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2021 draft profiles: first-round centers

While Robert Williams seems primed for the starting center role, now might be the time to draft another big

Abilene Christian v Texas Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Draft season is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. It’s that time where hot takes, exhaustive rankings, unfounded rumors and jumping to conclusions off little information is the daily routine.

For Boston Celtics fans, it also marks the first NBA Draft in 18 years where Danny Ainge isn’t seated at the head of the table. Brad Stevens slides down a few seats, tasked now with constructing a roster built to win around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Stevens knows the cupboard isn’t bare and there’s a clear playoff team here, which is why he moved out of the first round to offload Kemba Walker and make aggressive moves this summer.

That doesn’t mean the Celtics will stay out of the first round, though. Other moves or deals could be on the horizon. Which players stand out as potential fits to trade back in for? What positions do they need? Between now and the NBA Draft on July 29th, we’ll bring you answers to all those questions. We recently set the table for this discussion by previewing some of the Celtics’ most glaring needs this summer.

One that seldom came up from the CelticsBlog panel was the lack of depth in the frontcourt. At the trade deadline last year, the Celtics dealt incumbent starter Daniel Theis as part of a salary dump to clear the way for Evan Fournier’s arrival in Boston. The move signaled a trust in Robert Williams to move into a more prominent role, one the Timelord more than impressed in. After the Theis trade on March 24th, Williams averaged 8.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game.

Still, his minutes only rose a limited amount, playing less than half the game. Tristan Thompson played a lot as a veteran presence who brought rebounding, toughness and more defensive mobility to the table.

Who knows how much longer Thompson will be around; his name is one frequently used to help net the C’s a draft pick this year. Luke Kornet is a free agent, as is Tacko Fall. There’s a need for some frontcourt depth, either as insurance to the oft-injured Williams or a compliment to his game, bringing in a perimeter-oriented stretch-5 to open up the offense.

There are only a couple of names who could fit in Boston based on where the Celtics are drafting, and each of them have different strengths to sprinkle onto this core.

Isaiah Jackson - 6’10” post, Kentucky

A human pogo stick, Jackson would follow in the footsteps of Robert Williams as a springy rim protector who throws down lobs out of the pick-and-roll. Very few teenage big men cover as much ground and are as mobile as Jackson. It may take him a little while to develop his offensive game and figure out angles, positioning and communication that are necessities for starting-caliber centers. But the upside is similarly tantalizing to Williams.

The fit in Boston is apparent because, well, Timelord fits. But Jackson isn’t a carbon copy. He has more upside and value as a potential switchable defender; the fits he gave elite SEC guards last year when switching onto them opened the eyes to many scouts that Jackson can become a versatile player. He also has some solid passing chops and a blossoming handle. Jackson may become more than just a screen-and-roll big.

Regardless, Jackson is likely a year or two away from finding a regular rotation role on a playoff team. The pieces are there and easy to spot, which is why he’s seen as a fringe lottery prospect. He could also drop to later in the first round if some other names slide. He’s a guy worth monitoring.

Kai Jones - 6’11” frontcourt athlete, Texas

Nobody screams upside like Kai Jones.

The athletic big man from the Bahamas spent two years at Texas and demonstrated some freakish potential. Jones couldn’t string it together consistently, but if he does, he’s a top-ten talent in this draft class. Mobile, smooth, fluid, long and with shooting ability, Jones’ ceiling is that of a unicorn big man who can switch, protect the rim, create his own shot and knock down 3-pointers.

What Boston has lacked over the last few seasons is that wild card piece in their frontcourt who can play multiple positions and in different types of schemes. Jones is such a player. As Stevens reshapes the roster, trading into the first round for a big man means he must feel they’re the perfect fit next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. If the idea is to continue to deploy a switching defense, Jones makes sense as someone who can play both the 4 and the 5, spread teams out on offense and hit open shots when Tatum draws double-teams in isolation.

Jones is still raw. He might get some minutes as a rookie but would be served well to develop in the G-League or behind another athlete. As a result, his draft stock wildly fluctuates based on which teams are on the clock. He could sneak into the lottery as that tantalizingly high-ceiling prospect, or he could slide to the 20’s if nobody is willing to take the plunge. If he falls far enough, the C’s would be wise to weigh the pros and cons of trading up for a long-term big who perfectly compliments their core.

Isaiah Todd - 6’10” stretch forward, G-League Ignite

Speaking of compliments, a stretch big would be ideal next to Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart and the rest of the developing core.

Isaiah Todd was up and down in the G-League bubble this year but is coming on strong thanks to mature interviews at the NBA Draft Combine and a renewed realization that stretch bigs are vital in today’s game. The thing with Todd that could give pause: he’s not exactly a 5-man and might be in that tweener category where he isn’t defensive-minded enough to play a switchable scheme onto guards and wings.

The jump shot and long-term self-creation is easy to fall in love with though. Imagining Todd spotting up in the corners around Tatum and Brown, or setting the pick-and-pop to clear the lane for their drives is not hard to foresee. Plus, I have more faith that Todd can make an earlier-career impact given his experiences playing pros in the G-League bubble.

Right now, Todd is rumored to be a late-first or early-second prospect. If he falls into the second round where the assets needed to acquire a pick are lessened, the Celtics could easily trade into a spot with him in mind. That said, any team that drafts Isaiah has to have a defensive plan in place for how to maximize his length and impact.

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