By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
About four months later than originally planned, the 2020 NBA Draft is officially here.
And the Boston Celtics are expected to be one busy team.
While the talk of the day (and night) will be about the uncertain future of Gordon Hayward (and potentially some other Celtic talents), and a potential pursuit of the Rockets’ James Harden, the Celtics are scheduled to enter tonight’s virtual festivities with four picks to their name, including three in the first round (No. 14, 26, and 30 overall).
It’s definitely not how Danny Ainge drew it up, and he’ll be the first to tell you that.
“It’s not ideal if we add four rookies to the team that we currently have,” the Celtics’ Danny Ainge admitted last week.
So, uh, trade?
“I think we always look — all the way up until we make the pick — at all the possibilities that exist,” said Ainge. “We talk to every team in the draft and we come up with lots of different ideas of trades we want to make. But you have to do good deals. I say that all the time. It’s not a matter of just about making deals.”
But if the Celtics are making three picks tonight — or even one, really — here are some names to keep an eye on.
Onyeka Okongwu (USC)
Let’s make this one clear: If this draft goes as literally everybody expects, Onyeka Okongwu will not be there when the Celtics are on the clock with the No. 14 overall pick. This one would certainly require a trade-up. And that’s exactly what I’m thinking if the Celtics are to make a play for the 6-foot-10 forward from USC. With the Hawks reportedly in the market for Gordon Hayward, and with the deadline for a Hayward opt-in extended to Thursday (giving the Celtics and Hayward more time to presumably work out an extension-and-trade), and with Atlanta possessing the No. 6 overall pick, which has been of reported interest to the Celtics, am I crazy to think that is the Celtics’ best (and perhaps only) play to get Okongwu to Boston?
A 28-game starter for the Trojans in 2019-20, Okongwu led USC in points (16.2), rebounds (8.6), and blocks (2.7) per game, and his 61.6 shooting percentage was tops among all Trojans. Okongwu, who possesses a 7-foot-1 wingspan, was also the only player in the country to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes played It was enough to propel the Chino, Calif. native to an First-Team All-Pac 12 honor as a freshman.
Capable of playing forward or center (the C’s have trotted out smaller players at center), Okongwu’s two-way game would definitely be of appeal to the Celtics, and Okongwu himself could see him fitting in with the Green’s youthful core.
“I feel like I can fit anywhere due to my defensive versatility and my offensive upside and potential,” the 19-year-old Okongwu said. “Playing with Boston, your players like Kemba Walker, [Jaylen] Brown, and [Jayson] Tatum. I definitely feel like if I were to be drafted by Boston, I’d definitely fit into that young core they have.”
Kira Lewis Jr. (Alabama)
If the point guard whirlwind from Isaiah Thomas’ hip to Kyrie Irving’s delusional to Kemba Walker’s wonky knee has taught the Celtics anything, it’s that they need to begin their search for Walker’s replacement before it’s truly too late.
Now, the Celtics do have some bodies behind Walker in the now; Brad Wanamaker is still here, and the team spent 2019 draft picks on Carsen Edwards and Tremont Waters. They’re all nice pieces, but it’s impossible to truly convince yourself that they’re the long-term answer at the one for the C’s should Walker’s knee rapidly deteriorate before our eyes.
In other words, they could use a true high-ceiling insurance policy.
Enter Kira Lewis Jr. outta Alabama.
Considered one of the quickest guards in this draft, Lewis Jr. is slated to enter the NBA after leading the Crimson Tide in points (18.5), assists (5.2), steals (1.8), and minutes (37.6) per game last season. The 6-foot-3 Lewis Jr. also shot over 45 percent from the field, and over 36 percent from deep.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, however, Lewis Jr. has been a fast-riser on many draft boards in recent weeks, and may be out of their range barring a trade-up from the No. 14 overall selection.
R.J. Hampton (International)
At one point considered one of the draft’s top talents, a tame showing with the New Zealand Breakers (NBL) last year has put combo guard R.J. Hampton closer to the Celtics’ first pick of the 2020 NBA Draft.
That didn’t stop the Celtics from doing their homework on the Texas native, however, as Hampton went through a workout with Danny and Austin Ainge and Brad Stevens in attendance leading up to Wednesday’s draft.
“I think the conversations went well,” Hampton said of his encounter with the C’s leadership group. “I worked out for them — I felt like the Celtics are a great team, a great organization.”
Devin Vassell (Florida State)
If you want to read into something in this coronavirus-derailed year of scouting, it’s that the Celtics met with Florida State’s Devin Vassell both virtually and in person (they were allowed just 10 in-person meetings this year) leading up this draft. That, again, if we’re going off the priority of your scouting assignments this year, feels telling.
