Ibrahim Jaaber, a candidate for the fifth guard spot, is in a unique position with L.A.'s summer league team.
Playing on a Summer League team doesn't mean the same thing for every player on the floor. Some are first-round picks from this year or previous drafts with guaranteed contracts and plenty of buzz. Others are second- and third-year players, or second-round picks and former NBA'ers hoping to impress enough to stick on a roster. The majority, however, are free agents. Former college stars who have played either in the D-League or overseas, some sounding more familiar than others. (Among the more commonly heard sentiments when fans and media pull up a roster is "Hey, that guy!")
Ibrahim Jaaber, currently running the point for the Lakers and making at least a theoretical push for L.A.'s fifth guard slot, is in the latter group. Once a star at Penn, he has played the last two seasons in Italy, picking up a Bulgarian passport along the way and playing for their national team.
The value of becoming a naturalized citizen for a European team -- he now has dual citizenship -- has enormous financial value for Jaaber, allowing him to earn substantially more playing overseas than he can on a minimum deal in the NBA. It's a situation changing completely the context of his situation with the Lakers, as does the responsibility he feels to his family. “A lot of people don’t know I’ve got 12 brothers and sisters. So I try not to be selfish in my decision making. When I say secure my future, I’m not talking just about myself, I talk about the people around me I have the part of helping," he says.
I spoke to him for a few minutes after Tuesday's game about his situation, and more.
How did you end up playing for Bulgaria? As a naturalized Bulgarian citizen? Because you don’t look particularly Bulgarian.
“How did that happen? I had some success when I was in Greece. [The Bulgarian] national team coach [liked me.] It really was an opportunity that came to me. They wanted me as a naturalized citzen, to do some services and whatever. It was a good opportunity to secure a passport.”
(Note: Neither Jaaber nor his agent John Spencer was particularly interested providing much detail about the process. Not that I'm suggesting it wasn't on the up-and-up, but like many things in international basketball, I was left with a distinct impression the process was... quirky. But it's not uncommon for American players to secure foreign passports, because the financial incentives are strong.)
That helps you playing overseas? In terms of your value?
“Yeah. Definitely, because you become a commodity as a European player. Some teams get to have an extra American so to speak. That’s my value overseas. It’s really difficult trying to get into the league now, my value has a higher stock over there. Really I came out here to try and have some fun, but I think I’ll probably be looking back over the water.”
Do you like playing over there?
“Yeah, it’s real good. Beneficial. I would really enjoy playing over here, but I think financially to secure my future, it’s better to get the money while it’s available."
You’ve been in Italy for the last two seasons?
Do you think that’s where you’ll end up again?
“I haven’t really decided. A lot of options on the table. I’ll sit down with my team and go through the standard procedures.”
When people watch these games, do you think they understand the situation? How so many of the guys out here are playing with a different context?
"I don’t think they do, because they see guys out here. It’s like the basketball farm, the NBA dream everyone’s chasing. A lot of these guys have the opportunity, like I do, to go overseas and probably make more than the league minimum, but they do have the dream. And more power to them, if it’s what they want to do. Go for it. But I don’t think people would look at me and say this is [his actual situation]. They’d just see the basketball player chasing the NBA dream.”
It's not simply his unusual status as a dual US/Bulgarian citizen making Jaaber a unique presence. He told me about his interest in writing poetry and music, and how, while he's obviously interested in playing against the best competition at the highest level, perhaps the most appealing aspect of playing in the NBA is the platform it would provide to engage in what he described as "social change. Community involvement. Rebuilding communities."
Not surprising from a sociology major.
In the end, Jaaber likely goes down as a footnote in a part of the season generally seen as a footnote to the larger one, a name die-hard fans remember but most don't. Still, for the short time guys like him are in the Lakers' orbit, it's worth taking note.