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GARY WASHBURN | SUNDAY BASKETBALL NOTES

The 76ers improved, but so did a lot of NBA teams

Zhaire Smith (right) played college basketball at Texas Tech.
Zhaire Smith (right) played college basketball at Texas Tech.(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Celtics fans should have a higher level of concern about the 76ers than they did a few days ago.

The 76ers, who reached the Eastern Conference semifinals with a young and emerging roster, added athletic swingman Zhaire Smith and sharpshooter Landry Shamet with first-round picks in Thursday’s NBA Draft.

The takeaway from the draft is that teams are making more sound decisions with the players they bring in. The Celtics could have attempted to trade for a lottery pick, but it would have cost them perhaps Jaylen Brown or the Kings’ pick next season, which is expected to be high.

The Celtics intelligently stood pat and ended up with Texas A&M center Robert Williams, who was projected to go in the top 15. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge acknowledged he was anxious in the opening moments of the draft as he considered a bold move to trade up.

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And he watched the 76ers improve by adding two players who should contribute next season. The 76ers are indeed a threat in the East. With coach Brett Brown running player personnel duties for the departed Bryan Colangelo, the 76ers are focused on matching the Celtics in what should be a renewal of a great rivalry.

It was smart for Ainge to hold on to that 27th pick. Someone was going to drop and it was Williams.

The big man’s Celtics tenure did not get off to a glorious start as he overslept for his conference call Friday with media. But that’s being 21. Williams will be given time to mature.

The Celtics were overdue in addressing their need for a big man in the draft. Ainge took Ante Zizic 23rd in 2016, but it became apparent the Croatian was a project and he was sent to Cleveland in the Kyrie Irving deal.

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Williams will need some molding but the Celtics got a proven college player who said he wasn’t mature enough to enter the draft following his freshman season. The Celtics don’t necessarily need Williams to play significant minutes next season, especially if they re-sign Aron Baynes.

But the Celtics got better Thursday, as did many other teams.

“We don’t need more young players, really,” Ainge said. “We feel good about adding one. Whenever you draft guys, you draft them knowing they are not going to take over your franchise. Jayson Tatum was a little bit unique. We brought Jaylen Brown along slow. We brought Terry Rozier along the same way. Those guys had opportunity to play as young players but they don’t have to try to do too much.

“So Robert will have opportunities to play. But it will depend on how well he plays.”

The Celtics began rebuilding through the draft five years ago and then added free agents, becoming an Eastern Conference power. They showed that young talent can be productive when given opportunity and also molded properly.

Other teams in the East, including Orlando, Chicago, Indiana, Charlotte, Washington, and Milwaukee, joined the Celtics and 76ers in keeping their draft picks and padding their roster with young talent instead of making a risky trade for a veteran.

The Warriors have shown the league that titans can be built through the draft. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green were all selected by Golden State. So were Kevon Looney, Patrick McCaw, and Jordan Bell.

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The league is filled with players on unwanted contracts, thanks to the dramatic increase in the salary cap, and teams are wary of using their cap space on a player who may eventually become a salary cap anchor. For example, the Wizards will be paying Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi a combined $29.5 million next season and neither is a top-20 center.

Washington added one-and-done prospect Troy Brown with their first-round pick. Brown can become an inexpensive contributor and potential cornerstone.

There are often fireworks on draft night when teams decide to ship out first-round picks for proven players. But there were no deals involving veteran players Thursday. Kawhi Leonard stayed put.

The league’s salary cap spike was going to result in a slew of bad contracts, and teams are being cautious about their spending and placing more emphasis on inexpensive talent. And they don’t come any more inexpensive than draft picks, especially those not in the lottery.

We’ll see whether this caution spreads to free agency in a week, but it’s obvious that teams are being more judicious in their decision-making. And that should foster more parity in the league.

MATCHED UP

Doncic should fit well in Dallas

Luka Doncic was chosen No. 3 overall by the Hawks and then traded to the Mavericks.
Luka Doncic was chosen No. 3 overall by the Hawks and then traded to the Mavericks. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

The Mavericks wanted Slovenian prospect Luka Doncic and they were able to trade up to the third pick of the draft to get the 6-foot-8-inch point guard in exchange for the draft rights to Trae Young. It was initially believed the Mavericks, who lack a formidable center, would be after Mohamed Bamba of Texas, but they decided on Doncic and the natural fit with all-time great Dirk Nowitzki, who is expected to retire after next season, his 21st.

