In preparing for the 2020 NBA Draft, Danny Ainge has a lot of cards in his deck. Three first-round selections (14th, 26th, and 30th) as well as the 47th pick in Round #2. Last year, the Boston Celtics added five rookies to their roster: Romeo Langford, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, and Tacko Fall (seven if you include Javonte Green and Vincent Poirier).
It’s not feasible for Boston to use nine roster spots to accommodate all those youngsters, especially when their title hopes are immediate. Navigating this landscape may mean some trades or shedding their sophomores. It could mean consolidating draft picks to move up, though this draft class doesn’t have many pieces who are clearly worth that endeavor. Doing so would be a minimal return on investment.
More sensibly, the Celtics’ draft strategy should be to treat their 2020 draft selections as such: play one pick, develop one pick, and stash one pick overseas. Avoiding the roster crunch by taking international talent and giving them more time to develop before joining the team in Boston is a convenient way to solve this issue without taking pennies on the dollar.
Let’s get to know some of the top international prospects who could be names the Celtics target in this year’s draft, from anywhere in the Celtics range of first-round picks. Instead of focusing on where these players might fit in with our current roster, we’ll take a look about what they could add long-term when they become starters or role players in their prime.
Leandro Bolmaro, Barcelona (Spain)
Full disclosure: I’m not as high on Leandro Bolmaro as many other draft pundits. I can’t quite figure out who or what he is. At 6’8”, he’s a tremendously versatile on-ball defender who has shown creative passing and high-level finishing. But when thinking about where his shots come from other than transition and one-on-one attacks (the latter of which he’ll rarely be used in unless he becomes an exquisite pull-up scorer), I’m not sure where he meshes with an NBA offense.
Let’s not sell Bolmaro short in too many ways. He’s a really impactful defender at a young age, with potential to guard 1 thru 3 and be a legitimate disruptor. He loves to get out and run in transition, fueled by his aggressive defense and the supreme length and quickness he possesses. Offensively, that’s also where he thrives. Bolmaro can finish above most guards or wings when driving to the rim. He’s a crafty passer, and in early looks through the 2020-21 European season, he has demonstrated flashes of improvement as a half-court playmaker.
While Bolmaro has some intriguing parts to his game, the area of improvement might cost him a seamless fit with the Celtics. He’s not a very good outside shooter and his tendency to pressure so much on defense has made him somewhat unreliable as a helper. A creative, big wing who defenders multiple positions has intrigue, but the Celtics don’t need to hit home runs with their draft picks. Bolmaro figures to be a target for Boston at #26; #14 seems a little high for him right now.
Solid long-term role players who fit this core make sense, especially outside the lottery. Bolmaro is more of a “swing for the fences” guy since the Celtics would be counting on his jumper if he joins the club in the next few years.
Killian Hayes, Ulm (Germany)
In some draft circles, Killian Hayes is one of the two or three best prospects on the board. In others, his over-reliance on his dominant hand and inconsistent 3-point shooting drops him down to the tail end of the lottery, limiting where he’ll be selected. Regardless of draft slot, Hayes is the near-consensus top international prospect and would be a name for the Celtics to target if they decided to trade up from 14.
A talented passer, Hayes might rival LaMelo Ball for his playmaking instincts and how he delivers strikes to shooters across the court. He reads plays well out of the pick-and-roll and knows how to accelerate when a gap is open. Despite not having great top speed, his pick-and-roll acumen is strong at a young age, and his ability to change speeds is what helps get him open.
Hayes is one of only a handful of prospects who can reliably create his own shot. He’s got a bevy of step-backs and dribble moves to create space. The issue with Hayes on offense is that he’s really poor as a catch-and-shoot threat, in dire need of learning how to play off-ball and space the floor. If the Celtics take Hayes and inculcate him into the championship core, he’ll need to learn how to impact the game without the ball in his hands. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown need to be flanked by someone who can shoot.
As a left-handed point guard, Hayes heavily favors going to his dominant hand. He’s not incapable of going right, but most teams will force him that direction and limit some of his finishing or passing prowess. The most undervalued part of his game is his defense, though. At 6’5” with a 6’8” wingspan, Hayes has the same size dimensions as popular lottery pick Isaac Okoro. He’s a pest at the point of attack and will be a pretty good rebounder as well.
When it comes down to it, the Celtics already have their core set. A long-term addition at point guard who can switch on defense due to their size, create his own shot and facilitate out of the pick-and-roll would be a strong fit in Boston. That comes with the obvious caveat of adding a consistent shooting stroke to his game where he can play off-ball. If Hayes develops in that way, he’d be a tremendous fit with the Celtics.
Theo Maledon, ASVEL (France)
Another big point guard, Theo Maledon is an underrated scorer and a tremendous shooter. With a 6’9” wingspan, he can guard multiple positions and is best-utilized in a switching scheme, which the Celtics have used under Brad Stevens.
