The Celtics had to make the difficult decision of waiving former first-round pick R.J. Hunter last week, thus eliminating the compensation for the defection of coach Doc Rivers to the Clippers.
Waiving Hunter meant the Celtics disposed of a first-round pick taken just a year ago. You can debate whether Hunter had a true opportunity to make an impact with the Celtics, but the fact that he was released after just one season is a testament that he was a mistake pick at No. 28.
In hindsight, there is no obvious pick the Celtics could have selected. None of the players taken after Hunter have made a serious impact, perhaps besides Josh Richardson of the Heat. But the fact the Celtics dumped a first-round pick, usually considered a building block for organizations, is a byproduct of the Celtics’ increased depth.
But it is also the latest in a rather inconsistent draft résumé for the Celtics over the past few years. There have been hits — Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, perhaps Jaylen Brown — but also some serious misses — Hunter, Fab Melo, trading for JaJuan Johnson, and perhaps the most costly recent first-round pick, J.R. Giddens in 2008.
Giddens, who played 38 career games, by far the fewest of any first-round pick in 2008, was selected ahead of DeAndre Jordan, Mario Chalmers, and Goran Dragic.
Drafting is an inexact science, especially with the younger the entries have become. A decade ago, there was room for growth for younger players; they were given time to develop, perhaps play in the NBADL, and turn into contributors. But that has changed.
Hunter wasn’t the only former first-round pick dumped by the team that drafted him last week. The Grizzlies cut Jordan Adams, the Suns parted ways with Archie Goodwin, the Thunder waived Mitch McGary, and San Antonio let go of 2013 first-rounder Livio Jean-Charles.
The audition time for first-round picks is shorter now, partly because the rookie salary cap ensures that releasing these players isn’t all that financially damaging. There is also a wealth of talent in second-round picks and undrafted free agents.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he doesn’t view the organization as not capitalizing on its assets from the Nets trade and the Rivers deal. He said Hunter’s departure was a matter of depth.
“Right now, the hardest thing is I like R.J. and we’ve invested time in him,” said Ainge. “I see Jaylen and Terry [Rozier] and Jordan Mickey and Demetrius Jackson and Abdel Nader, who had a terrific summer with us, and the two kids over in Europe that are playing fantastic right now. The draft is the draft, as we all know.
“You have some good selections and some that don’t fit and don’t work for you. So I’m not disappointed in that regard at all. I’m glad that we have another [Nets] pick next year and we’ll keep taking our swings and trying to find the right guys.”
The misses are notable. Melo was taken 22nd in 2012 and played just six games before being traded to Memphis for Donte Greene, who never played for the Celtics. Johnson, taken three picks before Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, never had an NBA motor and was traded to Houston in the Courtney Lee deal after playing just 36 games with Boston. He never played in the NBA again.
The Celtics tried tutoring Giddens in the NBADL for nearly two years before finally trading him to the Knicks in the deal that netted Nate Robinson, who helped the club to the 2010 NBA Finals. Giddens played 11 games with the Knicks and was eventually waived by the Kings in training camp.
Ainge said the casualty rate of first-round picks is part of the unpredictability of the draft. The Celtics have scored of late, with Brown, the third overall pick last June, already working himself into the rotation, along with Smart and Kelly Olynyk. But the release of Hunter represents the other side of the equation.
“A lot of times those decisions aren’t as difficult because they work themselves out. Sometimes guys cut themselves,” Ainge said. “Sometimes guys win jobs. There’s a lot of first-round picks that don’t make it in the NBA. I feel pretty comfortable that all of our guys are still going to be playing in the NBA, and I guess that’s encouraging and I guess that’s a good thing that we have a lot of players to decide between.”
FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS
Timing is the key for foreign players
Luis Scola is in his 10th NBA season after signing with the Nets this past summer. It was 14 years ago that Scola helped lead Argentina to a gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics as a 24-year-old.
Scola was drafted by the Spurs in 2002, but he did not arrive in the NBA until 2007, after the Spurs traded his rights to the Rockets. Scola would tell you it’s not always easy for European players to decide when the time is right to follow their NBA dreams.
