NEW YORK — Unless the Celtics were going to acquire Kevin Love, which wasn’t going to happen when they ping-ponged to the sixth pick in the lottery, team president Danny Ainge astutely used the sixth and 17th picks on young talent.
The Celtics officially have transitioned from the Big Three Era, nabbing Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Kentucky’s James Young, the results of their horrid 25-57 season. Boston snagged Young with one of the selections fleeced from the Brooklyn Nets in the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett blockbuster.
And the Smart and Young combination is the best settlement the Celtics could have procured.
Thursday’s NBA Draft became an unpredictable sweepstakes the moment the Philadelphia 76ers selected injured center Joel Embiid with the third overall pick, making it two straight years general manager Sam Hinkie selected an injured player (Everett native Nerlens Noel) with the team’s top pick.
Embiid’s selection foiled any chance of the Kansas 7-footer falling to the Celtics, but it allowed Ainge to focus on the Celtics’ long-term future. That plan was further adjusted when Arizona forward Aaron Gordon surprisingly went fourth to the Orlando Magic.
When the Jazz jumped on Dante Exum at No. 5, Ainge could have selected power forward Julius Randle — and add him to a position that’s already a strength in Boston with Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk — or take Smart, who can play both backcourt positions.
Young dazzled during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 16.6 points in the final three games of Kentucky’s run to the championship final, including a handful of high-flying dunks. The Celtics lack athleticism and Young provides that, and he is two months from turning 19.
How Smart and Young coexist remains a question, but their addition to the team makes Thursday evening a success for Ainge. Smart is being tabbed as a point guard, which could mean the end of the Rajon Rondo era in Boston, but perhaps not.
Smart is a combo guard, a muscular bull who played three positions at Oklahoma State. He averaged 18.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.8 assists during his sophomore season. He is a scorer, not a shooter. Asking him to play point guard in the NBA might be unrealistic. He measured 6 feet 3¼ inches and 227 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine and has the physical capability to get to the paint, which would allow coach Brad Stevens creative ways to play Smart and Rondo together.
“Definitely, no doubt,” Smart said of playing shooting guard. “I think being so versatile in college helped me to be able to play the 2 or 1 or whatever position the Celtics want me to play at the next level.”
Of course, there is a level of uncertainty as the Celtics approach their summer. What’s going to happen to restricted free agent Avery Bradley? What will Ainge do with the nearly $20 million in cap space and the $5 millon nonguaranteed salary of Keith Bogans that can be traded?
It will be a summer of change and adjustments for the organization, but the selections of Smart and Young were impressive starts. The Celtics have sorely lacked athleticism in the frontcourt and are looking for a potential successor to Jeff Green at small forward. With Green, the Celtics don’t need to rush Young into a prominent role and can allow him to develop.
Yet after one strong year at Kentucky, Young could be more prepared to contribute than expected. He missed five scheduled workouts because of a car accident and remained a mystery throughout the past few weeks. But the Celtics had to take a chance on a young prospect with T.J. Warren and Zach LaVine already gone. Young was the next best choice.
“They’re young players and very talented,” Ainge said. “Good size for their position. Good length. Good scoring for their position. James played very good defense. He had to guard different perimeter positions throughout his college freshman year. He’s very young.
“Marcus is a terrific defender. I just think they’re two guys who can be starting players in the NBA for years to come. I just don’t want to put too much pressure on them right away. We need to let these guys develop and sort of earn their stripes. I think they’re going to have very, very bright careers.”
The Celtics have lacked scoring in the past few years. Stevens implemented a strong defensive system in his first season, but the team lacked dynamic scorers and Young could develop into that player. When Ainge was able to get Smart with the sixth pick, a player he long admired for his maturity and NBA-readiness, he could take a chance with the 17th pick.
The Celtics don’t want to return to the draft lottery any time soon. Ainge now has seven first-round picks over the next four years to use as assets, as well as salary cap space to sign free agents, especially in 2015. It is uncertain if this is the end of the Rondo era, but it was best for the Celtics to add two potential standout players and continue the youth movement if Love wasn’t a realistic goal.
There are a few ways to gain star power: free agency, trade, and through the draft. The Celtics haven’t been as successful in the latter since acquiring Kendrick Perkins and Rondo in draft-day trades a decade ago. And while the draft wasn’t the “fireworks” promised by majority partner Wyc Grousbeck, it will help the organization foster its rebuilding plan to grab two quality players who should spark a resurgence. And that has been the end goal since the Big Three Era was extinguished.