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 front court pieces who might be sensible fits for the Celtics when they are on the clock with the 14th overall selection - Precious Achiuwa and Jalen Smith. A few of the other lottery names like James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu, or Obi Toppin are unlikely to be around when the Celtics are on the clock and would be targets to trade up for.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis
Remember when you were a kid and someone would play the mystery bag game with you? A strange brown paper bag would be filled with some item, and your job would be to stick your hand inside, feel around for a bit and then guess what the items were?
That feeling of uncertainty while you reach into the bag is what coaching Precious Achiuwa must feel like.
Each game, you never know what type of offensive performance the big man will give you and what player he might project to be as a pro. Achiuwa, a 6’9” frontcourt piece with a 7’2” wingspan and gifted athleticism, has the potential to be a dominant defender, a true switchable big and the linchpin to constructing a modern defense. That potential is so tantalizing that you want to keep sticking your hand in that bag, even if you hate what’s inside.
Achiuwa, who is already 21-years-old, went to Memphis to play the 4 next to top-five prospect James Wiseman. When Wiseman was ruled ineligible only three games into the season, Achiuwa was asked to play the 5 more often. In doing so, he anchored a Memphis team that was statistically-speaking the most efficient half-court defense in the nation.
If we’re looking for a potential defensive anchor, Precious may be the guy.
For Achiuwa, it comes down to versatility. Most big men are either great rim protectors or switchable on ball screens. Very few are both.
Achiuwa has demonstrated the ability to thrive on switches and when guarding smaller guys. He’s also been a consistent weak-side shot blocker, swatting 1.9 shots a game and tallying five blocks on three separate occasions.
Think of him as someone who does all the dirty work on defense. He’s a high-energy player that sprints the floor, can finish above the rim, and is willing to be a consistent rebounder. What he does well is clearly absent from this Celtics team and could tighten up some of their short-term and long-term concerns at the 5.
There’s been a narrative that exists around Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis that he doesn’t want to play the 5 for long stretches. Even against teams like the Houston Rockets who don’t even have a big man in their rotation, Davis would prefer to play the 4, which doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Achiuwa gives off the same vibes, particularly with how he views himself on offense and that’s where he becomes the ultimate wild card. There’s enough perimeter touch to fool you into thinking he’s a solid shooter, but little of it is functional. He has a unique combination of skills athletically, but pushes those limits too far and tends to waste possessions as a result.
There’s a lot of teaching that needs to go into harnessing his skills within a specific role.
If Achiuwa doesn’t have a clear path for a dunk, he becomes a pretty pedestrian finisher. Regardless of his interior scoring, curbing the turnovers and shooting at a higher clip are going to have to become far more consistent if he is to play the 4 at all.
Achiuwa was great on the offensive glass, and that presence to attack smaller guys through battling for extra possessions fits in Boston. His desire to play in transition fits in Boston. The upside to someday become a pick-and-pop option who either shoots or creates from there is a great fit in Boston.
However, it’s difficult to project whether Achiuwa will drill down his strengths into such specificity that it gels with a championship-ready group. He’s likely to go anywhere from 10 to 25 on Draft Night, though the best home for him may be one that’s willing to ride with him through those mistakes and that doesn’t try to reel him in too tightly. Boston doesn’t strike me as that place.
Jalen Smith, Maryland
On the complete opposite end of the personality spectrum comes Jalen Smith, a true pick-and-pop 5-man tailor-made for the modern NBA. He’s similarly a freak athlete and has a ton of defensive upside. Offensively, Smith knows who he is and where his advantage lies: stretching the floor and throwing down thunderous alley-oops.
After January 1st, Smith shot over 40 percent from 3 and was one of the country’s best high-volume pick-and-pop scorers. In watching the Celtics postseason series and seeing Daniel Theis go dry from deep, adding this to the team’s arsenal would be an unbelievable boon. He has elite role player potential as a result.
Beyond his shooting, Smith fits the mold of a modern NBA big with his defensive versatility. Smith can switch screens and use his fantastic athleticism to contest shots or keep guards in front. He’s got great timing as a rim protector, too, stuffing drivers and climbing the ladder with fantastic anticipation skills.
Defensively, the Celtics need someone who can fit into either scheme and provide that versatility. When Theis got played off the floor or in foul trouble, there were only two choices for Brad Stevens: put in Enes Kanter or Robert Williams and play drop coverage on ball screens, or go super-small with their five best players, switch everything, and fight for their lives on the glass.
Smith splits the difference and provides the perfect third choice. He can play drop coverage on defense without sacrificing floor spacing and shooting on the other end. He can switch if the C’s want to do that late-game, and is a solid enough rebounder to cover that hole when they’re small. Simply put, I love his fit in green.
There are a few obstacles to Smith being that piece from the moment he steps into the 617. Smith’s wiry frame may lead him to getting pushed around by NBA 5’s early in his career. For as well as he fared against Big Ten physicality, the pros are on another level. Playing Smith in his rookie or even second season comes with the understanding that he’ll be a little outmatched physically to start.
Beyond that, Smith’s functionality in the pick-and-pop may be hamstrung by his lack of playmaking. Within Boston’s offense, Theis is used to create through handoffs and reversal passes atop the screen. Theis is also a gifted passer off the short roll, an area Celtics’ bigs are placed in frequently as defenses are aggressive on the perimeter.
Smith falls short as a playmaker right now, isn’t a great screener, and doesn’t attack closeouts as well as you’d think someone of his athletic stature would.
Those are mostly smaller teaching points that can be corrected. While Smith isn’t the most polished NBA-ready prospect out there, he’s got a great deal of upside to be an impactful piece on both ends. Initially thought of as a late-first round pick, his name has gained steam towards the tail end of the lottery. His potential fit in Boston long-term may be too perfect to pass on with the 14th pick.