Isaiah Thomas is the heart of the Celtics franchise and no one will tell you any different. On Tuesday, the Celtics won the lottery and the consensus top prospect is Markelle Fultz, another player who is considered a guard. The Celtics have two other guards in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley plus some younger guys waiting in line such as Tery Rozier and Demetrius Jackson. Logjams can be cleared and the Celtics shouldn’t have a problem moving guys if they ask for a reasonable price. But we know Isaiah Thomas isn’t going anywhere and Markelle Fultz isn’t going to stop being the number one prospect, so can the two play together?
The re-education of Isaiah Thomas
Before we can understand who can actually work with Isaiah Thomas, it’s important to understand who he is.
Thomas is a 5’9 dragon who has been spewing fire at opposing defenses ever since he put on his Celtics uniform. This year the guard went for 28.7ppg, 5.9apg, and shot 46/37/90. And of course, no one can forget the month of January when Thomas decided to take his game to a new level and average 32.9ppg, 6.9apg, and shot 49/43/94. Celtics fans have gotten used to the idea that Thomas can do this to a team on any given night:
Thomas is a gifted scorer, whether that’s taking it to the basket, shooting from range, creating for himself or others, it really doesn’t matter. Thomas finds a way to amass points in ways guys his size shouldn’t. One of the lesser talked about ways Thomas has been able to score is while playing the off-guard. Throughout the season he almost played the off-ball position exclusively when he shared the floor with Marcus Smart.
And the Celtics have relied on it even more during the postseason where teams have decided that they will throw as many people as it takes to limit Thomas. In situations like that, teams were practically daring a guard like Marcus Smart to beat them, and without a consistent jump shot or ability to break people down off the dribble, the Celtics offense at times couldn’t create anything. This has always been a concern with the Isaiah Thomas-led offense. If he can’t create for you, then who can? So far that answer has been Al Horford, but even he needs to be created for to get in rhythm. The Celtics have a roster full of quality players who can capitalize when created for, but that number shrinks when it comes to players that can make plays for themselves if need be. It’s why this season the Celtics will be hunting for a secondary scorer, and why they may have just lucked into one with the number one pick.
Introducing Markelle Fultz
At this stage you’ve probably heard a bunch about Fultz since the lottery, but if you haven’t watched him in Washington you’re probably still skeptical on why there’s so much hype around him. The simple answer is that he’s probably one of the least flawed prospects in this draft, and has no critical question marks in his game. While on the ball, Fultz has mastered the pick and roll game.
According to DraftExpress, Fultz ranked in the 93rd percentile in PnR scoring, and it made up 30% of his offense. Fultz has shown an ability to get downhill, and use an array of moves like stepbacks and hang dribbles to get to where he wants on the floor. Furthermore, while passing out of the PnR, Fultz generates 1.088ppp. He’s able to hit rollers, hit the corners when guys collapse, and has a great feel of where his players are on the court. Fultz averaged a 35.5% assist percentage and a 13.3 turnovers percentage which are both better than Lonzo Ball despite a drastically higher usage rate (31.9% to 18.1%).
Fultz has a methodical way of surveying the floor where he uses his height to see over defenders, then uses a devastating change of pace that is mixed in with hesitations and crossovers. His play style may make the casual fan believe he’s unathletic, but after watching a game you quickly learn that he simply is playing under control and when he needs to he’ll make plays like this.
Off the ball, Fultz can be just as deadly. According to DraftExpress, Fultz averages 1.13 ppp on catch and shoot opportunities and 1.15 ppp off screens. This skill helps Fultz not only play with another ball-handler, but also gives him the ability to have coaches call set plays for him. For example, in an ATO sitaution, Stevens could have out Thomas-Bradley-Fultz-Crowder-Horford, he could call any of their numbers.
Speaking of lineups, DraftExpress is projecting Fultz to be at 6’5 with about a 6’10 wingpsan. That would literally be an inch shorter than Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder and would make him the tallest projected back court player on the roster. So being able to play alongiside other guards without giving up much size on the perimeter shouldn’t be an issue.
Fultz and the Celtics were meant for each other
If you don’t belive me, listen to Isaiah Thomas:
There’s going to be plenty of questions of whether Isaiah Thomas and Fultz can mesh, and usually when we’re talking about bringing a high upside lottery guard to a team with a solidified starter the answer is no. However, this isn’t the usual circumstances, Thomas isn’t a guard on the decline with a limited offensive repertoire with a young prospect being brought in who will only be a plus offensively if he’s at the one. Both Thomas and Fultz are electric guards that can score at all three levels and can absolutely put offenses on their backs. They are also capable players off-ball who know how to come off screens, and can be just as lethal to opposing teams. You’ll hear the legitimate questions about defense and get the occasional Lillard-McCollum comparisons, but one thing to keep in mind is Fultz has actually shown solid defensive potential and averaged 1.6 spg, and 1.2 bpg. He’s become one of the best guards in college basketball at the chase down block and when engaged can really sit in a stance and move his feet.
It’s also worth noting that unlike other rookies in this draft who will be thrust into tough situations and be expected by fans to show all the potential from day one, Fultz will be surrounded by vets who know how to win and have bought in to the system of their coach. He’ll be able to comfortably ease himself into the NBA lifestyle and experience what it’s like to be in a playoff environment.
But, unlike other prospects, Fultz isn’t a guy who is primarily made up on athleticism and wingspan. He has legitimate, tangible skills that he can put on a basketball court right now. Those skills in conjunction with the offensive prowess of Isaiah Thomas will give Boston another weapon offensively who will make the jobs of the core 4 (Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Horford), much easier.
Don’t overthink it. Don’t get bogged down on unlikely trade targets. The light at the end of the tunnel is right here. Draft Markelle Fultz and watch how it all comes together.