In thinking of a comparison for Maledon, I tend to think of him in a unique manner. His playing style is akin to that of Tom Glavine, former MLB pitcher and Hall of Famer. Glavine made a career based on tactical command, unbelievable control over the game and an elite change of speed between his pitches. Even though his fastball topped out in the low 80’s, the difference of velocity was what fooled hitters.
Maledon plays similarly. His top speed is fairly slow in comparison to other guards. But he knows how to change speeds, playing slow in the half court and playing with a great deal of tricks up his sleeve to force defenses to commit to him.
What opens up all that space is the fact Maledon is a very strong 3-point shooter. Defenders crowd him on the perimeter, giving him the ability to get an inch of room and turn it into a decisive advantage. He’s a capable passer with both hands and is so well-groomed out of ball screens for someone his age.
The best part about envisioning Maledon with the Celtics is that he is so capable of playing without the ball in his hands. He’s an ideal long-term fit next to Tatum and Brown, and would be available for the Celtics a little later in the draft than Hayes. If they don’t envision trading up for a prospect and are willing to sacrifice a little bit of their defensive aptitude for the ideal offensive fit, Maledon would be a great choice with the 26th pick. Hell, I could even talk myself into him at 14.
Aleksej Pokusevski, Olympiacos B Greece)
The annual Austin Powers International Man of Mystery Award goes to Pokusevski, a hyper mobile seven-footer who looks the part of an impactful unicorn. Coming from a B-League in Greece, many of his performances have come against uniquely poor competition, a level of play where he has the skill to get away with doing whatever he wants.
The tools are undeniable for someone of his size, but the question about how much work would need to take place for him to be NBA-ready alters his draft stock.
At 7’0” with a 7’3” wingspan, Pokusevski has legitimate ball skills where he can handle in transition, shoot from deep and on the move and take guys off the bounce. With one bounce, Poku can get to the rim from the 3-point line for lay-ins. You can’t teach that.
Pokusevski is the youngest player in this draft class and is a few years away from being ready to make an NBA impact. He’ll need to add strength, sharpen his handling skills and hone in on where his strengths will be on an NBA floor. Even versatile unicorn big men need to identify their strengths and how they’ll be used.
Poku isn’t quite a good enough ball handler or explosive athlete to be a primary handler like Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s not the shooter that Kristaps Porzingis is, or the athlete and defensive specimen of Anthony Davis. Instead, Pokusevski looks like someone who will be solid at everything.
How will that fit in with the Celtics? Poku would have to be a small-ball 5 who blocks shots and knocks down treys for him to be a fit next to Tatum and Brown. That relies on not only developing his body over the next few years, but improving as a 3-point shooter and a defensive presence.
Many draft pundits are attracted to the potential upside Pokusevski provides as a unique piece worth taking a flier on. I’m not sold on him and think he looks the part more than he is the part of unicorn. Until I’d feel comfortable with a signature skill of his in the half-court, drafting him is a “swing for the fences” move the Celtics don’t really need to make.
Marko Simonovic, MEGA Bemax (Serbia)
Simonovic gets very little conversation as a potential first-round selection. Yet fit is an important point to stress outside the top-25 in most drafts, where there’s less of such a thing as a “reach” when you find the guy you like. Standing almost seven-feet tall, possessing fluid athleticism and projecting as an impactful pick-and-pop big, the fit of Simonovic in Boston long-term mirrors that of Daniel Theis.
A true pick-and-pop shooter is not easy to find at such a young age. Simonovic just turned 21, so there’s still a lot of bloom left on the rose. He’s coming off his most impressive season yet with MEGA Bemax, averaging 16.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks while shooting 31.1 percent from deep. He plays on the team that produced 2019 first-round pick Goga Bitadze, so there’s a track record of success in preparing guys for the NBA.
Skills-wise, Simonovic is the blend of athleticism and perimeter skill not frequently seen. He could stand to get his percentages up, though there are no mechanical flaws in his jump shot. His quick screening is tailor-made for the NBA, his verticality on defense seasoned beyond his years and potential for some switching as he improves with angles.
What the Celtics do at pick #30 is highly dependent on how the draft shakes out beforehand and which players they select earlier. There’s always the possibility that the aforementioned international players on this list are taken by he final pick of the first round. There’s also the possibility that Danny Ainge takes two domestic players who aren’t stashed overseas, with their contracts starting immediately.
In that case, jumping to an international name at #30 makes sense, and Simonovic is the next-highest on my board. His fit in Boston as a floor spacer and solid rim protector down the line make sense for what the C’s need from their frontcourt. There will be little pressure for Simonovic to turn into anything tangible for a few years, which is a best-case scenario for both player and club.