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Potential targets for the Celtics with the 35th pick in the draft

The Boston Celtics will be selecting 35th in the upcoming draft.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

With the new Collective Bargaining Agreement due to take effect in the summer of 2024, the notion of adding some cost-controlled talent will become enticing for contending teams. Heading into June 22, the Boston Celtics have the 35th pick in the draft. The likelihood is that Brad Stevens will be looking at someone who can come in and fill a position of need, either as a big man or wing.

Unfortunately, this year's draft class doesn’t project to be a deep one in terms of elite upside talent. However, there appear to be plenty of potential role players to choose from, so much so that there is potential for a contributor to slide into the second round — especially if you’re looking for a high-floor, low-ceiling candidate. Or, Stevens could look to stash his pick by selecting a European talent that is willing to continue their development overseas before potentially heading to the NBA in the future.

With so many options available, the Celtics will certainly have a difficult decision to make on draft night. That shouldn’t stop us from gauging potential draft picks, though. As such, here are four realistic targets Stevens could have his eye on once the Celtics are on the clock.

Tristan Vukcevic

2023 NBA Combine Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski/NBAE via Getty Images

Vukcevic, 20, spent this past season playing on the same team as Yam Madar for Partizan Belgrade under one of Europe’s most respected coaches of all time, Zeljko Obradovic. However, the young big man didn’t enjoy the best of seasons, averaging just 6 minutes of playing time per game, producing modest averages on 1.2 points, 1.2 rebounds, and 0.5 assists per contest on 36.4% shooting from the field and 22.2% shooting from deep.

Yet, despite his poor perimeter shooting this past season, Vukcevic boasts smooth shooting mechanics with a decently-quick release. Perhaps that’s why Partizan utilized him as a catch-and-shoot threat 22% of the time he was on the court. Impressively, Vukcevic isn’t afraid to put the ball on the floor, especially when attacking close-outs, which he did 17.1% of the time this past season.

Due to his 6’11’’ frame, Vukcevic projects to be more of a forward than a true center in the NBA and is listed as such on Partizan’s website. However, given how his shooting mechanics indicate potential as a shooter, we could see Vukcevic operate as a pick-and-pop big at the NBA level, where his ability to drive close-outs forces defenders into tough decisions. Encouragingly, Vukcevic has also shown some aptitude for a post-up game, with 11.4% of his offense coming from the post this year.

The downside is that Vukcevic is still quite slender and lacks the lower body and core strength to not only secure his position but also to move his defender as he looks to back them down. Hopefully, some time working with NBA-level coaches and trainers will ensure Vukcevic improves his strength and footwork, so he can make use of his shooting ability and finishing around the rim.

Defensively, Vukcevic still appears to be quite raw, which is likely why he struggled for playing time under Obradovic this season. Quick when moving in a straight line but limited when forced to flip his hips and change direction, Vukcevic will need to work on his dexterity and positioning in order to be a viable team defender at the next level. Furthermore, it’s likely that Vukcevic would be a target of opposing guards due to his tendency to get ‘stuck’ when trying to stay in front of smaller and shifter players.

Overall, Vukcevic is exactly what you would expect from a rotational European big man: a project. There is plenty of upside to like in his game and some genuine skills that could see him become a true rotation player in the NBA, but it’s highly unlikely we see Vukcevic making any noise this year. As such, if Stevens is looking for someone to develop on a two-way or another draft and stash prospect, Vukcevic makes a lot of sense. Yet, if Stevens wants someone to come in and strengthen the bench, this might not be the right draft pick for Boston.

Kobe Brown

Iowa State v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

In his latest mock draft, CBS Sports’ Kyle Boone had this to say about Kobe Brown; “No player evokes more Draymond Green vibes than Brown does in this class. He’s a big forward with guard skills who plays physical and brings versatility on both ends of the floor and is coming off a career year as a 3-point shooter.”

The Missouri product brings good size to his position on the court and provides a multi-faceted scoring profile that could see him fight for a rotation place on the Celtics bench. Recent mock drafts from CBS, ESPN, and Bleacher Report have Brown going in the 30-45 range on June 22, meaning he should still be on the board when Boston makes their selection at number 35.

What I like most about Brown’s game is how he gets his work done across multiple scoring levels. This past season, Missouri utilized Brown as a post-up scorer on 20.8% of his offensive possessions, a catch-and-shoot threat on 14%, and an off-ball cutter on 10.9% of the time. Offensive versatility is incredibly valuable for an incoming rookie, especially one who is going in the second round.

The play above is very much an NBA-type action. Brown sets a gut screen before sealing his man and calling for the ball to initiate some post-up offense. From there, we can see how Brown’s interior offensive game is built around footwork and utilizing his shoulders to create scoring angles, which are all traits that can translate to the NBA with a little bit more polish.

In terms of perimeter scoring, Brown enjoyed a breakout year, leaping from a 23-25% three-point shooter into a 45.5% shooter in the space of a single season. Clearly, NBA teams should have some questions regarding Brown’s shooting leap as they bid to gauge whether the improvements are real or whether a single year of elite shot-making from deep is nothing more than fool's gold.

In terms of shooting mechanics, Brown’s motion is fluid, although his low release point could mean he needs to make some adjustments if defenses continually find ways to swat away his shots. Nevertheless, a quick release, solid force distribution, and an ability to continually find his shooting pockets are all encouraging signs for a team that’s willing to bet on his perimeter improvements being legitimate.

The final thing to note about Brown’s offensive game is that he’s spent time at every position during his time with Missouri, making a positive impact across the board. Brown will add some tertiary playmaking due to his high basketball IQ and processing speed while also being a reliable and robust screening presence across the board.

