Monday, February 17, 2014

Celtics 2014 NBA Draft Preview


On February 10, 2006, I went to my first Celtics game. Brian Scalabrine played twenty-five minutes, and that’s all you really need to know. In those twenty-five minutes, Scalabrine mustered only four points and three rebounds, while shooting 25% from the field and racking up five personal fouls. It was painful to watch, really. It actually physically hurt to sit through a performance like that. Luckily, my eleven year-old self found it wildly entertaining to watch the tall, awkward, plodding, lovable, redhead go toe to toe with some of the best athletes on the planet.

As surprising as it sounds, it wasn’t at all an uncommon sight for those rebuilding Celtics. Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the Celtics’ last rebuilding phase than the usage of Scalabrine. That year, Scalabrine played in 71 games for the disappointing 33-49 Celtics. I, like many Celtics fans, will always have a certain adoration for Brian Scalabrine. Nonetheless, there’s simply no justifiable reason for a player of Scalabrine’s caliber to ever appear in 71 games in a single season. Or in any games for that matter. He should be sitting on the bench, preferably in street clothes, offering moral support with his luxurious strawberry-blonde locks flowing for all to admire.

During the 2005-2006 season, Scalabrine set a career high in appearances for the Celtics, despite shooting only 38% from the field and offering little production elsewhere. Yet, somehow, he still managed to see time on the court in 71 different games (12 more than he did in any other year during his career). In his first year with the team, the Celtics won just 33 games, significantly fewer than the 45 they won the previous year. However, the season proved not to be completely insignificant, as the team managed to salvage at least part of the season by landing the first major building block of their rebuild when they acquired Rajon Rondo on the night of the draft.

The following season, Scalabrine started seventeen games, another career-high, and also increased his minutes per game by nearly six. He played an integral role on a team that finished the season with a dreadful record of 24-58, good for the worst record in the Eastern conference. However, that horrible season set up one of the greatest offseason turnarounds in league history. So maybe the ‘White Mamba’ does deserve a belated “thank you” for the 2008 NBA Finals victory, a series in which Scalabrine did not play a single minute.

Thank you for the memories, Brian.

            The proper groundwork has been laid for the Celtics. Already in possession of a strong core of talent to build upon, GM Danny Ainge has also done an excellent job of stockpiling future draft picks. With a core that includes building blocks Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, GM Danny Ainge will also have at least nine first-round picks in the next five years at his disposal. However, this year’s draft will very likely be the most important. If Ainge can hit with both picks, the upward trajectory of the franchise will be jumpstarted, and many different routes toward a return to prominence would be created. In order to maximize the value of the remaining future draft picks, the best option would likely be keeping this year’s picks and using some of the remaining picks to package in future trades. As we know, Ainge loves his blockbuster trades, and if he maneuvers this draft correctly, the path towards one of these trades would become much easier to pull off.   

            When it comes to draft strategy, I tend to lean more towards the “best player available” approach, as opposed to need-based drafting. However, it is important to find a healthy median between the two. If a team leans too far towards either side of the spectrum, the growth of the franchise can be severely stunted, or at least slowed. For instance, as a result of drafting heavily based on positional needs, the Cavaliers have compromised the overall quality of their past few drafts. For an example of how the Celtics have experienced this in the past themselves, you don’t have to look any farther than the 2012 draft. Despite not having an immediate need at power forward, the Celtics drafted the best player on the board, Jared Sullinger, at 21st overall. They followed that up by making a selection solely to address a position of need, by selecting Fab Melo with the very next pick. Less than two years later, Sullinger has emerged as one of the best players on the Celtics roster, and one of the more promising young players in the NBA. Melo has since been traded, and waived by two other teams. He finally caught on with a team in the D-League, where he is currently averaging 4 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block, and shooting just 38% from the field in 13 minutes a game.
 
            In my rankings, I try to find that median. You can’t ignore your team’s positional needs, and you also don’t want to select players simply based on talent if they are just going to sit on the bench.

The Celtics are a hard team to peg this season. However, I do have a vague idea of where I think their two first round picks will land. The first, their own, I project to land in the top 8 (broad, I know). I believe that their record will end up somewhere in the bottom four-to-six. It may seem as though my outlook for the remainder of the Celtics’ season is pessimistic, and to a point, that’s probably true. If requested, I would be happy to create a separate posting to go into greater detail explaining my projected area where the pick will land. Of course, it is a lottery, which is primarily why I have analyzed a much wider range of prospects. The second pick gets a little more complicated, but that pick will be covered in a separately posted portion of the draft preview.

