With the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday and the Celtics owning four picks — including three in the first round — we asked basketball writers Adam Himmelsbach and Gary Washburn a handful of questions about Boston’s draft strategy.
Q. How does the uncertainty around Kyrie Irving’s future in Boston and missing out on Anthony Davis affect the Celtics’ draft strategy?
Himmelsbach: Well, first of all, it means they actually have some picks to play with. If they had traded for Davis, some, if not all, of those three first-round choices would have been shipped out for him. Otherwise, it shouldn’t affect the strategy all that much.
It would be stunning if Boston actually used all three picks on players for next season. The guess here is that if Danny Ainge sees a player he likes closer to the top of the draft, he’ll do what he can to package some selections and move up.
Otherwise, look for Boston to use at least one of the picks to either trade out of the draft or select a draft-and-stash player who is willing to stay in Europe for at least a season, much like the Celtics did when they took Guerschon Yabusele and Ante Zizic in 2016.
Washburn: It makes this draft even more important. It’s a star league, and the Celtics have to find stars in this draft. They can’t afford any major misses with their three first-round picks. They have to find at least one player who can turn into a rotation player soon and become a complementary player to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
And it wouldn’t hurt if one of those players was a talented point guard who could eventually become a cornerstone. If Irving is gone and Terry Rozier is unhappy and didn’t exactly play like a starter for an elite team, the Celtics have to find one.
Q. What’s their biggest area of need?
Himmelsbach: This team still could use shooting, particularly after the 3-point downturns that Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford all had last season. (Although Marcus Smart got better!) And the long-range issue will only be exacerbated if Irving departs.
Having said that, Ainge generally does not draft based on need. It’s much more important to get a good player than it is to get a player who fills a gap. As we’ve seen time after time, roster turnover is so constant that needs are always changing anyway.
Washburn: It’s point guard and shooting guard. The Celtics have to decide whether Marcus Smart is their shooting guard or a sixth-man type who can play several positions. The offense was hurt because Smart couldn’t shoot well, putting more pressure on Irving to score.
The Celtics haven’t had a reliable 3-point shooter since Ray Allen. It would be nice to get a shooter in this draft. The Celtics tried with R.J. Hunter and others, but that didn’t work out.
And if you know Irving is gone and Rozier is on the way out, point guard is an important position. You can get a quality ballhandler in the mid-first round; the Celtics just have to find the right one.
Q. How deep is this draft?
Himmelsbach: It actually seems to shape up somewhat nicely for the Celtics, who hold the 14th, 20th, and 22nd overall picks. After Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and R.J. Barrett, there is no real consensus for much of the first round.
But most often, no one really has any idea how deep a draft actually is. The Raptors just won an NBA title despite not having a single lottery pick on their roster. (Shout out to Fred VanVleet, who wasn’t even drafted at all.) As much time and effort goes into this process, it is extremely inexact.
Still, there appear to be some good prospects in the 15-25 range. Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and Kentucky’s P.J. Washington could be steals if they fall.
Washburn: This is one of the more interesting drafts in recent memory because there eventually could be as many All-Stars in the last half of the first round as the first half.
There’s a lot of players with potential in this draft, but a lot with major flaws who could be busts. Past the first three picks, there are a lot of questions, including point guard Darius Garland from Vanderbilt, who played just five games in college but could be a Celtics target.
Q. Is there a player outside the lottery fans should be excited about?
Himmelsbach: There are plenty of players outside the lottery who could turn into stars. But, again, no one really knows.
He might not be selected until late in the first round, but I liked watching Purdue’s Carsen Edwards. He’s a scorer, he’s relentless, and he’s fearless. He’s also not that big, but it seems like the Celtics love guys who play with that much heart.
Washburn: I’d say Kevin Porter Jr. of USC. He comes with baggage, having been suspended for nine games for arguing with his head coach. But he is a tremendous talent and could turn into an All-Star under the right system and guidance. He is not considered a top-10 pick and is expected to be available when the Celtics draft 14th.
Q. Do you consider Danny Ainge to be a good drafter?
Himmelsbach: I think that over time, Ainge has been quite good. There’s a ton of luck involved in the draft, and it’s easy to look back at the superstars the team passed over. Did Ainge take Kelly Olynyk over Giannis Antetokounmpo and R.J. Hunter over Montrezl Harrell? Yes. But it’s not like he was on an island in overlooking their talents. Plenty of teams did.
Aside from a few lean years, the Celtics have mostly been quite successful under Ainge, so they have rarely held top-10 picks unless they came courtesy of the Nets.
But there have been plenty of good picks late in the first round. Ainge grabbed Tony Allen at No. 25 overall, Gerald Green 18th, Avery Bradley 19th, and Terry Rozier 16th.
On the rare occasions when the Celtics have had high picks, they have mostly hit. It’s tough to have any issue with Marcus Smart [sixth], Jaylen Brown [third], or Jayson Tatum [third].
Washburn: He has had his moments, but he gets a C-plus at best because he’s had some big misses. The most notable is passing on Giannis Antetokounmpo for Kelly Olynyk. He also passed on Pascal Siakam for Ante Zizic and Guerschon Yabusele.
Ainge missed on James Young, R.J. Hunter, Ben Bentil, Demetrius Jackson, and Fab Melo. But he’s hit on Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart.
Ainge has fared well with the top-15 picks but he’s struggled with those late first-rounders and passed on some of those players who came into the draft with flaws but could have flourished in the right situation. Missing on Zizic and Guerschon has hurt the franchise, but you can’t whiff on two first-round picks.