Defensively, Brown is a solid rebounder who uses his low center of gravity to offset his lack of athleticism by boxing out and exploding toward the ball. Furthermore, when being tasked with guarding wings or guards, Brown makes up for his lack of athleticism by clogging angles and taking away driving lanes while also projecting upside as a high-quality help defender.

If the Celtics are looking for someone who can come in and begin earning minutes from jump, Brown could be an ideal prospect. The Missouri products blend of scoring, playmaking, rebounding, and defense makes him a ready-made contributor for an NBA team, while his size would ensure he can be utilized in multiple different areas of the floor. Four-year college products are often seen as being more polished when they enter the league, and given where the Celtics are in their current contention cycle, that’s exactly what you would want with an early second-round pick.

Gregory Jackson

SEC Basketball Tournament - First Round Photo by Carly Mackler/Getty Images

Gregory Jackson’s stock has fallen throughout the draft process, as reportedly poor showing during workouts compounded a tough season for South Carolina. Jackson is the youngest player in this year's draft class and will undoubtedly be more of a project player than an immediate impact guy.

At 6’8’’, Jackson has the size and frame to play as a four in the NBA. Don’t let Jackson’s 15.4 points per game fool you; his production was incredibly inefficient, hitting just 38.4% of his field goal attempts and shooting 32.4% from the field. Any team that drafts Jackson is doing so for what he can become rather than the player that will be walking through the door at training camp.

Another knock on Jackson is that 20.6% of his offense for South Carolina came via isolation plays. It’s safe to assume that Celtics fans have had their fill of isolation-heavy players being paired with this current core, so that could be enough to scare Stevens off. Peel away those isolations plays, though, and you have a young forward who excelled (by his standards) as a catch-and-shoot threat, averaging 1.1 points per possession.

Jackson has also flashed signs of potentially developing into a point forward, running the pick-and-roll 12.4% of the time that he had the rock on offense. During those pick-and-roll actions, Jackson did flash some upside as a self-creator, but he will need time and reps to develop his ability to orchestrate an offense as a pick-and-roll creator.

Defensively, Jackson is prone to switching off, which has cost his team on multiple occasions and will certainly drive Celtics fans crazy. When guarding catch-and-shoot attempts, opponents are averaging 40.8% from the field, as Jackson utilizes his length to stifle a shooter's release and line of vision to the hoop. We see a similar story when Jackson is guarding catch-and-drive possessions too, holding his opponent to a 23.3% success rate.

Jackson has upside as a perimeter defender and as a ball-handling forward who can generate his own shot. The South Carolina product will also come into the league as a potential catch-and-shoot threat. Jackson will need time to develop, though, and that is something the Celtics can’t offer in the NBA. Instead, he would likely be placed on a two-way deal.

There are some mock drafts that have Jackson going in the late first round, and that could be doing Boston a favor, as they won’t have to consider his name when it’s time to make their selection. If Jackson is still on the board at 35, we will get a good glimpse into how far ahead Stevens is planning.

James Nnaji

Valencia Basket v Barcelona - Endesa League Photo by Vicente Vidal Fernandez ATPImages/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a big man of the future, James Nnaji might be your guy. Athletic, bouncy, and extremely powerful. Nanji has flashed a post-game and has upside as a rim-runner at the NBA level. With all the physical tools you can dream of, Nnaji projects as a very good big-man prospect. Skillset-wise, the European big man is still very raw and could take multiple years to develop into an important role player at the NBA level.

Think Robert Williams with more muscle and no pressing injury concerns but without the passing and jaw-dropping leaping ability. Where Williams can hop out of the arena, Nnaji explodes with force, commanding space around him and producing thunderous dunks.

Nnaji is slightly undersized for a genuine big man, standing at 6’10’’ - the same height as Robert Williams. Yet, when you factor in Nnaji’s leaping ability and explosiveness, he is still a capable roll man and rim protector. Movement isn’t an issue for the Barcelona product, either, as he’s shown an ability to flip his hips at pace and move his feet quickly enough to stay in front of smaller players.

Experience could be a drawback for Nanji, though. Nnaji has been playing professional ball in Europe for two seasons, averaging 8.7 minutes per game. With such a small amount of playing time under his belt, it could make sense for the Celtics to stash him in Europe for another season. An argument could be made that being around genuine NBA talent and getting spot minutes throughout the regular season would be better for his development, though. I tend to lean toward the latter, but everybody views these things differently.

Outside of his leaping ability and low-post/roll man offense, Nnaji’s movement will ensure he is a mobile big man that can fulfill a role as an up-to-touch or at-the-level defender, while his athleticism will make him a genuine asset as a drop big. It’s worth noting that Barcelona also entrusted him within a switch system, where Nnaji held his own due to his foot speed and size.

It’s hard to envision how Nnaji could make an immediate impact within the Celtics rotation, but a role as the third big off the bench could be a realistic first-year goal that would allow him playing time and room to develop around elite talent.

Final Thoughts

Selecting in the second round is always tough. You’re never going to be guaranteed to find a contributor, both in the short term and long term. However, the opportunity to unearth a genuine talent is what keeps things interesting. Personally, I like Kobe Brown with the 35th pick and believe he adds to the roster in a positive way while also solving the wing issue behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

If Kobe Brown is off the board, James Nnaji has the physical tools and upside to be worth a closer look with the 35th pick and could give you some Robert Williams insurance due to the similarities in their offensive game (passing ability excluded).

Fortunately, the draft is just a few days away, so we won’t have long to wait until we see who the Celtics will be adding to their roster. And then it’s time to prepare our Summer League overreactions.

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