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Boston Celtics’ NBA Draft history in the top ten

For better or worse, any time the Celtics have had a top-ten draft pick in the past, the franchise has been left forever changed. What lessons can be learned from these past prospects?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After all of Ainge’s wheeling and dealing the Celtics are well placed for the upcoming NBA draft. With a war chest of picks meticulously accumulated by the astute Ainge, Boston owns a total of eight draft picks, with seven of these picks falling between Nos. 16 and 58. But besides the possibilities these picks present, the focus for the fans is clearly on the skilfully acquired #netspick that guarantees Boston at least a top-6 prospect.

The Celtics are arguably in a better position than they ever have been before entering the draft. But this franchise has had  top-ten picks in the past, and they haven’t all turned out to be Larry Bird. For every future All-Star found in the draft there have been plenty of picks that haven't panned out.

With that in mind I thought it would be interesting to look at what lessons can be learned from past prospects. There are some success stories, a few painful memories and some outright tragic circumstances. Sometimes the Celtics have squandered picks or traded players too quickly, and a few times the franchise has bet the farm on complete busts.

Yet whatever the end result, every time the Celtics have picked in the top ten of the draft the franchise has been left forever changed.

History-making drafts

In the early days it was easy. The 1956 Draft saw the Celtics use the since-abolished Territorial Pick to draft local hero and living legend Tommy Heinsohn. Coupled with a draft-day trade for soon-to-be Celtics royalty, Bill Russell, the Celtics formed the backbone of a team that would dominate the sport for years to come.

A smattering of Celtics legends came from high first-round draft picks, including Larry Bird (No. 6 pick of the 1978 Draft), Kevin McHale (No. 3 pick of the 1980 Draft), Jo Jo White (No. 9 pick of the 1969 Draft), and John Havlicek (No. 7 pick of the 1962 Draft) to name just  a few. Yet without reaching back into the annals of Celtics history there are only a few prospects picked early in the draft that saw success with the Celtics.

The Truth

Paul Pierce was draft by Boston with the tenth pick of the 1998 NBA Draft and obviously became the cornerstone of the franchise leading into the Big Three Era. However, it wasn’t until Pierce returned to the Celtics following a near-death experience that he truly found his form and became the type of player capable of leading a championship team.

The importance of perspective and maturity in forming the foundation of a player’s game are exemplified by Paul Pierce, who, given time, developed into a true leader.

No risk, no reward?

Antoine Walker was drafted with the sixth pick in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Celtics and is the poster boy for high-risk/high-reward picks. Everything about Antoine Walker was high-risk, from the way he played, to the way he acted off the court, to the way he has since managed his finances. On the other hand, the reward could be seen in his numbers on the court, particularly when paired with Pierce. Employee Number 8’s time as a Celtic can be remembered at best as a piece of 90s nostalgia or at worst as a low point in the franchise’s history.

The trade chips

Other key picks from this murky era of mismanagement gave Boston some great players who were unfortunately hastily traded, including Chauncey Billups (No. 3 Pick in the 1997 draft) and Joe Johnson (No. 10 pick in the 2001 draft). Billups famously clashed with then-head coach, Rick Pitino, who had no qualms about trading Billups away despite the future champion’s obvious potential. A few years later, Joe Johnson was given up on too early and went on to become a perennial All-Star long after his time in Boston.

In a somewhat more successful trade manoeuvre, Jeff Green was draft by Boston with the fifth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft only to be immediately traded for Ray Allen in a deal that would launch Boston’s 2007-2008 championship run. After a few seasons away, Green was traded back to Boston and put up good numbers for the Celtics before being sent away again in January 2015 as a part of the team's rebuilding efforts. Looking back, Jeff Green was the draft pick that just kept on giving.

The total busts

It should be of some solace to the Celtics that outright busts have been about as rare as all-around successes.  Eric Montross was picked ninth in the 1994 NBA Draft, and after a productive rookie year his numbers dropped significantly and never recovered.

Ron Mercer was picked sixth in the same draft class as Billups. While Mercer was given more patience than Billups he never showed the same level of play. In the end Mercer spent only two years with the Celtics before a relatively average career as an NBA journeyman.

Randy Foye was another prospect traded on draft day after having been selected by the Celtics with the seventh pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. Foye never made the impact that his high draft position would suggest he should have, but he also never played for the Celtics, so even though he could be considered a bust he’s not Boston’s bust.

The utterly tragic

A look at the Celtics draft history wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the man many consider the greatest player who never played professionally. The tragic death of Len Bias almost immediately after being selected with the second pick of the 1986 NBA Draft was such an unexpected heartbreak that it has forever shaped how Boston’s lottery luck is perceived.

This single incident has so damaged Boston’s draft history that it has fuelled the idea that the Celtics have bad lottery luck in general. Bias was compared at the time to Michael Jordan and was selected with the second pick by the reigning champions, the Boston Celtics. With this high first-round draft pick, the already dominant Celtics looked set for the future. But sadly Bias would never see the court as a Celtic, dying from cardiac arrhythmia just two days after the draft.

Lessons of the past

So what, if anything, can be learned from such mixed results, other than repeating the old adage that the draft is a crapshoot? One thing that seems clear when combing over the Celtics' draft history is that whether or not a pick ends up being considered a bust is often due more to mismanagement and poor planning than it is to the potential of a particular prospect.

Right now the Celtics have a chance at their highest draft pick in decades. Perhaps more importantly, though, they seem more united as an organisation than they have been since their heyday. The Celtics may have misused some picks in the past, but they are a very different organisation to the one they were twenty years ago. Thankfully for Boston fans, Rick Pitino is not walking through that door.

Moving forward, the current management and coaching staff at Boston seem to fully comprehend just how valuable this draft's high first-round pick truly is. The Celtics have learned the lessons of their checkered past in the draft and now sit ready to take full advantage of any and all opportunities the #netspick represents. Although history has shown the draft can always end in disaster, the Celtics as an organisation have done all they can to prepare for the best and the worst this draft day.

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