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Owner Mark Cuban has repeatedly said the Mavericks want a fast rebuild, uplifting the franchise quickly with astute draft picks and then a premium free agent signing.

By pairing Doncic with last year’s lottery pick, Dennis Smith Jr., the backcourt is set for the next decade. Doncic is a big fan of NBA basketball and an admirer of Smith.

“I saw a lot of Dennis,” Doncic said after the draft. “He’s an amazing player. He’s an amazing point guard. And of course Dirk Nowitzki, he is an example for everybody. He’s achieved so much. He’s a legend. He’s a leader. So I’m really glad that I can be there.”

Nowitzki is Mr. Maverick and the organization has experience in integrating an international player. It was more difficult 20 years ago when Nowitzki was an unknown and European players were heavily scrutinized, so Doncic’s adjustment should go smoothly. And now the Mavericks have three marquee names — Doncic, Smith, and Harrison Barnes — along with Nowitzki.

“I’ve been talking to Dallas a lot. They really wanted me, and they were very, very nice,” Doncic said. “They were very nice to me, and I think we had a very good relationship. You know, just playing, again, [in the NBA with] all these superstars like LeBron [James], Stephen [Curry], [Kevin Durant], [James] Harden, playing against these superstars. I think that’s the most exciting thing that I can say.”

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Doncic is no unknown. He’s been on the NBA radar since he was a 16-year-old playing in the Spanish League. His rise has been swift and he became a EuroLeague sensation with his ballhandling and scoring ability. He was MVP of the EuroLeague playoffs at age 19. That is considered the second-most regarded basketball tournament next to the NBA playoffs.

Success will be expected with the tutelage of Nowitzki and defensive-minded coach Rick Carlisle. Dallas appears to be the perfect fit.

“I think it will happen,” Doncic said. “I’ve been professional since I was 15. I played against EuroLeague stars, against ex-NBA players. I had four or five players on my team that played in the NBA. In Yugoslavia we had some amazing players, and we still have. There’s a lot of players in NBA, too, like [Nikola] Jokic, [Milos] Teodosic, have a lot of Yugoslavia players, and I think I can be part of that [tradition].”

ETC.

Big3 handled big challenges

Ice Cube and his wife, Kimberly Woodruff, attended a Big3 game Friday in Houston.
Ice Cube and his wife, Kimberly Woodruff, attended a Big3 game Friday in Houston.(Ronald Martinez/BIG3/Getty Images)

Big3 basketball is back for a second season, with a new commissioner in Clyde Drexler, a new coach in Nancy Lieberman, and several new players, including Amar’e Stoudemire, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Corey Maggette, and Metta World Peace.

It’s been a difficult road for league creator Ice Cube. The actor-director-rapper devised an idea of a three-on-three league for former NBA players but said he had no idea of the challenges that followed. There have been firings, lawsuits, and trouble with player/coach Allen Iverson (who stepped down from his coaching post this season).

Ice Cube reflected on the difficulties of getting the league to thrive.

“This has been one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career, in my life really, because it was a mixture of trying to convince people what it was and also working on the infrastructure of what it is at the same time as well as promote it and actually do it,” he said this past week. “It’s hard to convince people about how things are going to go when there is no standard for them to look at, nothing to go before you where they can look and say, ‘OK, this is going to work.’ We had to do a lot of convincing and we did some, we made some great progress in Season 1 and we still have work to do.

“We did have some issues with some of our investors that we had to get rid of and we handled it, to me, in the best possible way. We saw the problem, got rid of it, and kept moving and it didn’t affect the growth of the league. We are still learning and there is still a lot to learn, but we’re definitely going to go into this season with a better foot under us than last season.”

Ice Cube was asked whether the league would be open to women players. He said anybody can play in the Big3 if they are skilled enough.