I have personally analyzed a list of players that are likely to be in contention for the Celtics’ first pick in the upcoming draft. Each player is ranked based on a combination of overall talent, potential, and fit for the Celtics. This is not just a ranking of the top prospects on my big board, but rather a list of the order in which each player should be targeted by the Celtics. I have personally prepared in-depth analysis of each player, complete with player comparisons, and recent developments. Each player comparison is generally a best-case scenario, unless otherwise noted. The comparison is given mostly as an example of the NBA player that each prospect could grow to resemble, if they are able to reach their potential.

Important note: The bulk of this article was written about three weeks ago. In order to reflect significant events that have occurred between when the rankings were originally created and the way it sits today, I have separately added a “recent developments” portion. This is included separately from the original analysis, and may differ in certain areas from the original analysis. All rankings are subject to change, and will be updated in the future. This is only Part One of my Celtics Draft Preview, and will discuss only the Celtics first pick.

            We’ve all heard about this year’s excellent draft class, but who should the Celtics take? These are rankings that I have compiled based my opinion of which prospect I believe should be selected, should they be available.

Players in consideration for the first selection (projected 1-8)

Jabari Parker, SF/PF- No other prospect in this class is going to impact a franchise as quickly as Parker. He is incredibly versatile, and does everything well. He can handle the ball effectively, facilitate, set up shots for others, play well in the post or on the perimeter, and his jump shot is simply a thing of beauty. He can score from anywhere on the court, and generally displays a high basketball IQ and good shot selection. He possesses a good frame with room to add muscle, and extremely underrated athleticism. He has displayed good lateral quickness, and projects to be able to play both small forward and power forward at the NBA level. He should spend most of his time at the small forward, however, and his skill set would be great if used in a point-forward role similar to Paul Pierce’s. It’s not easy to find a true weakness in his game, but his defense appears to be one of his less impressive qualities. He doesn’t have the defensive ceiling of Wiggins or Embiid, but he should prove to be a capable defender against both small forwards and power forwards. His defense isn’t going to wow you, but I see him ending up as a Kevin Durant level defender. Parker’s versatility and team-first attitude would allow him to come in and play starter’s minutes as either the starting small forward, or a 30+ minute per game player splitting time at both forward positions. Regardless, he would immediately provide a much needed offensive spark for the C’s. Also, adding a player with Parker’s offensive abilities would make it much easier for the Celtics to select a promising prospect with an under-developed offensive game with their second first-rounder, such as Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. A fiery player on the court, he is also a very humble and kind individual off the court. Ultimately, Parker is exactly the type of person you want to represent your organization both on and off the court.

Player comparison: Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony.

Recent developments: During a brief four-game mini-slump at the beginning of January, many began to write off Jabari Parker. Among other things, critics said that the ACC had “figured him out,” and jumped to the conclusion that he was hitting the “freshman wall.” However, it didn’t take long for him to prove them wrong. On January 18th he dropped 23 points in just 26 minutes during a win against NC State, and he hasn’t looked back. Since then, Parker has averaged 20 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. During this seven-game stretch he has guided his team to a 6-1 record, every game being against ACC opponents, and their only loss coming against undefeated and top-ranked Syracuse. He has continued to display his dominance, cemented his status as a top contender for the top overall pick, and retained his spot atop my rankings for the Celtics.

Joel Embiid, C- In a draft class loaded with players with ‘upside,’ Embiid could very well have the most of them all. And yes, that includes Andrew Wiggins. It’s not hard to picture Embiid developing into both the best offensive, and defensive, center in the NBA. He has great length, a legit 7-footer, with a 7-foot-5 wingspan (for comparison, fellow 7-footer Kelly Olynyk has just a 6-foot-10 wingspan). His length, along with his well-built 250 pound body, leaping ability, and quick feet combine to make him one of the most special athletes at the center position in a long time. His offense is still a work a work in progress, but he is already showing some enormous potential with his great touch, phenomenal feet, and ever-growing arsenal of post moves. Right now, aside from being generally raw and lacking polish, his only true weakness is his penchant for landing in foul trouble, which can be corrected. He receives a lot of Hakeem Olajuwan comparisons, and they are certainly not unwarranted. As far as current NBA players go, if you combine Roy Hibbert’s defensive prowess with some of Dwight Howard’s athleticism, and mix in some of Andrew Bynum’s pre-injury offensive game, you may get a concoction similar to Joel Embiid. He has only been playing basketball for less than three years, and continues to improve at an unprecedented rate. By the time draft day arrives, he may very well be the consensus number one pick, even in this potent draft class. Embiid presents a good fit with the Celtics, as they do not currently have a true Center on the roster. I can tell you were wondering, and the answer is no, I don’t consider Olynyk a true center. While he has the height, his skill set would be best utilized as a stretch four, as he has been overmatched in the post defensively, and appeared very uncomfortable down low on offense. The ideal scenario would be to add an elite defensive center to start next to Sullinger at the power forward, and have Olynyk coming off the bench playing somewhere around 25 minutes as a reserve post player. But, I digress. Embiid would give the Celtics a true rim-protector, and an anchor on both sides of the court. He would be the best post defender the C’s have had since KG, and if paired with Jared Sullinger, could form one of the best frontcourts in the NBA.

