Injury issues to Kemba Walker and the pedestrian production from Brad Wanamaker have brought the backup point guard spot into focus for the Boston Celtics. We might be a year away from Tremont Waters stepping up to fill any void, and Marcus Smart’s shot selection late in the year leaves doubt as to whether he’s the right guy to entrust to run the second unit.
Enter Danny Ainge, sitting on two late first-round picks currently slated at selections 26 and 30. It seems unlikely he keeps all three of the team’s picks (you can read more about those considerations here), though there is a glut of depth at the point guard spot available in the latter parts of the first round.
We’ll breeze through four names who could be Celtics targets to anchor those second units and, in all hopes, make an impact early in their careers. The focus will be on players who plausibly are still around when the Celtics are on the clock, not those who would require trading up or selecting in the back end of the lottery.
Malachi Flynn, San Diego State
Competitive and balanced, Malachi Flynn doesn’t provide a lot of ‘wow’ moments on the floor. but he doesn’t make a ton of mistakes either. In looking for an immediate contributor who can handle the burden of running a second unit, the traits he possesses, as well as the overall skill of his pick-and-roll savvy, make him an intriguing addition to the team.
Flynn’s best asset right now is that he’s a strong pick-and-roll scorer and creator. There aren’t many passes he cannot make, and he puts enough pressure on the rim to force defenses to collapse. He is a strong pull-up scorer and is used to snaking pick-and-rolls, making him a great guard to partner with the savvy sealing of Daniel Theis.
He’s no slouch in other meaningful areas. He’s a strong on-ball defender and doesn’t make mistakes as a helper too often. He’s also above 40 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, giving him ability to play off-ball and let one of the Celtics’ stars go to work. When evaluating point guards who fit in Boston, that’s high on my list of important characteristics.
For all the polish Flynn already has as a 22-year-old, he’s not a great athlete and plays firmly below the rim. He needs ball screens to separate and doesn’t create out of isolations, is a little jumper-heavy and can be swallowed up by teams who guard him with supreme length. At this stage in his career, he’s unlikely to make major overhauls to his game or body that erase those doubts.
Flynn is the low-ceiling, high-floor backup who is a safe pick for Ainge to consider. His production would seem to replace what Wanamaker gives the team, not overwhelmingly improve from it.
Tre Jones, Duke
After serving as the point guard setting up Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish at Duke, Tre Jones chose to return to school to increase his draft stock. Scouts were sour on him after a freshman campaign where he shot 26.2 percent from 3 and, in a key NCAA Tournament game, was guarded by Tacko Fall to demonstrate his non-threatening nature from the perimeter.
To Jones’ credit, he made a lot of strides as a sophomore, bringing his 3-point percentage up to 36.1 and making many timely hero shots off the bounce. As the knocks on his game start to disappear, Jones has all the makings of a solid facilitating point guard who can do just enough as a scorer to command attention from defenses.
There isn’t a pass that Jones cannot make, or make accurately. With a solid 6’4” wingspan, he projects as a very good point of attack defender and someone who can be a pest to opposing point guards. There’s a level of polish and professionalism he brings to his team that makes him a low-risk option in the NBA.
The question is whether Jones as a shooter is truly trustworthy. Boston would love to add another facilitator on the second unit and someone with the playmaking prowess of Jones. That said, it’s hard to envision them making a first-round selection on someone who doesn’t have the ability to play off the ball and next to Tatum or Brown.
While Jones made strides as a shooter, there’s still a distance to go. His mechanics aren’t consistent on every attempt, and most of his shooting came off the bounce as he pulled all the strings within Mike Krzyzewski’s offense.
Sprinkle in the fact Jones doesn’t project as a switchable defender and the Celtics would have to feel really confident that he can stabilize their second unit and be a good enough creator to warrant the ball being in his hands each time down the floor.
Nico Mannion, Arizona
Highly touted coming out of high school, Nico Mannion disappointed in his lone year at Arizona. He played on a team without another creator and lacking consistent outside shooting. As such, his passing prowess became hindered and he was rarely used off-ball.
Coincidentally, those are the two biggest traits he offers any NBA franchise: incredibly high-level passing and a smooth shooting stroke that allows him to be a supplemental piece if necessary.
Offensively, Mannion would be a stellar fit in Boston. He’s unbelievable in the open floor and is a wizard out of the pick-and-roll. He is as smart as any young point guard and is the closest thing to Lonzo Ball as we’ve seen in college basketball. Put him in ball screens and he’ll get the right teammate open. He doesn’t force a ton of shots and is good enough with his floaters in the mid-range to compensate for his lack of athleticism.
Off-ball, Mannion can run off screens or spot up deep on the perimeter. He’s got a picturesque stroke and is the right guy to partner with a strong group of wings who can blanket his defense while creating open looks for him. Don’t let the numbers fool you- Mannion is a really good shooter.
The athleticism is a pretty big detractor for Mannion and is limiting teams from viewing him as a lottery prospect. It’s his defense that makes him a non-perfect fit with the Celtics.
Mannion didn’t have a single block on the year. He has short arms, doesn’t handle physicality well and isn’t overly quick laterally. At best, he’d be a slightly below-average defender. Because he cannot guard more positions than the point due to his frame, the Celtics would have to rotate around him in the same ways they do with Kemba. I’m also not sure if he and Walker could play together.
He’s also pretty averse to taking layups, relying more on floaters and jumpers. The Celtics don’t have an overwhelming amount of catch-and-shoot specialists, and those are the guys who will bring out the best in Mannion. I’m a huge fan of the way he plays and think he’ll be impactful despite his athletic concerns, but the Celtics become a bit of a defensive liability if they try to play him key minutes early in his career.
Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky
If you’re looking for another Kentucky player to have an NBA glow-up, Immanuel Quickley may be the guy most ready to take a leap. To understand why Quickley’s numbers and role were such at Kentucky, one has to dive into the rest of the roster and what happens under John Calipari.
This year, Quickley was one of three lead guards in the starting lineup, joined by fellow draft prospects Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans. The other two were poor outside shooters (Maxey 29.2 percent, Hagans 25.8 percent), pushing Quickley to an off-ball role for the sake of the offense. As such, I have an expectation that he can do a lot more with the ball in his hands than he was able to demonstrate and is a great sleeper in this class.
Quickley is a very good shooter who can drill shots on the move or stationary. He can get hot quickly, but most importantly he is comfortable in an off-ball role. He also doesn’t just settle for jumpers; he’s great at drawing contact and getting to the free throw line, where he made 92.3 percent of his attempts. I think of Quickley on offense as a Jamal Crawford-type who comes in, makes shots, and puts opponents in foul trouble.
Defensively, Quickley is really strong. A 6’8” wingspan should allow him to guard 1 thru 3, the perfect fit in Boston’s switching scheme. He’s best at the point of attack, pestering smaller guards with his quickness and length.
From a statistical standpoint, Quickley was not very good at scoring around the rim. If you buy into the argument that Kentucky’s lack of shooting around him contributed to that number, you’d likely believe that’s an adjustable skill. If you also believe he’s more capable of creating with the ball in his hands than he was asked to, the prospect of handing him the keys with the second unit isn’t daunting, either.
When thinking about the perfect offensive and defensive blend to roll with the Celtics’ core, Quickley immediately jumps out as the right guy. But how do you scout those things which you cannot see? That’s the age-old test when it comes to Kentucky guys, who time and time again prove there’s more nuance to their game than what they showed in college. I’m betting the same holds true for Quickley.