Commentary

Chris Babb thrown in the fire

Called up from D-League, rookie aims to bring energy to lifeless Celtics

Updated: March 3, 2014, 9:12 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Late in the first quarter of Saturday's game against the Indiana Pacers, Chris Babb got the call from Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens to make his NBA debut. The rookie's first assignment? Defend All-Star Paul George.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

Babb, who signed a 10-day contract with Boston one day earlier, played only 1 minute, 38 seconds in his first NBA game, but showed a tiny glimpse of why he's here with some feisty defense against one of the league's top scorers.

The only points George generated during that 98-second span came when Brandon Bass called for a switch on a pick-and-roll and gave up a three-point play. Babb otherwise stayed attached to George, including on the final play of the first quarter, where he muscled George out of a post-up situation and contested a baseline fadeaway that clanged off iron.

[+] EnlargeChris Babb
Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty ImagesChris Babb impressed the Celtics' coaching staff during the preseason, emerging as a competitive defender and a capable 3-point shooter.

The Celtics were pondering a potential addition to the roster last week with an available spot and mounting injuries. But when veteran Gerald Wallace learned he needed season-ending knee surgery for a torn meniscus, Boston's need for a defensive-minded wing was heightened.

On Thursday, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge phoned head coach Mike Taylor of the Maine Red Claws, Boston's D-League affiliate, and told him the Celtics planned to ink Babb to a 10-day contract.

Babb, warming up on the court in Portland before a visit from the Canton Charge, got a quick jolt of nerves when he was summonsed to Taylor's office. And while he got the good news about his first NBA opportunity, he also received some bad news: Babb couldn't tell anyone in the locker room about his call-up.

Babb quietly texted a couple of members of his family, then went out and put up 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals over 40 minutes. He also hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:30 remaining that propelled Maine to a 110-105 triumph.

By the time the game ended, word had spread about Babb's promotion and he was finally able to revel in the news. Twelve hours later he was on the practice floor in Waltham with the Celtics prepping for this NBA debut.

"It was definitely unexpected," Babb admitted. "I kind of just thought I was going to grind out the rest of this D-League season and start over next year. Fortunately enough, the staff here gave me an opportunity."

Babb, who went undrafted out of Iowa State, came to training camp with the Celtics in September and was the last cut for a luxury-tax line tip-toeing team that wanted to give itself a bit of roster and salary flexibility while navigating the 2013-14 season.

But Babb certainly impressed in the preseason, emerging as a competitive defender and a capable 3-point shooter. The Celtics kept Babb around as long as possible. He even attended the team's glitzy Shamrock Gala and posed as part of team photos before being officially cut loose on Oct. 26.

He spurned bigger potential paydays overseas to latch on with the Red Claws in hopes of working his way to the NBA through the D-League. His stat line with Maine doesn't leap off the page -- 12 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals over 37.5 minutes per game -- but it was his defensive tenacity that stood out.

With Maine, Babb was credited with defending a team-high 353 plays this season and allowing only 0.748 points per play, according to Synergy Sports data. Often matched up against the opposing team's top scoring wing, Babb limited opponents to 34.9 percent shooting. What's more, opponents scored just 34.6 percent of total possessions against him. Of all players with at least 250 possessions defended this season in the D-League, Babb was second behind only Reno's Mo Charlo (33.3) in score percentage.

If the 24-year-old Babb is to extend his NBA stay beyond these 10 days, it'll likely hinge on showing he can be a consistent defender at this level when called upon (and probably the length of Boston's injury report, as well). He understands the need to carve out a clear role in which Stevens can lean on him.

"I think the biggest thing in the NBA is to find your niche," Babb said. "Find what you're good at, find where you are comfortable, and just stick with that and perfect it. I think a lot of guys try to do too much when they get this opportunity. I just want to continue to do what I've been doing."

What he's been doing is being a high-IQ player who's invested in the team. Babb thrives by making the right plays and being a good teammate. The Celtics have put a premium on that, as evidenced by Chris Johnson earning his spot here as a D-League call-up.

The Celtics liked what they saw from Babb at the start of the season. His 10-day pact ensures he'll be here for at least three more games with a chance to show he deserves to stick around for the end of the campaign.

"I loved him in the preseason. ... He impressed us every day in training camp," Stevens said. "If you remember, we kept him as long as we possibly could. Then when he was done, the last time I talked to him I just said, 'Keep doing what you're doing, because you made a huge impact on all of us.' And again, it goes back to not only what he does on the court, just the way he acts. He's a great team guy. He's a very good defender. So we're going to need a versatile defender on the wing, especially with limited numbers."

Babb and Johnson will share available wing minutes, but Stevens noted after the Indiana game that both players -- and their defensive energy -- tend to be infectious with teammates when they are on the floor.

As the Celtics navigate the final 22 games of the season, one of the more entertaining storylines might be how guys like Johnson and Babb take advantage of their opportunities and how they position themselves for the future.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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