At the Rio Games, Argentina teammate Facundo Campazzo, a fiery point guard, told the Globe he wanted to try the NBA, perhaps after his contract with Real Madrid expires after this season. But there are no guarantees. Players such as Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, David Andersen, Victor Claver, Nando De Colo, Mickael Gelabale, and Miroslav Raduljica are all former NBA players on Olympic rosters whose time in the States didn’t fare as well as expected. So they headed back overseas. (Rodriguez recently returned to the NBA with the 76ers).
So while the NBA is generally the ultimate destination for standout players throughout the world, it presents some daunting challenges, especially for players with secure contracts and lifestyles in Europe.
Two members of Scola’s Argentina team in Rio have joined NBA teams after playing overseas: Nicolas Brussino (Mavericks) and Nicolas Laprovittola (Spurs).
“People thought we wouldn’t have any players in the NBA any time soon and then things changed very quickly,” Scola said. “We’ve got a few guys that played well, that grow, they developed, and now they’re here and that’s what we needed. That’s how a team becomes a very good team throughout the years, developing players and continuously staying on top regardless of who’s playing.”
As for Campazzo, he has to make a decision next summer. He fared well against Olympic competition, averaging 15.8 points and 5.8 assists, and he competed favorably against NBA players.
“He’s an NBA player, I believe,” Scola said. “He’s good for today’s NBA, the pace is very fast. He needs to work on some areas of his game, but he’s getting better year after year and I think it’s a matter of when he takes the chance to come here. It’s going to be difficult for him to come in a very good situation like a three-year guarantee — a good contract. It’s going to be more like, come in, earning a spot, making a team, getting into the rotation, proving you can play.
“There will be a lot of issues with his size, his body will always be against him, and he needs to come here and prove that it doesn’t matter, that he can play basketball. It’s a question of when he wants to make that step
When is the time right?
“The older you are, the more difficult it is,” Scola said. “When you’re younger, you’re by yourself, you move around, it doesn’t matter. You just grab a bag, go to a hotel and it’s fine. When you’re older, your margin of error is less and you don’t want to make a mistake. Family comes into play and kids come into play. You don’t have the same energy as when you’re in your early 20s.”
There are also occasions where players turn down guaranteed deals overseas for nonguaranteed deals or smaller guaranteed contracts in the NBA.
“A lot of times it includes losing money. And you may have six or seven years left, I don’t want to lose that much money,” Scola said. “All those things make the decision hard, and nobody guarantees you anything over here.”
“So you leaving a great situation in Europe where you have status and have respect, and you come to a place where you start from scratch — those things can be scary. For me, it was great, I was loving it. It was a new challenge for me but some people feel more comfortable with other things.”
Stevens, Celtics draw high praise
The ESPN/ABC broadcasting duo of Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were asked about the Celtics and the impact of fourth-year coach Brad Stevens. The opinioned Van Gundy, who would be a top coaching candidate if he decided to enter the pool again, had nothing but compliments for Stevens.
“One thing I think that’s hard to do is rank NBA coaches. So much of how people perceive you as a coach is based on the talent that you have,” said Van Gundy. “I’ve gone against guys who win all the time that I didn’t think were as good as some other guys, who maybe had half the talent but maximized their talent. So I think you have to judge coaches based on the talent they have, not just on the win/loss record.
“Brad is a great basketball coach; not good, great. I think he’s proven that during his time in Boston and he’s humble, he’s hard-working, and he knows how to help players play to their strengths and stay away from their non-strengths.”
Van Gundy, like many NBA observers, believes the addition of Al Horford turns the Celtics into serious contenders.
“The addition of Horford I think is an excellent pickup. I think, you know, there were four teams — Boston was one of them in the East — that had 48 wins last year, so there’s a lot of parity after Cleveland,” he said. “Toronto had a terrific year last year. And so there’s a lot up in the air, and it will be interesting to see who can stay healthy and who can get their games together, because Boston is going to be a tough out.”
Jackson, another top candidate to coach should he decide to pursue jobs, echoed Van Gundy.
