The Celtics have a few good options in the 2016 NBA Draft, but that might not matter in the long run.
This article is part of a series on NBA Draft team needs. Max Holm wrote the first two articles on the Sixers and Lakers, which are informative and entertaining; I’d recommend checking them out. This article will look at the Celtics, whose solid team and array of picks in a mediocre draft puts them in a unique position.
Heading into the season it was hard to imagine that the Celtics would be in a tricky draft position: they had their own selection, the Mavericks’, and the Nets’–-one of the worst teams in the NBA. And the draft class looked mediocre, but fairly stacked at the top with Skal Labissiere, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, and Brandon Ingram creating a forward-heavy top five that would be ideal for the Celtics.
However, as the season went on, it became apparent that Labissiere and Brown were fool’s gold. Bender continued to rarely feature for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Simmons and Ingram performed up to their expectations, creating a two-headed monster at the top of the draft and a gulf below. Luck, then, played its part and the Celtics were awarded the third, 16th, and 23rd picks in the 2016 NBA Draft.
That third pick puts them in the trickiest position in the league. They’re a team that is built to win now, and, as such, don’t have the available playing time to properly develop a project. Most of the NBA ready players in this draft, on the other hand, are one dimensional and look incapable of being two-way players at the next level.
To be clear, the Boston Celtics are working with house money at this point. In 2013 they traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and a protected second round pick for three unprotected draft picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018, the right to swap in 2017, and the potpourri package of Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and Keith Bogans. This deal is the NBA equivalent of the Louisiana Purchase-–the shortsighted and improperly priced deal to rule them all.
The Nets got the better players in that deal for one year. None of them are currently on their roster and the Nets will have limited wiggle room for the foreseeable future. They have limited assets, limited talent, and $60 million worth of bad contracts still on the books next season. This being the case, new GM Sean Marks has said that he’s going to try and build from the foundation up and embark on a serious rebuild. To do this, he will likely attempt to get rid of the dead weight and target affordable, team-first roleplayers to build the core of the team around.
Which is great news for the Boston Celtics. It’s hard to see the Nets getting out of the lower half of the lottery before the end of the 2017-18 season, with almost everyone in the NBA having a brighter immediate future. One foil is that, without a pick, the Nets have no incentive to lose, but it’s hard to see them getting the talent in place to win 30-plus games regardless.
All of the above is to say that the pressure is largely off for the Boston Celtics. They’ll have high selections in the next two drafts, which are much more talented and much less top-heavy. With this in mind, lets review the Celtics’ options.
As mentioned earlier, it’s unclear if the Celtics have the playing time to invest in a project like Dragan Bender. The 7‘1” Croatian, who’s currently plying his trade in Israel, is two-years away from being a Porzingis two-years away when he was drafted. The jumper is real, but he plays the game like he’s 6‘5, gets destroyed on the boards, and hasn’t really featured against NBA-level athletes in Israel, largely doing work against bench units.
The fit here is better than one might think, though. Unlike Boston’s current forwards Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and Tyler Zeller, Bender has the potential to be an animal on defense at the NBA level. Playing like you’re 6‘5 on offense is a negative, but on defense it means that you can switch, use your wingspan to congest passing lanes, and effectively close out the three-point line. Kawhi Leonard‘s back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and the performance of Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals speaks to how important it is to have the length and defensive intelligence to guard the three-point line in the modern NBA. The clip below shows his speed and coverage on switches and in pick n’ rolls. He doesn’t do a great job of getting into his man, but he has the lateral quickness and the height to complicate offensive gameplans.
However, you typically need to play a sizable quantity of NBA minutes to become a good NBA defender. There are very few players who come into the NBA as effective positional defenders (Justise Winslow, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Eric Bledsoe, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are notable recent exceptions), and if they do, they usually have spectacular offensive deficiencies. It’ll take time to coach Bender up on that end of the court, especially as a player that’s not accustomed to playing against NBA-caliber athletes.
