Turning the page from a playoff exit towards the offseason, Danny Ainge has given himself a simple charge: find a way to make this roster better.
With three first-round picks, a second-rounder, and a glut of young players already on the roster, the Boston Celtics can only get so young while chasing Banner 18. Without rehashing what the offseason holds (as Keith Smith, Bill Sy and myself discussed in a winter primer), Ainge will have to make some sort of move to clear picks or find takers for their 2019 rookie class, as there aren’t enough roster spots to accommodate everyone.
In looking at the 2020 Draft for the Celtics, the 14th pick is far-and-away their best bet to add a player of immediate impact. Franchises knocking on the door of an NBA Finals berth rarely snag a lottery selection, so its one the Celtics should covet. This may be Ainge’s best bet to thread the needle between long-term upside and short-term return on investment.
For our draft coverage at CelticsBlog this year, we’ll break players down into one of three categories, inspired by our fearless leader, Brad Stevens: guards, wings, and bigs. We’ll also discuss players in terms of their strengths and their improvement areas, shying away from the phrase ‘weaknesses’ because basketball players are works in progress, and the identified areas are certainly within their control to sharpen.
With all that said, we’ll start with a glimpse into some of the guards who might be sensible fits for the Celtics when they are on the clock with the 14th overall selection - Cole Anthony, Kira Lewis Jr., Tyrese Maxey, and Tyrell Terry.
Cole Anthony, North Carolina
A strong-bodied 6’3” point guard with an NBA pedigree, Cole Anthony came into the 2019-20 college basketball season as a top-five draft prospect. After a nightmare season at North Carolina that resulted in the program’s fewest wins since 2002, Anthony’s draft stock is all over the place. He’s got the alpha gene, is best with the ball in his hands and wasn’t surrounded by much talent in Chapel Hill, but his disappointing year has soured many on how much he’ll impact winning.
First and foremost, Anthony is a scorer. Short-term, he’s a scoring 6th man who anchors the second unit and can create in the moments where Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker need a rest. Long-term, he’d be the heir apparent to Kemba and another three-level scorer on the roster.
Anthony plays with phenomenal pace, is a little underrated as a passer, and hits tough mid-range pull-ups. He creates shots for himself out of isolations and ball screens. His step-back jumpers are consistent either way, and he’s able to get them off against larger defenders.
What I love most about Anthony’s offensive game is that he shot over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers. Anyone coming in at the point guard spot who shares the floor with Tatum and Brown needs to be able to play off-ball and have value. He’s a good catch-and-shoot threat, can be used off screens and meshes well with the franchise pillars in that regard.
There are many avenues one could go down to excuse Anthony in Carolina’s train-wreck season. The spacing around him was poor, with terrible shooters and even worse offensive sets. Critics of Anthony’s performance will point to high turnover rates, subpar feel and a lack of inspired defense as carryovers that cast doubt on his mentality.
The struggle in evaluating Anthony is in whether he did too much because he didn’t have trust in his teammates and needed to force in order to provide any production, or if that’s just who he is and what to expect for years to come. He’s a capable passer, but got a little trigger happy and made some lazy, questionable reads. He’s an above-average athlete, but he doesn’t seem to tap into those traits on defense.
Overall, Anthony is likely to go anywhere between 8 and 24. He’s got a wide range because of those splits in perception and some subpar statistics to go with it. But he’d be a potential elite talent to pair with this core, another shot maker and creator, and someone who can play a role somewhat early off the bench. Hopefully, Anthony’s age (he’s already 21) prepares him for positive contributions as a rookie.
Kira Lewis Jr., Alabama
The sophomore from Alabama is the closest thing to the human reincarnation of the Looney Tunes character Road Runner. A true speedster in every sense, Kira Lewis thrived in an up-tempo system where he was the lead creator. Lewis is at his best in transition and with the ball in his hands, but he’s much more polished in the half-court than he gets credit for.
Beyond creating 5.2 ppg in transition, Lewis is a pretty savvy pick-and-roll player that causes legitimate matchup issues. His speed unlocks everything for him; teams fear that if he’s given a mismatch on a switch or an advantage from a screen, he’s too fast to contain. Help defenders collapse from the corners, and Lewis is a willing passer in those situations.
When faced with those tough options, most teams will opt to go under and dare Lewis to shoot. That’s not a great option either; he’s a good shooter off the bounce.
That 3-point range is a big part of Lewis’ upside. He was over 40 percent on catch-and-shoot looks, and that trait is key to any guard coming in alongside Tatum and Brown.
