AMHERST — After the Celtics drafted Ante Zizic with the 23rd overall pick of June’s draft, the Croatian big man made it very clear publicly he wanted to join Boston’s team rather than be stashed overseas.
But that was never in the Celtics’ plans, particularly with such a crowded roster. Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said Zizic’s initial frustration was centered on the fact his Croatian friends Dragan Bender, who was selected fourth overall by the Suns, and Ivica Zubac, who was selected 32nd overall by the Lakers, would be joining their NBA teams this fall. Zizic, 19, did not want to be left out.
“That was a little hard for him,” Ainge said. “But within a couple of weeks he was good, and he’s been working really hard.”
Zizic, who plays for KK Cibona in the Adriatic League, had 17 points and seven rebounds in his team’s season opener Sunday. Although Zizic did not play for the Celtics’ summer league team, Ainge has been to Croatia to meet with him and his coaches, and he texts with him almost every day.
“Just to make sure that he knows that he’s in our plans and is a big part of our future,” Ainge said, “and that we’re monitoring his development.”
Ainge said the 6-foot-11-inch Zizic now weighs about 265 pounds, 15 more than he weighed at the European combine in June. Ainge says that based on his frame, there is still room for him to continue to bulk up.
Zizic is already a strong defensive player and he has been working to develop his post moves.
“It’s great, because he has a big role on the team, which is unique for a 19-year-old,” Ainge said. “They need him. They go to him. He’s a huge part of their team.”
After months of waiting, after the draft and free agency and questions about whether the Celtics had done enough to join the NBA’s elite, they finally took the floor together and unveiled at least part of their new look.
There was Al Horford, the $113 million man. There was Jaylen Brown, the No. 3 overall pick. And those two headliners joined so many other familiar faces, as Boston opened the preseason with a 92-89 loss to the 76ers at the University of Massachusetts on Tuesday.
The final result might appear puzzling, as the 76ers are one of the worst teams in the NBA, and they were without injured No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and 2015 No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor. But Boston’s starters generally had their way with Philadelphia’s first unit before the second- and third-string players allowed the lead to slip away.
Horford, Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas finished with 11 points apiece, and all three were used sparingly in the second half. The Celtics outscored the 76ers by 19 points during Horford’s 15 minutes of play.
“I think when you’re able to move the ball like that, you become a dangerous team and I know it’s just the first exhibition game but I take a lot of positives from this,” Horford said. “We were getting a lot of good looks and that’s what you want on offense.”
It did not take long for the Celtics to get a look at Horford, who drilled a 19-footer just 12 seconds into the game. He then banked in a jump shot, and Bradley and Jae Crowder combined to make their first four 3-pointers as the Celtics blitzed to a 23-9 lead.
“I mean, we looked really good in that first six-seven minutes,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought everything had a purpose. And then I thought our second unit didn’t play as well. It looked a little bit more stagnant.”
There will be some questions about the second unit’s ability to score this season, and with Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Green both sidelined, those questions were even more glaring, as the backups started the game by making just 2 of their first 17 shots.
The Celtics led, 63-53, late in the third quarter when Philadelphia charged back with a 16-0 burst, as a Brandon Paul 3-pointer gave the 76ers a 69-63 lead.
Philadelphia led by as many as 9 points in the fourth quarter before Brown flashed the athleticism that has the Celtics buzzing about his potential. He drove the lane and soared in for a dunk, he converted an acrobatic layup and then had a strong finish inside. The last basket made it 86-84.
“I had mismatches, so it made the floor, made the game a lot easier,” Brown said. “And I touched the ball a lot as a four. So it was really comfortable.”
The Celtics trailed, 92-89, with 10 seconds left and had two final chances to tie, but Marcus Smart and Jordan Mickey both missed 3-pointers in the final seconds. The Celtics will face the Hornets in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday.
The Celtics players and coaches locked arms and held hands during the national anthem prior to their preseason game against the 76ers on Tuesday, joining other NBA teams who have continued the silent protests to draw attention to racial inequality in the United States.
Before the game, Celtics forward Jae Crowder said the Celtics’ focus was on promoting a message.
“That we need change in this world,” Crowder said. “We need to do it together. Just not one individual; it’s got to be a team-type deal, a unity, a togetherness. Whatever we decide our message to be, it has to be about being together as one and coming together as one.”
Horford said the Celtics got the idea from a picture of the 1960s Celtics in which their arms were locked and they were holding hands in a similar display of protest.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the team had had numerous, productive discussions about both what to do during the anthem, and about the general issues facing the country.
“I think our guys are really focused on promoting positive unity, togetherness, progress, and all those types of things,” Stevens said. “But those have been deep, certainly good discussions. They’ve been great. And I commend our guys for sharing and for thinking and for really looking at this in a really insightful way.”
A few minutes before tipoff, the Celtics’ official Twitter account posted a 45-second video of the players discussing unity.
Simmons has surgery
Philadelphia forward Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick of this year’s draft, had surgery Tuesday to repair a broken bone in his right foot. There is no timetable for Simmons’s return, but 76ers coach Brett Brown said he spoke to Simmons about an hour after his surgery.
“We talked a little bit about what the plan is now,” Brown said. “I’m excited. In a very sort of twisted way, once you admit and you sort of come to grips with what has happened, I’m excited to dig into a different part of his development.”
Although the 76ers have lost Simmons indefinitely, on Tuesday they saw 7-footer Joel Embiid make his long-awaited debut. The third overall pick of the 2014 draft had not played in a game since injuring his foot while he was a freshman at Kansas that March.
Stevens said he was eager to see Embiid back on the floor.
“I watched him when he was a 16-year-old out of Gainesville [Fla.] growing up,” Stevens said. “The amount of strides he made in an 18-month stretch between that point and Kansas was incredible. I anticipate it always will take time, right? But he just has some gifts that other people don’t have so he’s got a real chance to be good, that’s for sure.” . . . Celtics wing Gerald Green missed Tuesday’s game with a strained hip flexor and 7-footer Kelly Olynyk remains sidelined from full contact as he works his way back from offseason shoulder surgery . . . Even though the game was played in Massachusetts, the Celtics were technically the road team Tuesday.