The question for the Celtics, then, is whether or not they believe that Bender can effectively develop in the Summer League, practice, and limited court time once the season begins. He’s gotten rave reviews for his work ethic, but many organizations fall into the trap of believing that their development team is special and can work wonders. The obvious situational parallel is the Pistons drafting Darko Milicic with the second pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. This is not to compare the players, because their games are nothing alike, but rather to say that riding the bench for a great team is rarely a position for successful development.
If they were to pass on Bender, though, it becomes clear that there are few attractive alternatives. The next best three guys, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, and Jamal Murray are all guards, a position where the Celtics are largely set. Marquese Chriss is an option. He’s been rising up draft boards and is a bouncy, seductive, option at forward. He’s skilled, has a great jumper, and soars over the rim, the guy is unreal athletic. When you watch tape from his year at Washington, you often see him only for an instant in the corner of your eye, before he’s slamming home a miss or getting to an alley-oop.
But he didn’t defend or rebound at all in college. This could come down to coaching, as his front court partner Malik Dime was equally terrible on the boards, but a lack of rebounding and defense is still a pretty huge red flag that make him just a solid prospect instead of a great one. If you are that athletic, you need to be getting more than 5.6 rebounds a game. He rarely gets into his man on the boards and doesn’t seem that interested in doing the dirty work. Failing to box out is inexcusable.
Chriss has higher offensive upside than Bender, but I don’t see anything in his makeup that’d make him a more compelling long-term option. The likelihood that Bender becomes as effective as Chriss on offensive is higher than Chriss getting to Bender’s level on defense. Bender already moves his feet well, understands help defense, and can get out on the perimeter. Chriss gets eaten alive in everything except weakside help. His ceiling would seem to be an energy guy of the bench. If you can’t defend or rebound, it’s hard to get on the court as a forward. Selecting him at three would be a reach.
Another possible option would be Jaylen Brown. Brown is ridiculously athletic and has an ideal NBA body. Some of the plays he makes are literally absurd, getting down the court in a handful of dribbles and jumping over the defense like LeBron. But he and last year’s number eight pick Stanley Johnson have almost identical measurables (6‘7 in shoes, 6‘11 winspan, 225lbs) and Brown performed worse at an older age (Brown is currently only six months younger than Johnson) in the Pac-12. Johnson was a much more skilled and versatile player, while Brown focused on scoring, if inefficiently: making only 43% of his shots and 30% of his threes.
Brown’s potential is compelling, but there’s some question as to whether he’ll ever become an efficient scorer in the NBA. His shot selection is terrible and his jumper form is inconsistent. Maybe he becomes a freight train that can get to the rim at will, but we haven’t seen anything to date that suggests that’s the case. The best case for Brown is that he becomes a lockdown defender and a dynamic offensive option. When you look at him it’s easy to see that materializing, but his play just doesn’t live up to it.
So, while Chriss and Brown are options, they both have flaws and bad habits that’ll take time to erase at the NBA level. Bender, on the other hand, is the perfect type of NBA clay. He has good shot mechanics, is a capable defender, and just needs to add, not take away. If he’s a willing learner, his ridiculous frame and solid fundamentals can be sculpted into the player that his NBA organization wants him to be.
That’s enough to make Bender the de facto number three pick in the minds of many, and as much as he’s a long-term project, it’s hard to not agree. While his strengths and weaknesses have not been well publicized due to a lack of playing time, his frame and physical attributes give him the highest upside in the draft and, if he can effectively add weight, he seems likely to become an elite defensive player.
#16 & #23
These picks will be consolidated into one section, because the Celtics will be targeting the same types of players at these two slots and should be able to get two NBA ready guys, considering the alleged popularity of European projects like Furkan Kormaz, Ante Zizic, Ivica Zubac, and Timothy Luwawu in the mid-lottery.
Denzel Valentine fills a need immediately. With Evan Turner perhaps departing, the Celtics will need a scorer to run their offense off the bench and Valentine has the perfect skill-set for this. He’s a swiss army knife on that end of the floor with elite shooting, excellent pick n’ roll offense, and a feel for the game that not many college prospects have.