Lewis will need to tighten up his mid-range pull-ups if he’s going to be feared as a three-level scorer. Most NBA defenses are trained to force jumpers in the mid-range, so elite ball handlers are able to knock down those looks. Lewis, only 4-20 on mid-range floaters out of ball screens, must improve this area to be a late-clock scoring option.
As fast as he is, Lewis isn’t a great vertical athlete, has struggled finishing against size at the rim, and would require the same defensive blanketing as Kemba. He’s proven able to impact games positively regardless, especially in the tough and physical SEC.
Lewis is a player I’m quite fond of, but I don’t love his fit in Boston. He doesn’t strike me as an elite off-ball player or a plus defender, two traits the Celtics should strongly consider when adding to their core. His draft range is similar to Cole Anthony’s, and his stock could continue to climb late in the draft process.
Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky
Of the four guards on this list, Tyrese Maxey is the one who is most different than the other three. A long-armed defensive-minded combo guard, Maxey is one of the best finishers and on-ball stoppers in this draft class. Seeing him as a lottery pick would require two leaps of faith: an improvement in his shooting ability and the NBA renaissance many Kentucky prospects enjoy in the pros.
On the defensive end, Maxey has the potential to be an elite on-ball defender. He doesn’t have the same energy or multi-positional utility as Marcus Smart, but he is able to pressure on the perimeter and avoid contact on screens in a pretty special way. His 6’6” wingspan should allow him to guard the 1 and the 2, and be a high-level isolation defender against both.
Maxey is a good pick-and-roll player, a strong passer, and an even better finisher at the rim. He combines sharp lateral quickness with great burst, allowing him to hit holes as they open and attack the rim. He can create enough offense to aid the cause in Boston’s second unit, though the real appeal is in pairing him with Smart on defense, which creates a ferocious, impenetrable barrier.
The swing skill for Maxey is his jump shot. He’s really fluid as a shooter, had a few really strong performances at Kentucky, and gets himself ready to launch before the catch. But there is a key mechanical flaw: his release is really low, negating his wingspan and creating a fair deal of line-drive attempts.
His senior year in high school, Maxey was only 31 percent from 3, and was 29.2 percent at Kentucky as a freshman. Those numbers don’t give a ton of optimism about his fit as a floor spacer in Boston.
Beyond the shooting concerns from deep and off the bounce, Maxey has been a little turnover-prone in Kentucky’s backcourt, where they had multiple initiators. Of the four guys on this list, Maxey has the most questions about his offensive role, fit, and efficiency.
Much of what Maxey provides is already replicated by the presence of Smart, who already fills their super-sub spot. For those reasons, I wouldn’t expect Maxey to be the pick here unless Ainge and company believe a Kentucky explosion lies ahead and his jump shot statistics aren’t indicative of his impact.
Tyrell Terry, Stanford
A late-riser in the draft process, Tyrell Terry played like a wannabe Trae Young as a freshman. Summer gains in height (he’s up to 6’3”) and weight (adding 15 pounds of muscle) are increasing his popularity as a late-lottery pick. The appeal of Terry is quite simple: he’s a great shooter, a skill that’s a vital commodity in today’s NBA.
Playing in an equal-opportunity offense at Stanford, Terry didn’t get to show off a ton of point guard skills or produce on a high volume regularly. He shot 50 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers this year, an elite rate that appears to be far from a fluke. Deep range, quick releases and the ability to get hotter than a supernova, there’s legitimate upside that Terry can provide gravity to this Celtics team.
The appeal of Terry in Boston is that he’s a guard who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He’s great off screens, can be in constant movement on a possession, and settle himself to a quick, accurate release. He’s good enough as a scorer off the bounce to be used in the pick-and-roll and be a creator on the second unit, too.
I’m also higher on Terry as a passer and creator than most. Just because he didn’t get used that way at Stanford doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t capable in those areas. As he continues to grow into his body, he may just be scratching the surface for how impactful of an offensive player he can become.
For all the upside Terry presents on offense, can the Celtics afford to take on another short guard who needs to be schemed around on the other end?
Terry seemed uninterested in contact while guarding guys, exposing him as a target for opposing guards to seek out. Growth, time in the weight room, and physical maturity will aid him (he recently turned 20) and bring gradual improvements.
The question is whether the Celtics can afford to wait on another backcourt product to undergo a maturation or if they need an immediate impact player.
Of the four on this list, Terry may have the highest offensive upside. But he also has the lowest defensive projection and is least likely to make a strong impact as a rookie. He’s flirting with the back-end of the lottery, where Boston is picking at 14, and would be a fantastic long-term addition to the organization if Ainge deems the short-term sacrifice palatable.