “I think before that, we didn’t have a power forward that could really control the game like he does.”
Beyond their size and style, Yabusele also appears to have adopted Green’s flair for showmanship during his time playing ball in China, and even once casually unleashed an in-game Karl Malone-style dunk.
“When he was in France, he never did a lot of celebrations,” Austin Ainge, the Celtics director of player personnel, told ESPN. “But in China, after every shot or dunk, he is doing different dances and celebrations.”
Seems fitting for the Dancing Bear.