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Did the Celtics make a mistake by passing up on Austin Reaves?

Austin Reaves was still on the board when the Celtics drafted Juhann Begarin.

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Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

He might be a Los Angeles Laker, but there’s no denying that Austin Reaves is as likable as they come. Humble, hungry, and deceptively talented, ‘Hillbilly Kobe’ has become a feel-good story of the summer.

According to Jovan Buha of The Athletic, the Lakers front office spent the opening weeks of the offseason peacocking about their willingness to match any offer sheet their restricted free agent could potentially sign. Los Angeles then tied Reaves down to a four-year $53.8 million deal.

Things could have been so different, though.

During the 2021 NBA Draft, the Celtics held the 45th pick — which ultimately ended up becoming Juhann Begarin — placing them in range to select Reaves. The Celtics did hold a workout for the Oklahoma product, as originally reported by former CelticsBlogger Chris Grenham.

“Reaves is set to work out with the Celtics on Tuesday, according to sources. A workout this close to draft night is a sure sign of interest from Boston, which should not come as a surprise to those who know Reaves’ game,” Grenham wrote. “Reaves had a fantastic showing at the NBA Combine last month, which quickly helped to boost his stock among NBA front offices. But opening eyes as an overlooked prospect is nothing new for Reaves. He’s had to prove people wrong for his entire basketball career.”

However, on draft night, Reaves turned down the opportunity to be selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 42nd pick, and that likely made the Celtics think twice about drafting the young combo guard.

“I could have got drafted 42nd by Detroit, but kind of declined that to put me in LA for a better spot,” Reaves said during a recent appearance on the ‘All The Smoke Podcast.’ “Basically, we tiered teams - the best fit for me. And LA was two on the list; they were tier one. I think Detroit called...It was trying to put me in a position to get a roster spot...I didn’t really have to make any calls either - obviously, I wanted to - but it was all about playing the long game.”

Would Reaves have declined a chance to join Boston? What tier did he have them on his list of teams? And would his career have taken off the way it has if he did get selected with the 45th pick in 2021? All of these questions will likely remain unanswered.

Outside of Sam Hauser, Boston’s talent development via their G-League system is questionable. Oftentimes, there’s no room on their stacked NBA roster to afford chances for developmental projects. Between 2021 and today, there haven’t been many opportunities for young guards to crack the rotation — much to the chagrin of Payton Pritchard.

Reaves got to where he is now because there was an opportunity within the Lakers rotation. Los Angeles needed younger talent. They needed ball-handling. And most importantly, they needed players who could impact winning without the ball in their hands but who could scale their production when needed.

Doesn’t every contending team need that, though? Reaves is clearly talented. Far too talented for the G-League. You have to imagine that Ime Udoka and Joe Mazzulla have enough of an eye for young talent that they would have seen Reaves was a ready-made NBA player entering his first training camp.

Ask yourself this: If Boston had drafted Reaves, and he had broken into their rotation and became a core member of the team, how would their roster be different from what it currently is?

The first answer is pretty simple: Boston probably wouldn’t have traded for Malcolm Brogdon last summer. Reaves’ ability to score, facilitate, and work off-ball, coupled with Pritchard’s floor spacing, likely removes the need for Brogdon despite his clear talent. As such, Aaron Nesmith remains on the roster along with Daniel Theis.

If Reaves is operating as the sixth man, he may not get hurt in the Eastern Conference Finals — or perhaps he’s the key to unlocking the Golden State Warriors' defense in the 2022 NBA Finals. Both are unlikely, but they’re in the realm of the possible.

Maybe Reaves is the guard that’s sent out as part of the Kristaps Porzingis deal, or is the reason Payton Pritchard is already on a different roster? Or maybe Reaves is stuck in the G-League, never breaking through into the NBA.

Action and reaction are facts of life.

Reaves went undrafted, joined the Lakers, and is now a breakout star with Team USA at the FIBA World Cup. As easy as it is to assume that the same would have happened in Boston, logically speaking, Reaves likely wouldn’t have popped. There is simply too much competition for guard minutes, and the focus on adding and incorporating youth isn’t at the forefront of Boston’s current roster-building plans.

Yes, the Celtics missed out on a player who is proving to be a high-level starter on a contending team. But no, Boston didn’t make a mistake in choosing not to draft a player who already had his own plan in place. It’s easy to look back and wonder what if, but should we choose to play that game, there are way bigger questions than potentially drafting Reaves in the second round.

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