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The case for Josh Jackson

In the Celtics’ most critical off-season, this #1 pick isn’t just a matter of “best player available.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Purdue vs Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I am not a draft guru. I haven’t watched hours of game film or poured over DraftExpress scouting reports on this year’s draft class. I barely left the bench for my high school basketball team. But here’s my case for drafting Josh Jackson with the #1 pick.

Yesterday, ESPN Insider’s Chad Ford suggested that the Celtics “might pull a surprise at No. 1.” Although Markelle Fultz has been the favorite for the top pick in next Thursday’s draft, he’s not exactly the consensus #1. Many scouts and experts have actually pegged Jackson as the future superstar of this class. Despite questionable shooting and some character issues stemming from a misdemeanor property damage charge at Kansas, he brings world-class athleticism and versatile defense to the game.

One general manager told Ford:

"I've picked Danny's brain for years," one GM said. "Jackson is an Ainge player all the way. Tough, athletic, long, versatile, elite motor. If he's keeping the pick, Jackson just to me, far and away, is the most Celtics-type player for them to draft. From all my conversations with them, I'm convinced they'll take Jackson No. 1."

Another GM was confident that Jackson would be the Celtics’ best small forward—better than Jae Crowder or Jaylen Brown—eventually and has “more star potential than Fultz or Ball.” To this point, Jackson and his agent, B.J. Armstrong, have refused to work out for Boston. Many have speculated that because of the Celtics’ depth and rebuilding timeline, Jackson doesn’t want to join a team where he won’t get playing time to develop. But that won’t scare off the Celtics. They’ve drafted players in the past that they never had over at Waltham.

Of course, that could all be a smokescreen by Ainge, but let’s consider what he’s facing after June 22nd. It’s no secret that on July 1st, he, the rest of the front office, and presumably some of the players will be in full free agent recruiting mode. What Danny does on draft night (and not just with the #1 pick) will affect his sales pitch to potential players.

It’s also no secret that at midnight, one of his first calls will be to Gordon Hayward. Adding Hayward gives Brad Stevens another playmaker on the floor. One of the big reasons that the Celtics progressed to the Eastern Conference Finals this season was Al Horford. Having another All-Star-caliber player paired with Isaiah Thomas gave the Celtics another option through which to run their offense. Hayward in green would would form that figurative Big Three that Ainge has been looking for since trading Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo.

Utah Jazz v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

However, there are rumblings that Hayward doesn’t want to co-exist in that kind of environment. Look at how the Jazz are built. Rudy Gobert is the second-best player in Utah, but he’s a defensive specialist that does all the dirty work and doesn’t get in the way of Gordon’s game. The rest of the roster pieces are, for now, complimentary role players on the rise. Hayward might like it that way. It’s vaulted him to All-Star status, and his team is one of the best young rosters in the Western Conference.

ESPN’s Tim McMahon commented on the TBA podcast that “...Hayward has significant concerns about playing with Isaiah Thomas. In other words he wants the ball in his hands, he doesn’t just want to watch Isaiah dribble around and do his thing.” Many Celtics bloggers have pointed out that Boston ranks very high in team assists and offensive rating and that Hayward shouldn’t worry too much that his former Butler coach wouldn’t be able to figure out how to keep everybody happy on and off the ball.

So, how could that affect who Ainge drafts in less than a week? Well, if McMahon is right, then adding another young playmaking point guard in Markelle Fultz would be yet another mouth to feed in Boston’s pecking order. However, add another defensive-minded player like Josh Jackson, and Danny’s spiel becomes a little more persuasive: “Gordon, in order to maximize what you can do on the offensive end, we’ve got a stable of defenders that will ease your burden on the other side of the ball.”

This is all just scuttlebutt until June 22nd, but just as Ainge did in 2007 when he traded the #5 pick for Ray Allen in order to sway Kevin Garnett to commit to the Celtics, the #1 pick in this year’s draft may not just be a “best player available” proposition. It’s not just an argument of whether or not Josh Jackson is a better prospect than Markelle Fultz. Part of a GM’s tradecraft is being able to chain several moves together like a grandmaster. When the Celtics won the lottery a month ago, it was celebrated as if Boston had the NBA’s future king incoming, but in this game of chess, the #1 pick could just be the initial pawn. This is the most important offseason for the Celtics in thirty years, and it’s mission critical to get it right.

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