The final bell rings at Biddeford High School and kids begin to file out of their classrooms. The Maine Red Claws, displaced from their usual abode at the Portland Expo Center, concluded the day’s practice only minutes ago. Just as players finish changing into street clothes, the after-school rush hits the gym. “Extracurricular activity” is a phrase that gets thrown around frequently in professional basketball (usually to denote an in-game skirmish) but in this situation, the phrase seems a little more appropriate.
As the chatter of students fills the room, 21-year-old Guerschon Yabusele, the 6’9, 270-pound power forward, takes in his surroundings.
“It’s my first time coming into a high school gym,” Yabusele says laughing, his voice dripping in a strong French accent. “Now the kids are coming to the gym because school is out. It’s funny to see a little bit of American school.”
There are no autograph seekers in the bunch. In fact, none of the teenagers even try to talk to Yabusele. A year from now, they might remember this moment and regret that. A year from now, they might turn on their TV and see him decked in green, striding across the famous TD Garden parquet.
Of Yabusele’s many nicknames, “The Dancing Bear” is one of his favorites. Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry bestowed it on him during a Celtics predraft workout as a compliment of his impeccable footwork.
“That’s good, that’s funny at the same time. People like it,” Yabusele said. “He said that because of my footwork, so to me that’s too funny and I laugh when people call me like that.”
Yabusele’s credits childhood boxing sessions with his father and years of playing soccer as the foundation for his basketball moves.
“Definitely the footwork, the quick of the hands, it has really helped me a lot with basketball and you can see right now on the court when I’m running that I’m moving pretty well for my weight.”
Yabusele has also been called the French Draymond, drawing comparisons to the Warriors’ Draymond Green due to his size and playing style.
“He’s a good comparison. Our game is similar… [we] really try to help the team get the win. I think before that, we didn’t have a power forward that could really control the game like he does.”
The Celtics were so impressed with Yabusele, they selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. The move surprised many draft analysts as well Yabusele.
“It was really a surprise,” Yabusele said. “Everybody was surprised. Me, my agent, nobody knew so it was amazing.”
When Yabusele finally had the chance to speak with Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge during the 2016 NBA Summer League, the Celtics legend was quick to give him advice.
“He was just saying to work on my game, play smart, and have confidence.”
During Summer League, Yabusele befriended fellow Celtics 1st round draft pick, Jaylen Brown. He considers Brown one of his closest American friends and says the two have frequently talked through the ups and downs of the season.
When the preseason ended, the Celtics had a deep roster and some tough choices to make. They decided to let Yabusele play overseas, thereby giving him another year to develop, and also freeing a spot on the roster. Yabusele was an international free agent and received contract offers from teams in several different countries.
“A couple clubs wanted me and then China came,” Yabusele said. “It really came at a good time.”
Yabusele signed a contract with the Shanghai Sharks. Shanghai is the most populated city in China and the team is owned by NBA Hall of Famer, Yao Ming.
“[Yao] was there every day, even in the beginning of the season and the preseason too,” Yabusele explained. “He’d even come to the restaurants with us. He’s very close to the team. Every home game, he came to the locker room to talk to us a little.”
Yao saw the great potential in his team’s newest star and tried to help him with the transition to the Chinese Basketball Association.
“He was just telling me to keep playing with a lot of energy, work on my offense, build up the confidence, grab some rebounds… and try to win a championship!”
Over 43 games, Yabusele dominated, averaging 20.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Even with those numbers, he wasn’t the best performer on his team. Former NBA and D-League player Jimmer Fredette held that honor. Fredette, the CBA’s closest proxy to Steph Curry, was named MVP after averaging 37.6 points per game and scoring 73 points in a game (the fourth most ever in a CBA game).
“I never played with a great shooter like that. That was something new for me,” Yabusele said with a deep chuckle. “I was happy to pass him the ball when he was on fire from 3.”
After Yabusele injured his ankle, the Sharks’ season ended with a playoff defeat. He enjoyed his time in China overall except for an incident after that final playoff loss.
“Somebody stole my jersey! I don’t know who,” Yabusele said, laughing. “I heard about Tom Brady’s jersey getting stolen, but he got his back. I didn’t get mine back, but it’s okay though.”
Following the conclusion of the season in early March, Yabusele returned to Boston to receive treatment for his injured ankle. One of the first people to visit him was his good friend Jaylen Brown. Yabusele also had a chance to meet the rest of the Celtics players. After rehabbing, he signed into the D-League to play with the Celtics’ affiliate, the Maine Red Claws, for the remainder of their season.
Yabusele feels a strong connection to his fellow Frenchman in the NBA. Growing up, he watched the first generation of impactful French players, Tony Parker and Boris Diaw. Strangely enough, Yabusele has never met either player.
“I think Parker is the most popular French player,” Yabusele said. “When we were growing up, he was the role model. He has a lot of championships with the Spurs. He has a lot of good experience with the French team Asvel. I think a lot of French guys who want to go to NBA, they want to be as much as possible like him, having all of the playoff titles, and the championship with the French team.”
In 2010, a 14-year-old Yabusele tried out for the top-tier French team, Cholet. One player stood out among the others; a 7-ft tower of a human-being. It was a 17-year-old Rudy Gobert (who is now a star center on the Utah Jazz). Yabusele didn’t make the team but six years later, the two happened to reconnect:
“When I played in Utah for the Summer League, he came to say hi. He just remembered me like that.”
If Yabusele makes the Celtics roster next season, he may finally get his chance to meet Parker and Diaw, and play against Gobert.
When Yabusele worked out for teams prior to the draft, he ran into another successful Frenchman, who was eager to help:
“I met Evan Fournier at the workout in Orlando. He gave me some good advice how to do everything on the court and how to make the NBA.”
Yabusele wants to pass on the good will and has a message for young French players who aspire to make the Association.
“For the French players, keep working and we’ll get more French guys in the NBA,” Yabusele said. “You have to work hard every day; you have to know where you want to go and have confidence. The NBA is just a dream but it will only come true if you work. So you have to work hard and everything is basketball.”
Following his own advice, Yabusele looks to lead the Red Claws to a championship, and showcase his developing talent to the Celtics brass.
The D-League is another step forward in the long journey that his taken Yabusele almost 13 thousand miles from Dreux, France to Shanghai, China to Portland, Maine. After literally traveling around the world, what’s another 100 miles to Boston?