Player comparison: Roy Hibbert with more athleticism defensively, Andrew Bynum offensively, Hakeem Olajuwan after (possible) development.

Recent developments: Over the last month, Embiid has become the overwhelming favorite at number one overall on the majority of both big boards and mock drafts, and has also become virtually interchangeable with Jabari Parker for the top spot on my rankings. Embiid seemingly never stops improving, and has continued to show the unique type of skillset that makes NBA GMs salivate. However, he seems to have hit a minor snag. After averaging under 20 minutes a game to start the month of February, it was revealed that he has been fighting through knee and back injuries. Coach Bill Self has stated that he isn’t dealing with any structural issues, but his body has “taken a toll” over the last few weeks. It appears likely that Embiid may sit out a few games, and while the injuries certainly don’t seem to be anything major, the missed time figures to slow his momentum. Regardless, his draft stock shouldn’t change much, and has previously not shown any sign of being injury-prone. Once he returns to form, you can expect Embiid to continue his ascension. At the rate he’s been going this season, it’s hard to predict exactly how high his stock could be by the time draft day arrives. Don’t be fooled, just because he isn’t first in my current rankings doesn’t mean that I’m not incredibly high on Embiid. Not being my number one speaks less to his own value, and more to just how good Jabari Parker’s performance has been.

Andrew Wiggins, SF- Andrew Wiggins, in short, is basketball’s Jadeveon Clowney. Was he over-hyped? Absolutely. Has he failed to live up to expectations? Yes. However, he still has all the ability needed to develop into a star in the NBA. His athleticism is well-documented, and rightfully so. The product of a former NBA player father, and an Olympic sprinter mother, he is a truly special athlete. Lightning quick, with an unbelievable 44-inch vertical to match, he makes incredible plays look effortless. If he were to enter the league today, from a strict athleticism standpoint, he would immediately be in the conversation for the best athlete in the league. Outside of Embiid, he has shown the most defensive potential of any of the elite prospects. However, his basketball skills aren’t nearly as polished as expected, and his mindset has also been questioned. His motor can be questionable, but when he plays aggressively he has shown the ability to completely take over a game. In the final minutes of the Duke game, he scored a go ahead basket, hit a beautiful step-back jumper to extend the lead, and proceeded to score on a breakaway dunk while drawing Jabari Parker’s fifth foul to ice the game. He has also flashed his dominance on other occasions, one being the game against a talented Iowa State squad, by posting 17 points and 19 rebounds. He has a good frame at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan, and his broad shoulders help show that his body can handle putting on a good deal of muscle. While he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype, he has come up big when it mattered the most, and is well worthy of a top pick. I don’t think any GM’s would regret taking him in the top three, or number one for that matter. My main concern is his fit on the team, because as of right now, his game is fairly similar to Jeff Green’s. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t coexist on the court together, and it is certainly no reason to avoid drafting a player of Wiggins’ caliber. Ultimately, regardless of possible fit with the current roster, if Wiggins is still on the board at number three, you’re taking him.

Player comparison: Immediate impact, Jeff Green. After development, Paul George, Tracy McGrady in his prime.

Recent developments: Ironically, the most talked about college player in years is who I have the least to discuss recently. What can I say? Nothing has happened recently to impact Wiggins’ draft stock. A few more flashes of dominance, a few more disappearing acts. Exactly what we have learned to expect from Andrew Wiggins. A top prospect more for his immense untapped potential than college performance, nothing short of catastrophe would impact his status among the elite for the upcoming draft. Athleticism is king in the modern NBA, and Wiggins is oozing with it.

