The Celtics remain at least one of the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. Their first-round pick should land somewhere in the late 20s, yet they are scouting the nation’s best college talent because of two astute Danny Ainge deals that could land them two lottery picks in 2019.
The Celtics acquired a first-round pick from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, which Philadelphia used on Markelle Fultz. The Celtics took Jayson Tatum third and still own the rights to that first-round pick in 2019, which originally belonged to Sacramento.
If that Kings’ pick is not first overall, it goes to the Celtics. Sacramento is off to a surprising start but the Kings are expected to slip considerably in the treacherous Western Conference.
Boston could also have another first-round pick via Memphis, acquired in January 2015 when the Celtics moved Jeff Green to the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies’ pick goes to the Celtics if it is outside of the top eight. Like the Kings, the Grizzlies are off to a fast start but could fall in the West.
And finally, the Celtics could get the Clippers’ first-rounder (which they acquired from Memphis) if the Clippers reach the playoffs. Coincidentally, that pick the Celtics acquired from Memphis (for two second-round picks in June 2016) is the same pick the Grizzlies acquired when trading Green to the Clippers four months earlier.
So conceivably, the Celtics could have four first-round picks in the next draft if the Grizzlies finish outside the top eight, the Clippers outside the top 14, and the Kings outside the top pick.
Given the potential wealth of talent in this year’s draft, here’s a look at 10 players who could become Celtics or Celtics’ trade chips.
RJ Barrett, Duke — Hard to believe Barrett won’t be the first overall pick considering his smooth game and brilliant performance in his first college game against Kentucky. The swingman can score from inside and outside. He was the No. 1 prospect in the nation for a reason and if he’s available with the Kings’ pick, the Celtics could have a dilemma on their hands.
Zion Williamson, Duke — If Barrett is taken first overall, any team that picks second could be taking perhaps the most physically imposing player since LeBron James. Williamson is huge (280 pounds), athletic, and skilled. He’s only going to improve under Mike Krzyzewski and could be the best player drafted in a decade.
Bol Bol, Oregon — The son of the late Manute Bol, the 7-footer can shoot from the perimeter and score in the paint. Since Oregon is on the West Coast and plays late games, he doesn’t get as much exposure as Eastern players. But with considerable upside, Bol could make an impactful pro.
Nassir Little, North Carolina — A freshman swingman, Little played just 20 minutes in his debut for the Tar Heels and scored seven points. Considering North Carolina’s depth, Little may not play big minutes but could eventually develop into a standout player. He was the sixth-ranked high school player in the country by ESPN and could develop into a late-blooming standout because his game hasn’t caught up with his athleticism.
Romeo Langford, Indiana — The nation’s No. 1 shooting guard chose his home-state school and then dropped 19 points in 26 minutes in his college debut. Already 6 feet 6 inches, Langford will grow into his frame and could easily become a top-five pick.
Darius Garland, Vanderbilt — The baby-faced point guard scored 24 points with three 3-pointers in his college debut. He isn’t as physically developed as other point guards perhaps, but neither were Collin Sexton or Trae Young.
Cam Reddish, Duke — Can a player who is the third-leading scorer on his college team be a lottery pick? Yes, sir. Reddish, a small forward, scored 22 points in the season-opening win over Kentucky, but he was overshadowed by Barrett and Williamson. He will have his moments this season and could become one of those players whose pro career is better than his college career.
Quentin Grimes, Kansas — The Garland, Texas, native, who debuted with 21 points in a win over Michigan State, is projected as a point guard at the next level. NBA teams love point guards with size. Grimes could become a top-five pick with a strong season.
Keldon Johnson, Kentucky — Johnson scored 23 points in 30 minutes in the Wildcats’ loss to Duke. The 6-6 swingman will continue to flourish on the big stage. John Calipari didn’t recruit Johnson to stay for more than one year, and he has the look of a one-and-done player who will be much better in March.
