Danny Ainge figures that he watches at least two full basketball games per day, whether college, NBA, or European. And some days, he’ll watch as many as six, catching West Coast NBA games late at night after his wife and children have gone to bed.
The Celtics president of basketball operations estimates that he’s on road for about 100 days per year, scouting all over the country and globe, and that members of the Celtics personnel staff are on the road just as much, if not more.
“I’m just a firm believer in work and in outworking and out-scouting and out-film-watching,” Ainge said. “As a staff, we have great workers and people dedicated to trying to get it right.”
Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t. Such is the nature of the NBA Draft, which is Thursday.
The Celtics hold the No. 6 and No. 17 picks in the first round, and impact players should be available among a crop of prospects that scouts and executives consider to be among the best in years, especially up top.
But every draft is filled with uncertainties to some degree. After all, who ever could have guessed that Bill Russell would have turned out to be Bill Russell? Some players are derailed by injury (Greg Oden), while others are flat-out flops (Darko Milicic, Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi).
All in all, drafting is, at best, an inexact science.
Ainge has been in his role with the Celtics since 2003, and in that time, he has a mixed draft record, as do most executives.
He has hit on some players: Rajon Rondo (21st overall, 2006), Al Jefferson (15th, 2004), Jared Sullinger (21st, 2012), Tony Allen (25th, 2004), Avery Bradley (19th, 2010), and Kendrick Perkins (27th, 2003). Their first-round selection of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk in 2013 also looks promising.
And Ainge has missed on others: Marcus Banks (13th, 2003), J.R. Giddens (30th, 2008), JaJuan Johnson (27th, 2011), Fab Melo (22d, 2012), Troy Bell (16th, 2003), and MarShon Brooks (25th, 2011).
While the Celtics technically drafted Bell and Brooks, both players were dealt on draft night to other teams. Just the same, the Celtics never technically drafted Rondo and Perkins, but did acquire both players in draft-night deals.
No team strikes gold every year, though Oklahoma City and San Antonio do more often than most. In a three-year span, the Thunder picked Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. The Spurs, meanwhile, have drafted Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Goran Dragic, and Kawhi Leonard.
Leading up to the draft, Ainge delved into his philosophies on the process, and not surprisingly, at least some of them can be traced back to Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach.
“I talked with Red a lot, back when I was a player and when I got the job here,” Ainge said. “Red’s advice is, ‘You listen to everybody, but you’ve got to go with your gut, what it tells you. Don’t be afraid to take a chance.’ Red was a gambler and a free spirit and that did well for him.”
And while Ainge is very much his own man with his own views, he agreed that he’s similar to Auerbach in that regard: a gambler, a free spirit.
“I’d much rather miss a putt doing it my way than miss a putt listening to my caddie and he reads it wrong,” Ainge said. “Whether I read it wrong or right, I’d rather miss it my way.”
In the decade that he has been making the final call on draft picks for the Celtics, Ainge has learned plenty.
“Just not to make judgments too quick and that young players get better fast, often,” he said. “Focus on what players can do and not what they can’t do.”
Experience has helped, though every year is still a crapshoot in some respects.
“You learn from your mistakes and you learn from your successes,” he said. “It’s better than not having any experience, but it’s certainly no guarantee, either.”
What mistakes? What successes? Ainge declined to go into specifics — “I don’t want to do that to the kids that were drafted,” he said — but he described a few instances.
“There were some drafts where I had real early great feelings about what I saw, and sort of downplayed the rest of the research that we had done — background checks and physical things — and I was grateful that I had [done that],” he said.
“In another situation that was similar, I had identified a player that I loved, a really talented player that I knew would be available for us in the draft. But I put too much weight on what I would say were some of the less significant things, although they’re all significant. Every background check, every bit of information that you find is relevant to the decision that you’re making.
“Sometimes, you put too much weight on certain things, especially when you’re drafting 20-year-old kids. I’ve learned from that, to trust what I feel about a kid and to trust how I see him as a player a little bit more than trusting a lot of information from sources.”
From afar, it’s easy to look back on a draft pick and judge a team for that selection. But those involved know that many variables affect a player’s career, whether it’s the environment, coach, teammates, injuries, or simply his role on that team.
“That is definitely the case,” Ainge said. “I think that situations, opportunities over the course of a guy’s career makes a big difference, especially, again, when kids are being drafted younger and younger. I think that absolutely the circumstances matter about how players turn out in most scenarios.
“Some players are going to be great no matter where they go, but I think that there’s a high percentage — 75-80 percent of the players — it might be circumstantial, opportunity-driven, and so forth.”
Just as Ainge and his staff are meticulous with every detail before the draft, so too are they critical of their own evaluation process afterward.
“What we really do is really reevaluate our draft in the summer league, after the draft, when we’re able to watch all the players,” he said. “And based on all the information that we have at that time, we see how that translates right after we do the draft, and we see if there’s anybody that we missed on that’s better than we thought, that’s not as good as we thought, and we reevaluate some of those decisions.
“And every year, there are some. Guys are a little better than we thought. Rarely is it drastically different. But that’s when we do most of our evaluating on players, is in the summer league. So, yeah, we constantly evaluate our past selections.”
“And we don’t just evaluate our pick, although that’s obviously the most important decision,” Ainge continued. “But we evaluate how we evaluated all the players in the draft. So it’s not just our selections, but someone that was drafted 40th that we didn’t have anywhere on the radar, and why did we not have him? And somebody that was drafted 15th that we had rated 50th and why was he 15th and how did we miss out on that one? And the same thing has happened where we identified guys that other teams didn’t have [that high] — like we had them 10th in the draft or second in the draft and we got them with the 20th pick. And everywhere in between.”
Some picks pan out, some don’t. But in the midst of the rebuilding process, the Celtics hold two first-round picks in a draft rich with talent. Ainge never can afford to miss, but especially not now.
So, like always, the man who isn’t afraid to gamble, to miss a putt his own way, does his homework, travels the globe, and watches games late into the night, gathering details, hoping one will make the difference.
Celtics’ draft picks under Danny Ainge
|Colton Iverson||53d||Colorado State|
|Luke Harangody||52d||Notre Dame|
|Bill Walker||47th||Kansas State|
|Gabe Pruitt||32d||Southern Cal|
|18th||Gulf Shores Acd. (Tx.)|
|15th||Prentiss HS (Miss.)|
|Delonte West||24th||Saint Joseph’s|
|Tony Allen||25th||Oklahoma State|
|Kendrick Perkins||27th||Ozen HS (Texas)|