Remember when a prospective employer would tell you to get the job you needed experience, but to get the experience you needed the job? That’s about where Jabari Bird finds himself now.
Bird is overqualified for summer league by some standards, given his experience and recent performance. The Celtics’ 2017 second-round pick also might be underqualified for the NBA, so he is using Las Vegas as an audition in hopes of landing a full-time contract in the association.
But will he land the role?
The Celtics extended a qualifying offer to Bird for $77,250, the same amount he earned last year as a two-way player between Boston and their G League affiliate in Portland, Maine, according to CelticsBlog contributor Keith Smith. As such, the 24-year-old Cal product became a restricted free agent, and the C’s can match any offer sheet he signs on the open market.
The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn in the early morning hours of July 1, just after free agency opened at midnight, that the 76ers and Timberwolves showed initial interest in Bird. But that market dried up, a league source told Parquet Post. Bird “hasn’t gotten very far” with any team, the source said, and is holding out hope that his play in Vegas “equates to more interest.”
Through three games in Sin City, Bird is averaging 18 points on 58 percent shooting. He scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, knocking down both his 3-pointers in a 20-point win over the Hornets on Monday. Like James Nunnally, whom the Celtics inquired about for the team’s final wing spot, Bird is a lengthy wing with eyes on a 3-and-D spot on an NBA roster spot in 2018-19.
Unlike Nunnally (the 27-year-old Fenerbahce forward who we chronicled here last week), Bird isn’t interested in going overseas to fill that role. “I’m an NBA player. That’s it,” Bird told John Karalis for Boston.com. “G League, NBA, I’m going to be in the States doing what I do. I got drafted last year, that’s one foot in the door. I’m a restricted free agent, that’s another foot.”
In other words, Bird will sign his $77,250 qualifying offer if he can’t land a full-time minimum NBA contract of $1,349,383 from the Celtics or another team for his second season. That would split his time between the C’s and Red Claws, as it did last season, when he played 13 games in Boston and another 20 in Maine. A midseason back injury hindered his workload as a rookie.
Bird projects as a two-way wing, and he’s shown flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball. There was the 15-point outburst and chase-down block in a game against the Bulls this past April. And there was the 24-point, three-steal effort against the Nuggets in Vegas just last week.
“He’s an excellent cutter, he’s an excellent shooter,” C’s assistant Jay Larranaga told reporters in Vegas, “ and 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.”
That “growing as a defender” line gives you pause, as does Bird’s subpar 32.5 percent shooting from distance in the G League. (To be fair, his NBA 3-point sample size is small compared to the college line, where he shot 37 percent on more than four attempts per game over four seasons.) It’s hard to imagine the Celtics handing their 15th and final roster spot to a 3-and-D wing who needs work on both ends — unless they believe in his potential and he gets an offer elsewhere.
That offer has yet to come, and Bird has only tournament play left in Vegas to prove his value.
The Celtics have $111 million guaranteed to 11 players in 2018-19, and that doesn’t include Marcus Smart. Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader are all signed to non-guaranteed contracts. (Although, Ojeleye and Nader are partially guaranteed for $900,000 and $4000,000, respectively.) If all return, there’s no roster spot for Bird. Theis and Ojeleye are locks to be back.
Nader is the one Bird is battling for that last spot, and he needs polish on the 3 and the D, too. The C’s might prefer to keep that 15th roster spot open for a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency situation on the buyout market if they can’t find a marked upgrade this summer, especially if Smart pushes them against the luxury tax line. That would leave both out of a full-time job.
The guess here is the C’s prefer to keep Bird right where he is — developing in their system on a cheap two-way deal that doesn’t impact the salary cap and maintains roster flexibility. Then, the only thing left unanswered is whether his Vegas showing drums up intrigue from a rival.