“They showed some interest and for me it was … just a blessing and a great opportunity for me,” Vassell told CelticsWire of his meeting with the C’s. “I think that anywhere that I go I’ll be able to fit in, help a team right away so me being able to talk to them to show them what I’ve been working on over this six or seven months of quarantine I think really helped.”
A 6-foot-7 wing (with a wingspan over 6-foot-9), Vassell averaged collegiate career bests with 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 0.9 blocked shots, and steals in 30 games for the Seminoles. It was enough to earn the Georgia native All-ACC Second-Team Honors, and power Florida State to their first regular season ACC championship in program history.
Defense appears to be the name of the game with Vassell, too.
“One of the most active ‘team defender’ wings in recent memory,” The Stepien wrote of Vassell. “Hounds the passing lanes. Wreaks havoc by digging down on slashers, cutters, and post-ups, nearly laying out his full body to maximize length. Vassell gets involved in a high number of shot contests from a help position via traveling from the weakside or by giving supplemental rim protection from behind. Has shown the capacity to intelligently zone up and cover multiple men to effect.”
Jalen Smith (Maryland)
Standing at an imposing 6-foot-10 (and with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) and 225 pounds, Maryland’s Jalen Smith appears to have the tools to be the big man that the Celtics desperately need in their frontcourt.
And he knows it.
“I feel like I’d be able to fit well on [the Celtics],” Smith said leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft. “Being able to help not clog the paint up of the guards, being able to open up space for driving lanes, and being able to hit an open shot. Being that defensive anchor for the team and making sure that I’m always holding down on that end.”
A two-year Terrapin, Smith was a beast in his sophomore season, with 10.5 rebounds and 2.35 blocked shots per game, which ranked second in the Big Ten in both categories, while his 21 double-doubles were the third-most in all of college basketball.
The 20-year-old Smith, considered an energetic presence at both ends, was also a top-five finalist for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award, and a top-10 finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year Award last season.
Saddiq Bey (Villanova)
A 6-foot-8, 3-and-D wing. When have the Celtics ever passed on that in the Stevens Era?
No, but really, Villanova’s Saddiq Bey is NBA-bound averaging averaging an impressive 16.1 points and shooting 47.7 percent (45.1 from three-point range) in 31 games for the Wildcats last year. Those totals helped push Bey to unanimous First Team All-Big East honors, as well as the the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.
Precious Achiuwa (Memphis)
If the Celtics want to continue to add some snarl to frontcourt, Memphis Tigers freshman Precious Achiuwa may be the move.
They’ve seen Achiuwa up close, too, with the team holding a pre-draft workout with the 6-foot-9 forward two weeks ago.
A power forward by trade, the 21-year-old Achiuwa was the AAC Freshman of the Year and added First-Team All AAC honors in 2019-20 after averaging 15.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game for Memphis.
“With all the tools to be an elite defender, Achiuwa made some strides this season as the anchor of arguably the most athletic defense in college basketball,” the Nigerian-born forward’s draft profile reads. “Possessing the quickness to slide with guards, the explosiveness to block shots emphatically, and the strength to play some center, his versatility is intriguing but his consistency stood out this season as Memphis’s defense kept them competitive in all but one game all year.”
This sounds like who Ainge was talking about when he claimed that not all picks are built the same.
“When you draft a player like Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams, they’re grown adults,” Ainge said last week. “And then there’s other kinds of rookies, as we all know. That matters, too. Not all draft picks have to be kids that have their hand held, but there are many rookies who come in and they are the hardest working and the most diligent.”
Aaron Nesmith (Vanderbilt)
Considered one of the best shooters in this draft (and especially lethal from deep) — and a year after missing out on Tyler Herro and then seeing the damage he could inflict up close and personal in the Eastern Conference Finals — you have to wonder if the Celtics do whatever they can to nab Vandy’s Aaron Nesmith this time around.
Standing at 6-foot-6, Nesmith’s 2019-20 campaign with the Commodores was a breakout one, with 23 points per game (seventh-highest nightly average in the NCAA last year) and makes on 60 of his 115 tries from beyond the arc. That 52.2 percent success rate from deep made Nesmith the deadliest shooter in all of college hoops last year, and Nesmith had four games with at least seven makes from deep before a stress fracture in his foot ended his season after just 14 games.
Nesmith may just be that off-the-bench, buckets-on-buckets scorer the Celtics desperately need.
Cole Anthony (North Carolina)
If the Celtics want to add high-ceiling backup behind Kemba and if the aforementioned Lewis Jr. is off the board when it’s their time to pick, the Tar Heels’ Cole Anthony may be their next-best play at No. 14 overall.
Listed at 6-foot-3, Anthony shined in a knee injury-interrupted 2019-20 campaign, averaging 18.5 points, 4.0 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game to go with 35 minutes per night in a 20-game run for North Carolina. That 18.5 nightly average was the second-best by any Tar Heel rookie, trailing only Tyler Hansbrough and his 18.9 average set in 2005-06.