Julius Randle, PF- Randle is starting to be somewhat overlooked after his hot start to the season, but he is still a double-double machine with an NBA-ready body and an impressive offensive skillset. He possesses a good low-post and mid-range game, and has shown flashes of ability on the perimeter. He has been dominant on the boards, and that aspect of his game should make a fairly seamless transition to the pros. He is not without flaws, however, he has shown to be turnover prone and gets in trouble when he tries to do too much. He also has some gaps on defense, but has been primarily a serviceable defender at the college level. My main concern with him is how he with adjust to playing against NBA level power forwards, after being able to physically dominate all the way through high school and college. Also, his relatively short arms could lead to some issues when playing against longer NBA big men, especially on the defensive end of the court. He may take a little while longer to adjust, but remains a tantalizing talent. He is probably the worst fit of any of the top-six for the Celtics, due to the fact that power forward is one of the only areas that the team is set for the long term. However, like Wiggins, Randle is too talented to pass up if available outside the top three.  

Player comparison: Paul Millsap, Josh Smith, Chris Webber, with a little bit of Blake Griffin.

Recent developments: As of late, none of the highly-touted freshman have slid down mock drafts and prospect rankings more than Randle. Randle’s play on defense has been widely scrutinized, however, it has actually been much improved recently. One knock on Randle has been his lack of shot-blocking, yet he has blocked at least one shot in each of his last nine games, a feat that no other top power forward prospect has been able to accomplish(including more highly-regarded defensive prospects Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon). Also, after somehow recording only one steal through his first fourteen games, he has averaged 1.0 steals per game in his last eleven. The increase in defensive statistics by no means elevates him to a plus defender, but it certainly doesn’t hurt his cause. After all, we have known all along that Randle is a weak defensive prospect. I haven’t soured on him as a prospect, but power forward is simply not an area of need for the Celtics. His talent remains difficult to pass on, but Exum is very likely to surpass him on future updated versions of my rankings. If Randle falls out of the top five, he could be end up being a steal. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have a positional logjam, you can never have too much talent.

Dante Exum, PG/SG- Exum is probably the most unknown of the top prospects, but he is also a very unique and special player. A 6-foot-6 combo guard from Australia, he could very well become one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NBA. Admittedly, he is the prospect that I have seen the least tape of, but what I have seen (and read of) is impressive. A phenomenal athlete with a lightning quick first step, good ball handling and passing skills, he can feasibly become an all-star caliber player at either guard position. He is an explosive scorer, and uses his body well to finish around the basket. His jump-shot is suspect and remains his biggest weakness, but it still shows a lot of promise. He has the skills to be a full time NBA point guard, but may be best served spending most of his time at shooting guard early in his career, which would be necessary to coexist on the current Celtics roster and play alongside Rajon Rondo. His long-term value may not be maximized if the team were to use him as a shooting guard full time, but he remains a good fit nonetheless. A Rondo/Exum backcourt tandem could turn into one in the best in the league, not to mention the value he would provide as a capable primary point guard if Rondo were to miss time again.

Player comparison: A more athletic Michael Carter-Williams, Penny Hardaway.

Recent developments: It sounds odd, but Exum not currently playing basketball may actually be helping his draft stock. While other top prospects are duking it out in the NCAA and having every single minute they play picked apart, their draft stock is subject to constant change. Meanwhile, Exum’s stock has remained status quo. College players are subject to much scrutiny every time they take the court, and their draft stock fluctuates accordingly. Yet by not taking the court, Exum has been able to stay put as a virtual lock to be drafted in the top five. That’s something that can’t be said for many fellow top prospects currently playing in college (I’m looking at you, Marcus Smart). Though often regarded as more of a point guard, I still maintain belief that he can become a star as an NBA shooting guard. Thus, despite not currently active, he is likely to surpass Randle in my rankings.

 

Marcus Smart PG/SG: I have little doubt that Smart can be a good starting point guard in the NBA, but he can also be an effective shooting guard as well. He has all the characteristics you want out of a point guard, especially his outstanding leadership ability and relentless motor. Smart has great size, and utilizes it very well when finishing around the rim and rebounding. To me, the most impressive aspect of his game is his defense. He is a tenacious defender, who will disrupt passing lanes, attack the ball handler, and contest shots. His court vision is suspect, but that’s understandable given that he didn’t play point guard until getting to Oklahoma State. There is also some question marks with his jumper, but it has shown improvement and remains a good scoring threat with or without it. He is a good, not great, athlete, but his tenacity, ability to use his body, and approach to the game will make up for any minor athletic shortcomings. The idea of a Smart/Rondo backcourt is exciting, and they would make one of the best defensive guard combos in the league. Smart also has a team-first attitude which would allow him to play any position he is assigned, and coexist with other teammates/coaches.