“One thing I don’t do is rank coaches, but what I will say is that Brad Stevens is an outstanding coach who has done an outstanding job in Boston. [He’s] getting recognition for that and it’s well deserved,” said Jackson. “They did a great job of adding Horford, a big that brought to the table what they did not have — a defensive, tough, hard-nosed leader — and you can see that early on in the preseason already.
“I think it’s only going to be a carryover effect once the season starts. He’ll put them in pick-and-rolls, with Isaiah Thomas, who is as tough as it comes, trying to defend at the point guard position.
“I’m not going to jump and say I see them in the Eastern Conference finals. They are more than capable of being there but I think I see [the Celtics] being bunched up with other teams. It’s going to be about staying healthy and finishing strong but they’re a team that’s more than capable of being there.”
FORGET ME NOT
New-look Heat still a tough foe
Miami won its opener at Orlando pretty handily, and while it was the first game, it’s an indication that even without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat will be a formidable opponent. The Heat had six players in double figures against the Magic, including Hassan Whiteside, who scored 18 points with 14 rebounds.
“When you start off with [president] Pat Riley and the Heat organization, the culture is already there,” said Mark Jackson. “They compete at a high level. So I expect them to still be fighting for a playoff spot in the East and have a legitimate chance because of the way that they get after it and the culture that has been instilled there for quite a long time.
“They are certainly going to miss Chris Bosh and what he does and what he brings to the table. They are going to miss a guy like Luol Deng, and what he brings on a daily basis and obviously they miss Dwyane Wade. It’s going to be a question of searching for an identity, who they are going to trust when it matters most when the games are on the line. But one thing you do know with that team, they are going to play hard and they are going to defend at a high level.”
Said Jeff Van Gundy: “You have Whiteside as an elite shot-blocker, and you have Erik Spoelstra who is an elite coach. And you surround them with a bunch of hard-playing, younger players, they are going to get after you. And it’s not going to be easy. Offensively, where they get their point production, I think will be their challenge. But I do believe they will be fighting for a playoff spot.”
“I think Miami has proven that they have had a couple of down years in the Riley era, followed by a quick ascension. It’s a place players want to play. They have a Hall of Fame coach in Erik Spoelstra, and they have, you know, demonstrated time and again, that they can make moves to put themselves in the position to get the players.”
Jared Sullinger just can’t seem to stay healthy. The former Celtics forward was again felled by an ailment at the worst possible time. The Raptors signed Sullinger after Boston renounced his rights, but the deal was only for one year and $6.7 million, giving the former first-round pick an opportunity to prove himself and increase his free agent value next summer. Sullinger had a screw inserted in the fifth metatarsal in his left foot after injuring it in the preseason opener against Golden State. Sullinger missed nearly two months during the 2014-15 season with a stress fracture in the same foot. Sullinger again dealing with foot issues could damage his free agent status and lends to the belief that his weight has affected his ability to stay on the court . . . There’s quality talent on the market now that teams have pared their rosters to 15 players. The Bulls were the lone team to have an available spot after roster cuts and they signed R.J. Hunter, who was waived by the Celtics last Monday. Having control of a player has become a valuable commodity in today’s NBA. Many teams would generally carry fewer than 15 players for roster flexibility, but out of the 450 roster spots available on opening night this season, 449 were occupied . . . Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown was the honorary captain for last week’s New England Revolution game against the Montreal Impact and he was able to trade jerseys with players from both teams. Brown is a big soccer fan and said he wanted to wait for a special occasion to take in his first MLS match. “It was an amazing experience. I was surprised the fans knew me.” . . . The NBADL draft is Tuesday and there should be some loaded rosters after the last set of NBA cuts. It’s difficult for just-waived players to catch on internationally because many of those rosters are already set. The D-League is becoming more of a viable option for NBA hopefuls, particularly since several NBA teams control an NBADL franchise. The Windy City Bulls (Chicago), Northern Arizona Suns (Phoenix), Long Island Nets (Brooklyn), Greensboro Swarm (Charlotte), and Salt Lake City Stars (Utah) will begin play this season. Of the 30 NBA teams, 22 own their own NBADL affiliate, including the Celtics, who control the Maine Red Claws.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.