Considered an aggressive, score-first guard who isn’t afraid to take chances with the ball in his hands, Anthony seems like a talent who could become the next version of what ex-Celtics backup Terry Rozier was, which may become more of a need as Kemba ages and deals with his potentially lingering knee issues.
Anthony, meanwhile, has already said that an opportunity to land with the Celtics and behind Walker would be “a blessing.”
He also has some NBA bloodlines in him, as his father, Greg Anthony, was an 11-year NBA veteran.
Theo Maledon (International)
Sticking with point guards of tomorrow, French playmaker Theo Maledon may be another name of interest to the C’s.
A 6-foot-5 guard, Maledon, who has been playing pro ball in France since he was 16, averaged 7.0 points, 2.5 assists, and shot 42.7 percent in 42 games with ASVEL in a 2019-20 season that saw him battle through a shoulder injury.
“Maledon possesses good size at 6-foot-5, 180 pounds with a plus-3 wingspan,” Maledon’s draft profile reads. “His playing style is that of a more traditional point guard. He has a nice feel for the game and a deceptive quick first-step when attacking the hoop. He uses his body well to maintain possession of the ball and limit turnovers. Maledon’s court vision and precision point-passing are two of his best offensive attributes.”
Maledon confirmed that he’s had a meeting with the Celtics, too.
But there may be one snag in the road when it comes to bringing Maledon to Boston. While he is a French talent, it’s believed that he would like to make a jump to the North American pro ranks after spending almost half a decade as a French pro, making him an unlikely candidate for a potential draft-and-stash pick that would certainly help the roster-crunched C’s.
Leandro Bolmaro (International)
A 6-foot-7 playmaker capable playing guard or wing depending on your lineup, Argentina native Leandro Bolmaro, who has been playing his pro ball in Spain, seems like a definite off-the-bat fit for the Celtics’ beloved positionless basketball approach.
And if the Celtics do not trade their late first-round picks, drafting-and-stashing Bolmaro, who signed a multi-year extension with Barcelona, almost makes too much sense for it to not happen.
Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke)
The Celtics’ long-term plans at center remain a complete guessing game. Hell, their short-term plans at center are an unknown as they approach free agency. (Same as it ever was, I suppose.) But if they’re looking to take a chance on a potential end-of-round-one big, Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. may be worth the gamble.
An under the radar presence after averaging 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Blue Devils last season, Carey Jr., originally listed at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, has prepared for the 2020 NBA Draft by dropping 30 pounds, according to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
It’s just part of what makes Carey Jr. a fascinating talent, according to the legendary Coach K.
“He can be that mobile big in a five out,” Krzyzewski told Grant Hill. “You could actually not have him in the reach spot right near the bucket at the base line. He can face. He can pick and pop, he doesn’t just have to pick and roll.
“I like his versatility but it’s tough. We get asked a lot by the NBA teams ‘You had Okafor, you had Wendell Carter, you had Bagley’ and I said ‘Thank god, you have more of those guys?’ And ‘Is he like them?’. He’s not like any of them. Especially Wendell, those guys never faced the basket. He’s the best low post player in college. Wendell was learning that. Vernon already has that. He’s not the athlete Bagley is but he’s his own guy. He’s in that mix is what I’m trying to say.”
Daniel Oturu (Minnesota)
Sticking with the theme of late-round bigs, Daniel Oturu is a name we’re already seeing connected to the Celts.
A two-year starter at the University of Minnesota, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center reportedly interviewed with the Celtics last month following a 2019-20 season that saw Oturu average a double-double with 20.1 points and 11.3 boards per contest. (Overall, his 18 double-doubles in 2019-20 were the seventh-most in all of Division-I hoops.) Oturu also led all Big Ten talents in rebounding, blocks and field goal percentage, and finished second in total scoring.
“Oturu has made a big jump in his second season at Minnesota and has been dominating in the paint, especially on the defensive end,” NBADraftRoom.com wrote. “His ability to alter shots and control the boards give him instant value at the NBA level and he’s looking more and more like a first-round pick.”
Zeke Nnaji (Arizona)
Yet another late-round big, Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji finds himself entering the 2020 NBA Draft after a 2019-20 campaign that earned him All-Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors behind a 16.3 points and 8.6 rebounds nightly effort.
“Finishing the year ranked among the more efficient scorers in the Pac-12, Nnaji played primary off the ball for the Wildcats serving as a reliable, active catch and finish target and productive offensive rebounder,” Nnaji’s draft profile reads. “Showing the ability to use his size and aggressiveness to create some in the post and knocking down midrange jump shots with some consistency, Nnaji displayed some budding coordination to score outside of the restricted area as well.”
The Celtics have reportedly met virtually with the 6-foot-11 center.