There are signs that Valentine’s offensive game will translate well to the NBA level. Shooting-wise, he’s already tremendous in catch-and-shoot situations and has displayed NBA range in workouts. He can take over Turner’s role of running the bench offense out of the high-post and has the same combination of perimeter, pick n’ roll, post-up, high-basketball IQ skill that Turner does. While he’s a much worse defender, his offense, and increased spacing, could mitigate the loss on a rookie-scale contract and allow the Celtics to invest elsewhere. Below, he tears up NBA potential Wayne Selden to the tune of 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists.
Similarly, Taurean Prince is probably the player outside of the lottery that’s most likely to immediately contribute at the NBA-level. The guy is at least solid across the board, but has the frame, intelligence, and footwork to be an awesome defender at the next level. His lack of bounce, but good floor athleticism reminds me a bit of Klay Thompson. He’ll need to work on his shot a bit, as he was only average at the NCAA level, but other than that he’s the prototypical contemporary NBA player. Prince has the length and strength to guard forwards, and the quickness to switch onto guards. If you needed some intangibles, his name sounds like an energy drink additive and he gave the best press conference answer in recent history.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6A2ZgKV6n0
Over the next three-years, Prince will likely be the third best forward in this draft behind Simmons and Ingram. There are other players in this draft that have a higher upside, but there aren’t any that have the offensive and defensive versatility that Prince provides. Pairing him with Amir Johnson, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, and Avery Bradley would be a mouthwatering defensive lineup. It couldn’t reliably score, but it could be useful in terrorizing opposing teams in defensive lineup scenarios. The Celtics may try to pull off a draft-day trade if he comes off the board before they select.
Another option for the Celtics could be Deyonta Davis, Davis is essentially the opposite of Chriss. He’s an excellent defender, rebounder, and shot-blocker, but has an underdeveloped offensive game. He could project out to be a glass-cleaning big like Ed Davis depending on how he adds weight for the NBA game. The Celtics may have too many bigs already, though, with a four or five player deep forward rotation. This means that Davis, who’s not ready to contribute for a good team, may have to be developed like a project and bounce between the D-League and NBA while he adjusts to NBA-level strength and conditioning. This being the case, the aforementioned players make a bit more sense given their fit and arrival time.
Deyonta Davis contests Melo Trimble’s missed game winner. Brian Spurlock - USA Today
There’s an undercurrent in all of this that there are few players in this draft that could immediately improve the Celtics. This being the case, the best option may be a trade. Whether it’s #3, #23, and a few players for an established star or one of #16 or #23 for a role-player, the Celtics stand to gain more from acquiring a player that immediately turns them from a good team into a contender than any of the long-term projects in this draft. Bender could become an all-star level NBA player, but his rookie-scale contract will be expiring by the time he starts to tap into that potential, and the current Celtics group will likely be reaching the end of their timeline. Running a successful organization is also about building for the future, though, and the Celtics will also need to acquire the assets for the long-term. To that end, you could do worse than getting a couple of excellent projects; Ultimately, the Celtics’ 2016 draft “sound like one of those good problems”.
The Draft Order and Team Needs
1. Philadelphia 76ers
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. Boston Celtics (From Brooklyn)
4. Phoenix Suns
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
6. New Orleans Pelicans
7. Denver Nuggets (From New York)
8. Sacramento Kings
9. Toronto Raptors (From Denver)
10. Milwaukee Bucks
11. Orlando Magic
12. Atlanta Hawks (From Utah)
13. Phoenix Suns (From Washington) - Second 1st Round Pick
14. Chicago Bulls
15. Denver Nuggets (From Houston) - Second 1st Round Pick
16. Boston Celtics (From Dallas) - Second 1st Round Pick
17. Memphis Grizzlies
18. Detroit Pistons
19. Denver Nuggets (From Portland) - Third 1st Round Pick
20. Indiana Pacers
21. Atlanta Hawks - Second First Round Pick
22. Charlotte Hornets
23. Boston Celtics - Third First Round Pick
24. Philadelphia 76ers (From Miami) - Second First Round Pick
25. Los Angeles Clippers
26. Philadelphia 76ers (From Oklahoma City) - Third First Round Pick
27. Toronto Raptors - Second First Round Pick
28. Phoenix Suns (From Cleveland) - Third First Round Pick
29. San Antonio Spurs
30. Golden State Warriors
No Picks: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards
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