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2021 draft profiles: creating guards

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As Kemba Walker ages, the need for an offensive focal point grows. Could this be the time to spend a mid-1st rounder on a lead guard?

Maryland v UConn Photo by Gregory Shamus/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 such need is for a stalwart shot-creator, either for himself or for others. The backcourt last season was underwhelming behind Kemba Walker, and now Walker is gone without replacement. Guys like Payton Pritchard and Marcus Smart are good complementary pieces, but neither seems capable of being the straw that stirs the drink in moments when Tatum and Brown rest.

James Bouknight - 6’5” combo guard, Connecticut

When Bouknight goes into the gym, he brings his certification card with him because he’s a certified bucket. A high-volume scorer with a playground-esque feel to his game, James single-handedly ran Connecticut’s offense last year. He’s incredibly athletic, has the best hesitation dribble I’ve seen in years and is really comfortable creating his own shot off the bounce.

The talent could easily elevate Bouknight to a top-ten pick. The fit in Boston is a little more questionable. He was really bad when it came to catch-and-shoot impact, playing off-ball or making easy passes instead of forcing up contested shots. Part of that was his role at Connecticut, where his shots through double-teams were often better than kick outs to anyone else.

There’s a certain hesitant nature about drafting a guy with those tidbits to go next to Tatum and Brown. They could use a lead guard to ease their burden on offense but not at the expense of poor shot selection or inability to knock down spot-up threes. Bouknight shot the ball well at his pro day, the first step in rehabilitating his 3-point upside. As a talent grab, Bouknight is a guy the Celtics could easily trade up for. I’m not sure if he’s the right guy to target, especially since he’s more of a lottery name.

Sharife Cooper - 6’0” point guard, Auburn

Watching Trae Young tear through the Eastern Conference with floater after floater has lead to the ascent of Sharife Cooper, an endlessly fun point guard who simply dominates out of the pick-and-roll. There are teams who will shy away from putting Cooper in lottery discussions because of his size, the defensive implications of that stature and the fact he struggled to shoot this year at Auburn. If he slides and the Celtics are willing to add a guy who presented many of the same defensive challenges Isaiah Thomas once did, Cooper would be an instant offensive spark.

Think of Cooper this way: he gets the ball every time he’s on offense in the pick-and-roll and seven times out of ten, something good will happen. He’ll get to the free throw line at a high rate, make acrobatic finishes and passes that drop your jaw and involve every one of his teammates. The other two times he’ll turn it over, get flooded by size in the lane or miss a jump shot.

There’s no denying that Cooper can run a second unit. Can he do it for long stretches against starting defenses in the same way Trae has in Atlanta? Without a jumper, that remains to be seen.

For the Celtics, Cooper isn’t a target I can see them chasing — especially now that they’ve traded the 16th pick and would have to give up significant capital to acquire him. Cooper presents many of the defensive challenges that Walker, Thomas and Kyrie Irving once did. The clean slate at the point guard spot means Stevens can construct a roster without a point guard getting hunted every possession in the postseason. Cooper simply doesn’t fit that mold, regardless of how offensively talented he may be.

Tre Mann - 6’5” combo guard, Florida

At one point receiving lottery buzz, Tre Mann’s stock has cooled. An unbelievable shot-maker who is terrific at decision-making out of the pick-and-roll, Mann’s fit in Boston is clearly the best on this list. Add to it the fact he’s more in their draft range and he becomes a name that all Celtics fans should be getting to know heading into the draft.

What pops out first about Mann’s game is his 3-point range. He hits pull-ups far behind the line out of the pick-and-roll, making him a great compliment to Tatum and Brown when they sit and need instant offense. When playing together, Mann brings that same shot-making to his off-ball game.

At 6’5”, Mann has size in a way that’s appealing for the Celtics. But his lack of length, as well as poor track record of point of attack defense, could dissuade the C’s from moving up to grab him. The ideal fit on offense but not on defense, Mann’s only chance of coming to Beantown is if he falls into the second round and the Celtics feel comfortable that he’ll eventually grow into his frame and be solid in a switching scheme.