On Thursday night, the Boston Celtics will enter the draft with the 53rd overall selection. The first-round pick that originally belonged to the C’s was shipped to the San Antonio Spurs in the Derrick White trade back in February. Coming off an NBA Finals run, there’s little to no expectation that the prospect Brad Stevens drafts with that 53rd selection can come in and help their roster right away. This is less about drafting for need than it is for talent.
If that’s the case, then why not swing for the fences? The player is likely to be on the bench or in the G-League. This year’s draft class is full of unique talents and unorthodox prospects — particularly one-and-done players — who are really far away from impacting the NBA but could deliver eventual first-round value if they can harness their talent.
It isn’t unrealistic to think these players could fall all the way to 53rd either. This draft class becomes really deep with second-round talent, there are plenty of franchises looking to go the draft-and-stash route this year, and several freshmen entered the draft after a poor season, opening up the strong possibility that at least one of them could go undrafted.
Several contending teams have struck gold in the past by swinging on a high-upside youngster in the second round, and the dividends that come from that success are huge. In 2018, Jarred Vanderbilt, Bruce Brown and De’Anthony Melton all went in the back-half of the second round as one-and-done prospects, and found their way to contribute to playoff teams this season. Last year, the Los Angeles Clippers took a chance on disappointing freshman Brandon Boston Jr. Now, they have a steal of a talent who can help them as they fight for a Western Conference crown.
Will the Celtics follow that model and take a swing on a youngster with clear first-round upside but that is coming off a disappointing season?
The first prospect to come to mind in this regard is John Butler from Florida State. He is several years away from competing in the NBA: he’s 7’0” and weighs 190 pounds. That type of frame will get abused in the NBA physically.
Butler is unlike any seven-footer we’ve seen before — he hates contact, rarely tries to score in the lane and is not a center by any means. Think of him like a giant shooting guard. He spends most of his time spotting up on the perimeter offensively — and he shot nearly 40% from 3 as a freshman. He’s perhaps most attractive for his defensive ability. At his size and length, he’s a good shot blocker and an impactful help defender because he covers so much ground. But he’s actually switchable on the perimeter, something he showed this season in Florida State’s switch-everything scheme.
If Butler is given a few years to develop physically and sharpen his skills for the NBA, he can be an incredibly rare and unorthodox fit inside Ime Udoka’s gameplan. A big floor spacer who shoots over the top of the defense while switching on the perimeter and preserving the defensive identity? Sign me up. Celtics fans would have to be incredibly patient with Butler, and a second-round pick that is only a two-year deal may never return minutes or impact until he signs his next contract. For those reasons, Butler may fall to the undrafted ranks, though if a team like Boston is willing to be patient and sees the gigantic upside, Butler would be a fascinating target.
While we’re discussing big men, Moussa Diabate from Michigan makes an interesting case to be a modern NBA big man. This past year with the Wolverines, he played alongside a big man in Hunter Dickinson who was very bound to being near the rim. That forced Diabate to play the 4 for long stretches, and he wasn’t half bad. He’s mobile and switchable on the perimeter, and the rim protection traits remain largely unexcavated because of the position he played.
Diabate has a 7’0” wingspan, decent emergency rotations as a defender and solid athleticism. He isn’t an elite lob target and doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he does have coordination in space.
Where Diabate becomes risky is in his offense: he’s really raw, doesn’t seem to shoot it well right now and is an unknown as a pick-and-roll big because he didn’t play in that role at Michigan. There are flashes of rebound-and-run skill and a clear love of playing in transition present. Still, Diabate is a somewhat risky prospect due to the unknown surrounding him — if he weren’t, he wouldn’t be available at the 53rd pick.
If we’re really talking about unique upside that cannot be replicated elsewhere, then Peyton Watson from UCLA has to at least get a mention. Watson was buried on the Bruins depth chart because they had a great deal of veteran isolation scorers and he didn’t shoot it well as a spot-up threat. Yes, on its face, that should scare many Celtics fans away from seeing the fit.
...at least right now. Long-term, if Watson can piece together adequate spot-up shooting, he becomes a really toolsy frontcourt piece. At 6’8” with a 7’0” wingspan, he can defend multiple positions and does have that switchability the Celtics covet. He can be a very strong defensive piece in the frontcourt rotation. Offensively, he likes to operate with the ball in his hands and get to crafty mid-range jumpers. He’s a solid passer and shows flashes of unique creation skill, though he is perhaps the most raw offensive prospect in this draft class.
Lastly, let’s look at a smaller prospect who isn’t a big or a gigantic wing. If the Celtics value intangibles and want to look for a young prospect with the potential to be a glue guy in the future, Georgetown’s Aminu Mohammed checks a lot of boxes. He’s incredibly strong and thick-bodied for a teenager, and he can use that defensively. He should guard 1 thru 3, and could hold his own eventually against smaller 4-men.
During the NBA Draft Combine, Mohammed turned heads for his motor. He was going after every loose ball, attacking contact to get to the free throw line, crashing the glass hard and going all out on every possession. While incredibly raw and unrefined on the offensive end right now, those intangibles are qualities that are difficult to find and can help a winning team when cast in the right role.
Mohammed is, as we said, very far away from making an impact offensively, if he ever figures it out. He doesn’t shoot it well and must work on his form, over-dribbles and got away with a ton of bad habits on a poor Georgetown team, and struggled to be efficient in the half-court in any manner.
All that said, if Mohammed (or any of these guys) didn’t have clear flaws as one-and-done prospects, they’d be going in the first round. In essence, any of these four players are the bargain bin for long-term upside, with Stevens and the scouting staff needing to decide if the individual upside is there to turn them into a contributor within the next few years.