The Auerbach Center has mostly been shuttered along with so many other local workspaces as companies try to smother the spread of COVID-19. But one office in the Celtics’ sprawling, 160,000-square-foot training facility has been kept open, allowing president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to practice his own kind of social isolation and keep business as normal as possible during these uncertain times.
“Basically, we keep everyone else out except for him,” said Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge, who is also Danny’s son.
Ainge and his staff have been focused on preparing for the NBA Draft, even though its date and form remain uncertain. For now, Boston’s brass has been proceeding as if the June 25 event will go on as scheduled. But there will likely be substantial adjustments to their typical approach, as in-person workouts and interviews are replaced by exhaustive film studies and phone calls.
“I’ve got a long to-do list that probably isn’t as interesting or as fun as traveling around to the McDonald’s All-American Game or the Nike Hoop Summit or the draft combine,” Celtics director of scouting Dave Lewin said. “Or not as fun as getting these guys in our gym and conducting workouts. All that stuff I really enjoy, but it may be every bit as valuable just to really focus in on the film and the calls. It’s back to basics.”
Regardless, there is certainly no panic in Boston’s front office. While the draft spotlight is most visible in late spring, the Celtics have been gathering intelligence on these players for years. Yes, there will be new challenges that arise, but do not expect any players to slip through the cracks because of them.
“If we had to draft this week, we’d have a good sense of all the guys,” assistant general manager Mike Zarren said. “But the more time you can spend studying, the more you learn.”
Austin Ainge and Lewin spend much of basketball season crisscrossing the globe to see college and international prospects in person. Danny Ainge and Zarren do a fair amount of travel, too, but have more Celtics-related responsibilities.
But the four generally scatter across the country when conference tournaments begin in March. Zarren, for example, was scheduled to attend the Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, so he spent a bit less time studying SEC prospects leading up to that event. Now, he is playing catch-up with that group.
The Celtics prefer to stay in Boston during the NCAA Tournament, however, because it is valuable to watch so many high-level games at once, often as a group in Danny Ainge’s office, where they can bounce ideas around in real time.
While it feels like the basketball world was shut down ages ago, it has actually been less than a month. The NCAA Tournament would still be going on now if it had not been canceled. So despite the altered landscape, the Celtics are hardly behind schedule. They are just filling the NCAA Tournament void with video footage, a process that is actually far more efficient than watching an entire game.
“Draft prep 30 years ago would have been exceedingly difficult in these circumstances,” Zarren said. “But right now it’s not that hard. We can still watch every possession that a guy played with two clicks of a mouse from anywhere we are.”
Added Lewin: “I’m spending more time watching film than ever before. During the course of the season, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. The games are coming fast and furious and you’re never going to be able to watch all of them. So there’s a significant reservoir of games that I hadn’t watched yet.”
With so much extra time, the team’s decision-makers are even going beyond the advanced software that gives them access to college games.
“You dive deeper and deeper into more obscure film, because there’s no new film coming in,” Austin Ainge said. “I found myself watching some high school clips of kids on YouTube that I normally wouldn’t really focus on.”
Film reviews will make up for the lack of live action, but the Celtics will likely have to work around minor roadblocks elsewhere. Several members of the organization said the medical evaluation process was their primary concern. Typically, teams send doctors to the NBA Combine in Chicago in May, and they complete thorough examinations.
“That’s important,” Lewin said. “For a couple of players each year there are things that come up that are really significant and are going to be a major factor in their play moving forward.”
It is possible that the NBA could essentially enlist doctors to complete exams of players and then distribute the information to teams. But even that possibility might be rocky amid the heightened safety awareness, and the fact that many medical facilities have pulled back from nonessential work.
Also, the Celtics usually host about 100 prospects for individual workouts during the pre-draft process, and that might not be possible this year, either.
“Seeing them in person is pretty valuable to get a sense of their size, length, and athleticism, as well as their shooting stroke,” Lewin said. “And there’s big value in really taking guys and letting them show what they can do in a new context. A guy might have played a different role in college, and you put them in a draft workout and ask them to do some things that maybe you think he could be successful with in the NBA.”
Sit-down meetings with prospects are also worthwhile. But Austin Ainge said they have interviewed players via video conference in past seasons — particularly international athletes — and that it would not be a hindrance to do it on a larger scale.
In the coming weeks, Celtics executives said, it is expected that there will be more clarity from the NBA about how this year’s draft process will unfold. There is a chance the league could maintain the June 25 date even if playoffs are unfolding this summer.
That would give undrafted players enough time to return to school or latch on with international squads. If the draft is pushed into the fall, those issues will become more complicated. But there are draft-day trades involving current NBA players, and holding a draft before the playoffs are finished would make that impossible. The NBA could hypothetically attempt to ban those deals this year.
“I’d expect once we have more clarity in the next few weeks about what the draft process and rules are likely to look like,” Zarren said, “we’ll have a much better structure and idea of how we can approach it.”
In addition to having their own first-round pick, the Celtics will receive Milwaukee’s first-round choice and the Grizzlies’ first-round pick, as long as it lands outside the top six.
Although Boston’s draft crew hasn’t been watching games together, basketball distancing is not new. They spend so much of the year scattered around the globe that group texts and video chats are their normal anyway. The only difference is that now these communications are mostly being sent from their Boston homes.
“I’d say the hardest thing is that this is our favorite time of the year,” Austin Ainge said. “We push through to get to the NCAA Tournament and NBA playoffs, and then draft workouts are a lot of fun for us, where we can see these kids and talk with them and get to know them. These few months are usually our most fun as a scouting staff.”