“As far as on the court, we feel like if you want to come try out at the combine, you’re more than welcome, but it’s really up to the players on who they are going pick and play with them,” he said. “We don’t have GMs, we don’t have owners. Player-captains and coaches kind of meet and figure out who they want. They pick somebody that’s a female, then we have a female in the league, that’s really what it comes down to. We don’t have a policy against that at all, we just want the best three-on-three basketball players in the world playing for us. We’ll do anything to find that out and figure that out.”

Last season, there was talk about former players such as Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, or Kevin Garnett making one-game appearances in the league to showcase their games in a new format. But that won’t be the case. Ice Cube said the league is established enough to where he wants 10-week commitments from the players.

Games will be telecast live, unlike last season. The Big3 will also tour new cities, including Boston (TD Garden) on Aug. 5.

“You know as far as players coming for one or two weeks, we don’t really want that, you’re either going to be part of the team or you’re not,” Ice Cube said. “We just think guys who are healthy for our league is to get a real commitment. We got a real commitment from 48, 50 NBA greats, we want a commitment, we want guys committed to playing the whole year. So I don’t think we’re going to ever have an open-door policy where guys can, you know, walk on and play one game. Because to be honest I think the way our game is going that it would be very difficult to play one game, you know, you really have to get allocated to how you know our games are played, so we want you to be a part of this league and not just a guest.

“If you want to be a guest come sit in the front row with me, and we’ll accommodate you and you can watch the game for sure.”

Ice Cube said he has never visited TD Garden but the Lakers and Oakland Raiders fan is excited about the opportunity.

“I’m excited about going to Boston. Even though I’m a lifelong Laker fan, you recognize the passion of the Boston basketball fans, that they love their game, they understand the game, they’re fans of the game,” he said. “So it’s going to be cool to be in TD Garden and get a chance to feel the history. It’s my first time in that arena so I’m going to walk around and get the flavor and the vibe and we’re going to put on a great basketball game ourselves. We’ve got a couple former Celtics with us and I’m pretty sure people would be happy to see, I’m going to embrace it, man, because I’ve got a lot of respect for Boston, I’ve got a lot of respect for the Celtics, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the Celtics fans because you guys are passionate like we’re passionate. And it’s going to be a good night to be on the same side for one night.”

Amy Trask, a 30-year employee of the Raiders and the Big3’s chairperson of the board, said she might give Ice Cube a T-shirt that says, “It was a fumble!” referring to the 2001 AFC Divisional playoff game where an apparent fumble was waived off by officials because of the controversial “tuck rule.” The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl that season.

Layups

The Hawks’ drafting of Trae Young may spell the final days for Dennis Schroder in Atlanta. Schroder has dealt with maturity issues as well as an off-the-court issue that has yet to be resolved. He was once considered a potential face of the franchise, but he clashed with former coach Mike Budenholzer last season. Schroder is one of the league’s top 15 point guards and is just 24 years old, but he may be difficult to move since he’s owed $45 million over the next three years. The Hawks, who are dumping salaries and preparing for future free agency, may have to accept an unwanted contract in return. Schroder recently commented at a German Basketball Federation news conference that he wouldn’t mind playing for the Pacers or Bucks, two teams that need a frontline point guard. The Hawks had to take on the remaining four years on Miles Plumlee’s contract to get rid of Dwight Howard. Atlanta’s highest-paid player is swingman Kent Bazemore, who is entering the third year of a four-year, $72 million contract. The Hawks would like to move him as well . . . Speaking of Howard, the Hornets sent the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to the Nets for the contract of Timofey Mozgov and two second-round picks. Howard is not expected to play for the Nets; he will negotiate a buyout and become a free agent. The market for Howard will be tricky because of his checkered past. He has now been dealt from two teams after playing just one season for them, and the Rockets dumped him after three seasons when he didn’t get along with James Harden. Howard seems to have two personalities: the gregarious, friendly, and reflective guy who understands he has made mistakes, and the sullen, arrogant player who feels he’s better than he is and should play a bigger role than he does. Would Howard be open to a bench role for a title-contending team, knowing that winning a championship would enhance his sullied reputation? Howard averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds in 81 games last season for Charlotte, but the Hornets missed the playoffs. He has a case that he’s still productive, but he needs to find the right team and the right coach.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.