BOSTON – There are poker faces. Then there’s Danny Ainge.
As the embers bounce across the burning war room, Ainge sits there with a wry smile. Trade calls flood in, workouts get cancelled, and he preaches the march forward.
“This is fine,” he mutters as he sips his coffee.
Ainge started the week in the aftermath of trading away the top pick in the draft, taking a long look at Markelle Fultz and saying, “...Meh.” He moved down to the third pick and grabbed Jayson Tatum, a man born with 10 points in the first quarter. This was the guy Ainge wanted all along, so he says.
“Yes, we would have picked him the first pick,” Ainge said of Tatum, as Fultz brushed the suede on the brim of his new Philadelphia 76ers hat in the Barclays Center.
While Fultz begins the next phase of The Process in Philadelphia, Tatum completes the next step of the championship puzzle in Boston as the complementary dynamic scorer Ainge has been searching for. But at 19, his timeline is well behind his team’s. There is a palpable taste in the Garden air, as opportunity costs pile up.
Boston drafted for need and apparently drafted the best player available. It was more likely they could trade Jae Crowder for Kristaps Porzingis straight up than Ainge saying anything other than Tatum was their number one guy. He got himself a PIerce carbon copy, coincidentally passing on a Kansas swingman to select a man who grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Lakers like The Truth before him. For what it’s worth, Tatum made it clear that he’s a Celtics fan now.
Yet he found himself at the podium after midnight on one of the longest days of the year, glassy-eyed and full of glee. He was riffing like he just won the top pick all over again, teasing reporters for dozing off like Phil Jackson at a draft workout while throwing shade at state capitals.
Ainge could sell Chick-Fil-A to Foghorn Leghorn, so he doubled down on all of his actions in the earliest hours Friday morning.
"The draft was very even we felt at the top, all the way through maybe five or six," Ainge said. "And it was very difficult. There was a lot of players we liked in this year's draft."
Tatum is in many ways a bigger version of Fultz, a complete go-to scorer who can manipulate the floor with a steady and calm pull-up game. Unlike every Celtic but Isaiah Thomas, these players keep every inch of parquet in play. This was both the biggest need for Boston and the most important asset for any basketball team. They have built a great system, but struggle to execute it on the highest level because their players are too reliant on perfect execution. That is where elite scorers come into play, getting those buckets when the system fails. Fultz is that guy and then some. Tatum could also be a step above.
With Jaylen Brown showing a promising future at the three, Tatum can slide in at the four between Al Horford and Brown. Ainge noted that he envisions Tatum being a swing in the future, something Jayson is preparing for. When asked by CelticsBlog what he needs to do for his playing style to transition well to the NBA, his focus was on building up his body.
“I need to get bigger, that’s first and foremost,” Tatum said. “I’m just 19, so I’m pretty sure my body’s going to continue to fill out. We’ll just see where I get with a comfortable playing weight.”
He confirmed he added on 10 lbs. his freshman year at Duke, and last weighed in at the 2016 Hoops Summit before the season as 6’8.25” in shoes and 204 lbs. His 6’11” wingspan gave him a 8’10.5” standing reach, plenty long enough to play the swing four in the NBA. Considering Tatum tweeted that he measured at 6’9” and 196 lbs. three years ago, it’s not clear how much more growing is left for him.
But his game will benefit more from improving his bounciness, as he already has the technique to score effectively at his height. Paul George – Tatum’s self-proclaimed role model for his game – took another step in his career when he kept growing from Tatum’s size to at least 6’10”, so much of his future at the four depends on this.
Tatum said he is most comfortable as a three on the wing, but envisions being able to function as a four swing or even as a guard when needed. That positional versatility is a central tenet to the Celtics roster building plan and Stevens’ coaching philosophy. Stevens runs a primarily five-out motion system, which works fine for Tatum as he acknowledged the value of being versatile in an increasingly position-less NBA.
Stevens was asked what position Tatum would play and said it doesn’t matter. Asked who Tatum would guard, Stevens said, “Whoever.”
He described watching LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the Finals this year, playing center and point guard on the same play. He has always modeled his game after Paul George and showed respect to Paul Pierce, but he is part of a new, transcendent generation. Ainge envisions a future for him next to Brown, with their skill sets complimenting each other perfectly while being able to switch nearly everything.
“I think that we’re all seeing the way the game has evolved and you really can’t have too many versatile players that can play multiple defensive positions.”
In Tatum they can see a complete future, someone who can be that cornerstone opposite Thomas. With the chaos of trade season reaching a boiling point, the Tatum pick feels simultaneously safe and audacious. It’s a self confidence that if Ainge can’t have your stars for a fair price, he’s just going to make his own.
As the Celtics spent the week negotiating trades they felt were outrageous, they wanted to send a message to their trade partners – or what remains of them after the Jimmy Butler trade and the Kristaps Porzingis calamity – that they can’t be held ransom by their lack of liquidity. CelticsBlog asked Ainge if he felt persecuted for his wealth management, held to a higher standard in his offers because of his embarrassment of asset riches.
“I think there's some truth in that. I think you're spot on there a little bit,” he said. “I mean, I know when I'm trying to do deals with teams, and I'm looking -- Oh, I'm going to call that team because they have something I'm really excited about. I think people around the league know what we have and they are asking for some of our prime real estate.”
When CelticsBlog asked if that has been the hurdle for getting to the finishing line on a trade for a tangible great player, Ainge remained steadfast on his organizational values.
“I don't know. I think over the last few trading periods, it's been a little bit of a hurdle. Bottom line, we have to do the deals we really believe in.
“I think our team is on board with the ones we turn down and the ones we pursue longer and think more about. I think that we're all on the same page, so we'll continue to find the right deals.”
Thus the focus shifts to free agency, where it’s mono y mono. The free agent and the team.
“I think July is the busiest time of the year,” Ainge said. “I anticipate us being active to improve our roster.”
The Celtics had long positioned themselves to be major buyers on this market, carving max salary slots for either Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin to slide right in. But then the $108 million projected cap fell to $102 million and $101 million before finally landing at an official $99 million. Ainge’s front office went from coasting into max space to figuring out how to slice up the roster to squeeze millions out.
“That hurt. That hurt a little bit,” Ainge said. “A little sting, but that's going to make it a little more challenging.”
He can slip out of it, but it’ll take some big sacrifices that they were hoping to kick down the road like a draft pick.
“We'll be able to fix it. We're in foul trouble right now, but we'll be back. We'll be back in the second half.”
Yet again, they walk away from draft night with a killing field of stalled out trades in their wake, but the trophies of a potentially great player at the top of the draft and another potential steal in the second round. The beauty of the draft asset is that it is not a decaying vessel. It is a cocoon, with a new player waiting to spread his wings.
Nearly two decades after Paul Pierce tumbled into the Celtics’ laps, what could be his next evolution has taken his place.
“Shooting, intelligence, character, there’s a lot to like about Jayson,” Ainge said. “He’s going to be a terrific player.”