Keep an Eye on Jabari Bird

Jabari Bird has shown off some flash and some fundamentals in the preseason for the Celtics. As a member of the first class of two-way contract players, it'll be interesting to see how players develop as the NBA has expanded 60 roster spots, with some oddly specific restrictions.

The Boston Celtics signed Jabari Bird, their 56th overall pick in 2017, to a two-way contract back on August 11. Right away, this puts him in a unique situation as this is the first year that two-way contracts have even existed.

I’m excited about two-way deals because it expands rosters from 15 to 17 in a year where the Celtics if it’s possible, have a surplus of young talent. Still, the new deal comes with an odd but necessary restriction that a two-way player can only spend 45 days with their NBA team over the course of the season.

Having a 45 day roster expansion period where a team can decide exactly which 45 days they want to have more players on their roster feels…exploitable? Will teams call up their players to have a deeper roster when playing against an injury-ridden team? Will teams respond by strategically calling up their own two-way players to make up for it? Is there incentive to not use up your 45 days too early in case you need an extra body later? It turns out 45 days isn’t the maximum when you consider that players can be called up after the G League season ends to join their NBA team, even if all 45 days have been used up. (Source)

NBA agents are also wary of two-way deals because it no longer allows players to be called up by any team except the one they signed the deal with. If it’s a bad situation, you’re stuck, and that’s that. It seems like a fairly harmless situation but there are always trade requests, and adding 60 players to the NBA can only mean there will be more, especially if somebody feels underutilized. As long as the Dwight Howards of the world exist, there will always be players who feel they aren’t used properly even if the ball is stuck in their palms for 15 seconds of each shot clock (after calling for the ball for the first nine). I don’t foresee the Celtics misusing much talent in the near future, but it’ll be interesting to see Jabari Bird (and Kadeem Allen for that matter) as a guinea pig in uncharted territory.

Legal text aside, I’m grateful for the fact that we’ll be seeing a lot of Jabari Bird minutes this year, even if most of them will play in Maine. The G League, formerly the D League, has not yet proven to be a beacon of young talent waiting to be unleashed, but I suspect the level of competition will increase now that each team will have two players deemed worthy of a two-way deal.

As for Bird himself, he joins the roster as one of many second-round picks with an affinity for scoring. In the early rounds of the draft, Danny Ainge has taken some high-risk players in the form of Jaylen Brown, or Marcus Smart, for example, who already had the physique of an NBA player but lacked the finesse to consistently score. Ainge’s second-round picks, Jabari Bird, Semi Ojeleye, and Abdel Nader among them, have all shown that they can contribute to the offense right away.

Midway through the Celtics’ third preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jayson Tatum tried to corral an alley-oop pass but found himself landing in the camera crew after Semi Ojeleye collided with him under the basket. Later in the game, Jabari Bird and Kadeem Allen gave us this gem:

Obviously, these are both isolated events, but the night-and-day difference between them highlights the finesse that Jabari Bird has. You can make the same comparison with Guerschon Yabusele, who is a great defender, but is as clumsy as two Kelly Olynyks combined, as he flies through the air for rebounds he has no chance of getting a hand on and often picks up silly fouls if he happens to land on somebody’s shoulder. I’m not complaining, but all I’m saying is that I have yet to slap myself in the forehead while watching Jabari Bird.

The current guard rotation for Boston includes Kyrie Irving in the starting lineup with Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Shane Larkin coming off the bench. Shane Larkin has a one year deal while Marcus Smart is due for an extension that supposedly has not been discussed much, even within a week of the deadline. This leaves the Celtics one injury and one failed negotiation away from having an unreasonably thin guard rotation, which would be Bird’s best (but not only) opportunity to become a mainstay on the roster. Every roster has players on the end of the bench who are looking to take their teammate's jobs, and Bird is that guy right now. Most players don't break through, especially second-round picks, but he's worth keeping an eye on as he'll probably start most games for the Red Claws in Maine. 

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