NEW YORK — Even though the Celtics season ended with great disappointment, there was reason for optimism to swell afterward. They would begin their pursuit of superstar forward Anthony Davis, ramp up their pitch to Kyrie Irving, and look to bring back Al Horford on a longer-term deal, all while figuring out how to proceed with their pile of draft picks.
But over the past few weeks, the Celtics have been dealt one gut punch after another. They were unable to acquire Davis, Irving distanced himself from the franchise and appears headed elsewhere, and on Tuesday the stunning news emerged that Horford is now likely to join another team this summer.
Suddenly, a draft that once seemed mostly like a chance to complement a powerful roster has taken on added urgency.
Boston holds the 14th, 20th, 22nd, and 51st picks in Thursday’s draft. League sources said the Celtics continue to probe for creative ways to use the picks, whether it be trading up, trading out of the draft, or using them to help acquire a veteran. But unlike before, when roster spots were likely to be at a premium, it is now also plausible that they could simply add more than one rookie to their roster.
On Wednesday, 20 of this year’s top prospects gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, one day before one of the biggest days of their lives. And there is a good chance at least one future Celtic was among them.
North Carolina’s Nassir Little, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kentucky’s Tyler Herro, Sekou Doumbouya of France, and Goga Bitadze of the country of Georgia have all had predraft workouts in Boston.
“I think Danny Ainge, obviously he knows what he’s doing,” Herro said. “He usually makes the right moves, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Several of the players said they were caught off-guard by the string of bad news that seems to be striking the Celtics. But they added that it could lead to new opportunities on a talented young team.
“A guy like Kyrie, that’s big shoes to fill,” Alexander-Walker said. “But if the organization sees something in me, I’m definitely going to run with it.”
Little, who is ESPN’s 10th-ranked prospect, felt he really showcased his versatility during his workout at the Auerbach Center. The 6-foot-6-inch forward said the team’s executives and coaches gave him some hints of how they would use him.
“They were a pretty wing-heavy team this past season,” Little said. “This year with free agency stuff, I don’t know how that’s all going to play out. But I know they have a lot of wings and they look at me as a guy that can fit into the mold of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in that kind of situation.”
Johnson, another wing, said he shot the ball quite well during his visit with the Celtics, and he believes his defensive-minded approach would mesh well with the team.
“They’re a great, legendary franchise,” the Kentucky freshman said. “They’ve had so many players come through, so they know what they’re doing over there.”
Alexander-Walker, a 6-6 combo guard, wowed the Celtics by tying the record in the infamous three-minute run they put all prospects through. He thinks the team was impressed by his ability to shoot with both hands, as well as his defensive instincts.
“Getting to talk to coach [Brad] Stevens and picking his brain a little bit, he has a great mind for the game and is definitely someone I could learn from,” he said.
The international prospects Doumbouya and Bitadze, meanwhile, are much less familiar to most basketball fans. Doumbouya, who was born in Guinea, is a long and athletic 6-9 forward who is ranked eighth in this draft class by ESPN.
He said he was very impressed by Boston’s sparkling new training facility, the Auerbach Center, and that he had a good workout there.
Bitadze, a skilled 7-foot center, said the Celtics were one of just five teams he worked out for, along with the Hornets, Pistons, Hawks, and Spurs. He said that meeting Stevens was “amazing,” and that he could bring a lift to the Celtics with his energy and work ethic.
Kentucky forward P.J. Washington said he initially had a workout scheduled with the Celtics but that he canceled it because of “a little foot injury,” although he acknowledged the issue did not keep him out of any other workouts with other teams.
Texas 7-footer Jaxson Hayes said he met with the Celtics at the NBA combine last month. He said he has known Stevens since he recruited one of his friends when Stevens was at Butler. Hayes, who will likely be gone by the time the Celtics pick at No. 14, said the recent news surrounding Boston has been fascinating.
“I’m excited to see what happens with them, see if Kyrie stays or leaves,” he said. “Obviously it would change the league a lot.”