While the Celtics haven’t exactly enjoyed the best offseason so far — Kyrie Irving appears headed to Brooklyn, Anthony Davis is a Los Angeles Laker, and Al Horford is a free agent — they do have an opportunity to control their fate without anxiously waiting on a free agent decision.
There has never been a draft as important to the Celtics as this one and that’s because 1) they need to get younger and more talented and 2) they have three of the first 22 picks Thursday.
Now if the Patriots had three of the first 22 picks, Boston faithful would be counting the days of the draft like a 7-year-old (or me) for Christmas. But there seems to be a collective blah because Zion Williamson and Ja Morant won’t end the night as members of the Celtics.
Also included in that ambivalence is president of basketball operation Danny Ainge’s draft history, especially later in the first round.
The Celtics couldn’t miss on all three of these picks, could they?
It’s doubtful, but the franchise has missed on some mid- and late-first-round picks and this an unpredictable year.
Firstly, Ainge is trying to move up in this draft, targeting Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland, the poster player for this mercurial draft. Garland played five games last season, a total of 139 minutes, because of a knee injury, and he decided to declare for the draft.
Garland has been compared with Portland’s Damian Lillard and could become a franchise cornerstone, but then again the sample size is small.
The Celtics own the 14th, 20th, and 22nd picks, the byproducts of the Jayson Tatum trade (the 14th pick), the Jeff Green trade (20th pick), and their own at 22.
There is opportunity to land impact players with each pick. But the Celtics don’t want to take three rookies into training camp, so expect one of those picks to be dealt for a future first-rounder or a draft-and-stash.
But before we get into the possible players who could be Celtics, understand that Ainge could be working on a major draft-night deal. An NBA source said he believes the Celtics are working on such a deal to nab a veteran player and could use those draft picks to work out a trade.
A player such as Washington’s Bradley Beal could be available. And don’t be surprised if Ainge is working to bring in an established veteran to ensure the Celtics are competitive for a title next year in what will be a completely open path to the NBA championship.
The Toronto Raptors could lose Kawhi Leonard. The Milwaukee Bucks have to try to re-sign Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, while the Philadelphia 76ers are going to need to bring back Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to emerge as a favorite.
The Celtics still have talent without Irving, but Ainge could use draft night to either trade up to get a future star or trade, or take an unwanted salary from a team looking to rebuild.
The problem with having a draft that contains so many evenly talented players is the Celtics have no idea who is going to fall to them at 14. They worked out dozens of players, including Kentucky swingman Tyler Herro, who could be a candidate for the 14th pick.
There are also players such as Indiana’s Romeo Langford, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, Stanford’s KZ Okpala, USC’s Kevin Porter Jr., Virginia’s Ty Jerome, and Oregon’s Bol Bol. All of these players could add something to the Celtics’ rotation, but maybe not right away.
It’s difficult for the Celtics to squeeze three rookies onto their roster when Guerschon Yabusele, the 16th overall pick in 2016, is still occupying a roster spot and Robert Williams, taken 27th last year, remains a project. The Celtics have no idea what they’re going to get out of either player this year, making the addition of three more “wait-and-see” players more difficult.
So Ainge has to be astute in his drafts. He can’t afford a long-term project, unless the other two picks are successful. Considering that free agency may cost the Celtics Irving and Horford, this may be the most important draft of Ainge’s tenure.
And it’s more difficult because none of the three picks will be can’t-miss prospects. The Celtics are going to have to sift through the busts, the role players and youngsters who are in this just to enjoy the NBA life, to get three real ballplayers.
The stakes are high. The Celtics are going to need to endure a mini-roster makeover to get to that next level. They are going to have to rely on young talent, so Thursday will be a monumental night for the future of the organization.