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.
There’s an old adage that whoever plays the 4 for your team dictates how you play. Be stiffer, bigger and more interior-bound and the schemes on both ends are predicated around it. Be smaller, quicker and more versatile and the floor will open up. The game has trended towards the latter over the last decade, partially driven by the league’s 3-point craze and partially by the amount of skill now possessed by tall athletes.
The league is now trending towards versatile swing forwards: guys who play both the 3 and the 4, as the two have become increasingly interchangeable. This draft has many prospects who might fit the bill for the same designation. Adding one to this roster would make a lineup built around Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum absolutely huge without sacrificing their speed or perimeter-oriented game.
Jalen Johnson - 6’9” forward, Duke
High upside alert. Jalen Johnson is a prospect who could be in free fall come Draft Night. The 6’9” playmaking 4-man had a disappointing season at Duke from an individual and team standpoint, got injured and then walked away from the team to prepare for the NBA Draft. Many scouts and draft analysts are worried about red flags with Johnson pertaining to maturity and a “me first” approach.
What that also presents is an opportunity for a team like the Celtics. If they wade through his film and find a top-ten talent (which he easily could be) and he falls far enough in the draft, it might take minimal assets to trade back into the round to acquire a guy with clear starting-caliber upside.
What Johnson does well is guard multiple positions, play in the open floor, attack the basket with a head of steam and make high-IQ plays. He’s really skilled for his size. But there are caveats to the rest of his game that prevent him from functionally using that skill consistently. He’s reliant on a head of steam (in transition or off movement in the half-court) to get past his man and put pressure on the rim. He struggled in half-court settings at Duke and their offense stalled out a lot as a result.
Johnson’s big skill question is his jump shot range and shooting consistency. There’s potential there, and if he becomes a plus shooter, he’s a really useful player that can space the floor. Fit-wise, I don’t love Jalen here in Boston, but I certainly understand the need to monitor someone of his level of talent if he slips.
JT Thor - 6’10” athlete, Auburn
A late riser up draft boards, JT Thor was on the fence about declaring for the draft. A long, toolsy athlete who flashed a bit of everything in his one season at Auburn despite not playing a large role on the team. Thor blew up at the draft combine with his measurables and has a really strong backing from the Twitter draft community. As a result, he’s no longer a second-round flier for teams to check on but a legitimate first-round prospect brimming with upside.
The tall lefty is one of the fastest players in this year’s draft, and he stands 6’10”. He made a few shots from deep, though his form could use a little work and he was beneath 30% from deep. Thor stands out because he’s a fluid driver from the perimeter as a face-up forward and has boundless defensive potential. His ability to guard multiple positions while shutting down the paint and blocking shots is incredibly rare.
If you’re late to the draft circles this year, Thor is a name to know. He’s rising up boards faster than anyone. How might Thor fit in Boston? Honestly, I’m not sold. He’s very raw, and I don’t think he’s best-served as a small-ball 5 but as a large 4-man. Because of that, I don’t see him being a target the Celtics trade up for.
Franz Wagner - 6’9” wing, Michigan
We’ve seen a Wagner brother in Boston already this year, but if Franz finds his way to the Celtics, I have a feeling this union might be longer lasting. A defensive whiz kid, Wagner combines a near seven-foot wingspan with an understanding of angles and quickness that allows him to guard nearly any position on the floor. Combine that with a solid shooting stroke and Wagner fits the bill of that 3-and-D model so many teams covet.
Wagner’s defensive IQ and help positioning immediately stand out. The Celtics could use such a wing to create a long, switchy, interchangeable lineup. In terms of instant impact, Wagner is farther ahead of anyone else on this list because he plays a nuanced game.
That said, there are some concerning areas for Wagner that make me considerably lower on him than most. He’s a pretty good passer, but doesn’t have the tightest handle. Everything he does off the bounce is going hard to his right hand, and that worries me. His shooting form is a tad long, low and he didn’t make spot-up jumpers at a high rate.
A lot of folks like Wagner as a late lottery prospect, especially for a team looking for steady and immediate impact. Wagner certainly doesn’t have a very high offensive ceiling, but he’d be a prospect I’d be much more comfortable taking late in the first round. Based on where his value is right now, it’s hard to envision the Celtics trading up to grab him.