The last time he was seen in an NBA arena, the story didn't end well for Von Wafer.
Wafer was 23 years old and playing a prominent role on a Houston Rockets team that looked to go deep in the postseason out West in 2009. But the young guard clashed with coach Rick Adelman during Houston's second-round playoff series with the Lakers, griping about being pulled out late in a game when he wanted crunch-time minutes. The two exchanged harsh words, Wafer was kicked off of the Rockets' bench, and a week later, the Rockets were out of the playoffs and Wafer's time in Houston was over.
He ended up fleeing the country and leaving the NBA behind, testing the international waters briefly with the Greek Euroleague club Olympiacos Piraeus. He quickly decided that he missed the NBA game too much and he needed to get back — but since returning to the States last December, he still hasn't played a minute in the Association. He's still looking for another chance, and this summer, the Celtics were there to take a chance on him.
But in Boston, there will be no complaining about minutes. Wafer's found himself buried in the deepest depth chart in the league, and he knew that coming in. Whatever role he gets, he'll take it and like it.
"I just want to get on the court," Wafer said. "I guess it's valuable, shooting, doing what I can do. But I just want to get on the court and just play."
It's been a long road back to the NBA. The Rockets briefly tried in December to bring Wafer back, but the young guard failed a physical when back problems turned up. He caught on in February with the Mavericks, signing a 10-day contract, but he never took the court. He's been playing a whole lot of the waiting game, and not much basketball, over the last 12 months.
"I've just been through a lot of rehab, just trying to get my back back together," he said. "And just waiting on this, this moment right here, waiting on it, praying that it would come. And now it's here, so I've got to try to make the most of it."
It's been tough for Wafer to fight for minutes in the Celtics' rotation. Back in Houston, he was a fringe starter for a good team; in Boston, he's trapped behind Ray Allen and Delonte West in his quest for minutes at the shooting guard spot. He's forced to compete with camp invitee Mario West for a shot at making the Celtics' roster.
"It's difficult," Wafer said. "But you know, that's the card I was dealt, man. You've just got to fight through it. It's difficult, frustrating at times, that I want to get in there and mix it up, get my legs under me in scrimmages and do all that. But that's the card I was dealt, so I've just got to play my hand the best I can."
There's no doubt the kid can play. He proved that with the Rockets — he averaged 9.7 points per game in the regular season and even came off the bench and dropped 21 on the Blazers in a playoff game in '09. He's always been there for instant offense, but fitting into the Celtics' system is more complicated than that. It's a work in progress.
"He's up and down," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We told him there was a difference between Celtics speed and the speed that he's playing at. And I give him credit — I think the last three days, he's really starting to come on. He's playing harder. He's starting to get our defense. I'm not that concerned with him offensively. I think he is, because he hasn't made a lot of shots yet, but you know he can. I think he's starting to figure me out. I told him I could care less about his misses. He can shoot — he's a great shooter. So I'm not too concerned there."
"It's going to come," Wafer said of his lagging jump shot. "I think he knows that me being a jump shooter, I've got to get my legs under me. I think he knows that, because he hasn't told me to stop shooting yet. But this is normal for me. This isn't anything that's not normal. I've been playing basketball for a long time, and this is a process that you have to go through. You just have to get your legs under you, you just have to get in game shape. When I get my legs under me and get in game shape, I'll be good to go."
With Delonte West briefly sidelined this week, taking some time to recover from back spasms, Wafer has gotten his chance to play with the Celtics' second unit. Having seasoned vets like Shaquille O'Neal and Marquis Daniels by his side has helped, and Wafer is learning to play at the Celtics' aggressive pace by scrimmaging against a starting lineup packed with future Hall of Famers.
"He's learning the system," captain Paul Pierce said of Wafer. "He's coming along, picking up things nicely each and every day, getting better. He's a really good shooter and scorer. You know, he's just taking it all in stride. It's tough when you come into a new team, trying to learn a new system, so he's just taking it all day by day."
At some point in the near future, Wafer might settle into an increased role in Boston. West will be suspended for the first 10 games of the regular season, and Wafer's the odds-on favorite to take a solid chunk of the minutes at shooting guard backing up Allen. When his number's called, Wafer's bound to be ready. He's here in Boston hoping to get his time to shine.
"I hope," he said. "I wish. That would be great. But you know, whatever I'm given, I'm just going to try to make the most of it. I'm just expecting the worst. Anything that I get is going to be good for me. When you look for the worst, then whatever happens is a positive. If it happens, good. If it doesn't happen, I'm not going to get down on myself about it."
This is the new Von Wafer — older, wiser, and willing to accept whatever role he's given. In the coming weeks, it might be a big one.