De’Andre Hunter, Virginia — Hunter is a sophomore who missed Virginia’s stunning NCAA Tournament loss to Maryland-Baltimore County last season with a broken wrist. He won’t put up eye-popping numbers because he plays in Tony Bennett’s methodical system, but Hunter could turn into a physical defender and rebounder as a combo forward. He’s a player scouts love because of his skill set and grit.
Pistons’ Brown remembers roots
Bruce Brown knew he was taking a chance. The shooting guard had played in just 19 games as a sophomore at the University of Miami. Yet he felt prepared enough by the Hurricanes’ coaching staff, led by Jim Larranaga (father of Celtics assistant Jay), to enter the draft.
Finally healthy after foot surgery, Brown, a Boston native, had improved his stock in NBA Draft workouts and was projected perhaps to jump into the late first round. He fell to 42nd into the lap of the Detroit Pistons, and they are ecstatic. Brown already has worked himself into the rotation. In his first game at TD Garden, the Wakefield High product scored a season-high 10 points in 13 minutes in helping Detroit rally late. The Celtics prevailed, 108-105.
For Brown, who spent his last two years of high school at Vermont Academy, it was a thrill to come home.
“It was kind of crazy and it feels weird being on the floor,” he said. “I’m used to sitting up in the nosebleeds watching the game. I was telling all [my teammates] that. I remember one game when Kobe Bryant was playing here, I sat in [section] 324 in the last row, watching him go off.
“I’m just reflecting on my past, watching games here.”
There is a sense of pride when Boston-area players return home. Players such as Shabazz Napier, Wayne Selden, Nerlens Noel, and Pat Connaughton have come back to TD Garden and beamed when they walked on the parquet. Brown is the latest local talent to join the club.
“We’ve got a lot of people in the league from Boston, like Wayne, Shabazz, Nerlens,” said Brown. “I think for me, it shows that people from the city can make it out here to this stage because obviously a lot of people haven’t made it from Boston.”
What has perhaps hurt Boston’s reputation is the pipeline of talented players who bolt area schools for prep schools in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, or Connecticut. Some become top college prospects, such as Brown, who was a five-star prospect and ranked 26th in his class by ESPN.
“Go to prep school and never forget where you came from, that was the big thing for me,” he said. “When I did leave the city, I knew where I came from and I always remembered. I always had to take drives down memory lane because I remember when I lived in Miami I lived in a beautiful area and I kind of forgot that edge I had to me. So I had to take drives down roads where it would remind me of my home and get that chip back on my shoulder.”
The decision to go to Miami was somewhat of a surprise considering Brown had been recruited by more prestigious basketball schools. Larranaga was frank during his recruitment, embracing the reality that Brown would likely leave school early.
“It was a perfect fit for me,” Brown said. “Great coaching staff and really they wanted to prepare me to get [to the NBA]. They put me on a two-year plan . . . They believed in me and so it was perfect.”
Brown said he was a “huge” Celtics fan growing up and participated in the “No Books, No Ball” program, run by Brown’s uncle, Tony Richards, and based at the Reggie Lewis Center.
“That’s where I learned the game,” said Brown, who entered the program at age 6. “[Richards] taught me the fundamentals of the game and I fell in love with it there.”
Brown worked out twice for the Celtics during the predraft process. The Celtics did not have a second-round pick, so they would have had to trade into the second round to take him. “I thought there was a possibility they’d take me but I knew they had their eye on other people,” Brown said. “I definitely love Detroit, got great coaches, great teammates, helping me on the way.”
Brown has played in seven of Detroit’s first 10 games, averaging 14 minutes. He entered the league known more for his defense and physicality, and that has been the case so far. He has made quite an impression on defensive-minded coach Dwane Casey.
“Bruce has been impressive, he’s a very impressive young man. Boston tough, I guess you’d say. He is a tough young man,” Casey said. “His shooting is the last thing to come around and he’s been working on that day and night. But his defense, I wouldn’t be afraid to put him in defensively in any situation. As a matter of fact, I think we put him in in the fourth quarter in the last possession of a game. We’re very, very excited about Bruce.”
Doncic makes big first impression
The Rookie of the Year discussion may start in Atlanta with Stephen Curry-lite Trae Young but could end in Dallas with Slovenian swingman Luka Doncic, who is leading all rookies with a 20.2-point-per-game average on 47.9 percent shooting. Those two will always be linked because of the draft-night trade in which they were swapped. The Hawks wanted a Curry-like franchise point guard for their rebuild. The Mavericks sought a Dirk Nowitzki replacement who could be tutored by the all-time great.
“We have many leaders, I think, but of course I always consider myself as a future leader — I want to be a leader,” the 19-year-old Doncic said on a conference call. “My team is going to help me so I can be one.”
There is no panic with the Mavericks over their slow start, but Doncic admits he has had to become accustomed to losing, and then moving on. “It’s really hard because I was a person who gets really upset if we don’t win, and for me it’s been hard, the games we lose,” said Doncic, who was the MVP of the EuroLeague playoffs last season. “But I think it’s just the beginning of the season. We have a lot of games to go, and we’re going to get together and the chemistry is going to get better and we’re going to win some games.”
With the influx into the NBA of the one-and-dones and players from overseas, it has taken considerable time for many young players to adjust to the league. Only eight rookies are averaging 10 points per game this season, and one of those eight is two-way-contract player Allonzo Trier of the Knicks.
Doncic is leading rookies in scoring, minutes, and 3-point attempts. He is sixth in 3-point percentage. His rookie year has gone well so far.
“I would like to go to the playoffs with the team,” he said. “That’s my first goal, for sure. And after that, Rookie of the Year. That’s one other thing I’m looking for.”
What has been most impressive about Doncic is his versatility with rebounding and assists. The Mavericks’ point guard is the gifted Dennis Smith Jr., who is also comfortable at shooting guard, giving coach Rick Carlisle the option of running the offense through Doncic. So far it has been effective.
“I always like to have the ball in my hand, create for others. I always want to play a lot of pick-and-roll,” Doncic said. “But here it’s different because here there are so many great players, so many talented players, and everybody can play.”
Nowitzki hasn’t played this season because of offseason foot surgery. It will be interesting to see how Carlisle works the 40-year-old back into the rotation or if he shares court time with Doncic. Nowitzki already has become the rookie’s mentor, aware Doncic is the next franchise cornerstone.
The Washington Wizards are a complete mess, starting the season 2-8 after a blowout loss at Dallas. But there isn’t much that can be done to rectify the situation because the Wizards are in salary-cap purgatory. They signed their three top players — John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter — to long-term extensions, and it would be difficult to move any of those three unless the Wizards take multiple players or a bad contract in return. At this point, Beal is their most marketable player and he has never truly gotten along with Wall. He would probably benefit from a change of scenery. Beal is in the second year of a four-year extension and will earn $55 million over the next two seasons, which is manageable in today’s escalated salary-cap era. But since he is their most marketable player, Beal is also the player the Wizards are most reluctant to move. They’d consider moving Wall, but he makes a mind-boggling $47 million in the final year of his contract in 2022-23. That makes him practically untradeable. Porter essentially has the same contract as Beal, and very few teams are going to want to pay $28 million to a player who seems content with being the No. 3 option. If the Wizards want to clean house, Beal is the most likely to go. If the Wizards are still in payroll misery near the trade deadline, Markieff Morris and Austin Rivers are impending free agents and could be moved. The status of coach Scott Brooks also comes into question because it seems nothing he has tried has worked since the Wizards lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2017 . . . After Kyrie Irving’s postgame tirade following Jamal Murray’s 48-point performance, he reiterated he had issue with Murray twice trying to go for 50 when the game was decided. Basketball can be a humbling game, as Murray followed his 48-point performance with just 15 points on 6-for-21 shooting and 2 for 9 from the 3-point line in Denver’s loss at Memphis. Something to look out for in Denver is the struggles of promising big man Nikola Jokic. He averaged just 5.7 points in his last four games and attempted just one shot in the loss to Memphis. It appears Murray and Gary Harris are soaking up Jokic’s shots. Denver coach Mike Malone wants to make Jokic the focal point of the offense.