Player comparison: Jason Kidd, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, James Harden, if he reaches his full potential.

Recent developments: To be completely honest, my decision to include recent developments to each player’s analysis was made as a response to Smart’s recent incident shoving a fan during a game against Texas Tech. Despite many recent knee-jerk reactions, I don’t anticipate this specific incident to hurt his draft stock all that much. I might be in the minority when I say that, in my opinion, I don’t believe his value as a prospect (not the number he will be drafted) has taken a hit by returning to school. Despite popular belief, Smart is not a natural point guard. Though he can develop into a solid one as pro, he isn’t near being an NBA caliber starter today. My biggest concern with Smart is the lack of improvement in his jumper, which has shown to still be a major weakness, despite his success early in the season. One thing that has really stood out to me when watching him this season has been his catch-and-shoot ability, which is one aspect of his game that illustrates his promise as a shooting guard at the next level. Smart losing his composure and physically lashing out at a fan was certainly a mistake, but doesn’t change the way I view his character. I take nothing back from how highly I regard his leadership ability, and he still appears to have maintain a good relationship with his teammates and coaches. He’s an emotional, fiery competitor, who clearly needs to control his emotions on the court. But this is a guy who has no off-the-court legal history, and presents no reasons for concern in his personal life.

 

Aaron Gordon, PF/SF: Gordon is the most divisive player to be included in my top seven, but he should fully be considered with the Celtics’ first selection should they miss out on the previous six. He has exceptional athleticism, is a good ball handler, passer, rebounder, and also plays with a relentless motor. His main downfall is his lack of position, as he is only 6-foot-8 and has a relatively slight build, but plays more like a power forward. Despite often being used as a small forward, he desperately lacks in the shooting department. This, unless improved upon, would make it very difficult for him to be an effective small forward at the next level. Luckily, he has a 7-foot wingspan and an athletic, muscle bound body, which could allow for him to be able to stick at power forward in the long term. In order to become a great player, he either needs to vastly improve his shooting and make a full transition to small forward, which is far less likely, or improve his body to stick at power forward at the next level. He is going to take the most time to develop (by far) of all of the prospects that cracked the list, but he has all of the potential to turn into a great player with a few years of development, which is enough to warrant consideration in the top seven.

Player comparison: Josh Smith, Blake Griffin, Kenneth Faried with better defense.

Recent developments: Not much has changed with Gordon himself, but Noah Vonleh’s performance has led to him often now being projected above Gordon. His play hasn’t really regressed, but he also hasn’t shown significant improvement. He hasn’t done much to his draft stock recently, he’s been the same raw, shooting-deficient player on offense, still playing good defense, and putting his relentless motor on display. Gordon would probably benefit the most from spending another year in college, but given his freakish athleticism and great potential, he could be a lock as a top-ten pick, which would be hard for him to pass up.

 

Noah Vonleh, PF/C: One of the hottest names in the 2014 class, Vonleh has simply forced his way into consideration. A month ago, Vonleh only made an appearance on my original list as a “player to watch,” but now his name is consistently mentioned in the conversation in the top ten, often top five, players in the upcoming draft. Within the last week or two, I have seen him ranked ahead of Julius Randle as the top power forward in the draft on multiple occasions. While I think it’s a bit premature, it’s not hard to understand where it’s coming from. At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, with a massive 7-foot-4 wingspan, he already possesses a solid, muscular frame with plenty of extra room to fill out. He’s proven to be an excellent defender and rebounder, and has been a dominant force down low. He’s shown flashes of offensive upside, including a ridiculous (and obviously unsustainable) 57% from three, but remains an extremely raw player offensively. His three-point shooting percentage looks great on paper, and does have a real shot at being great, but he has attempted only 19 on the entire season. He has failed to show much development in other facets of his offensive game, not displaying a particularly strong post or midrange game. While his natural ability and massive upside make his deserving of a top-ten pick, I think his transition to the NBA will be lengthy and difficult. Adjusting to playing power forward full time could be hard for him, largely because he doesn’t possess very good quickness, and could have a hard time keeping of with NBA power forwards.
 
Player comparison: Serge Ibaka, Chris Bosh.

Remember, It's all just my opinion.

-Brandon

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Agree nice work. Looks like you spent some time on it.

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  3. I can't say I agree with some of the things you said, particularly about Embiid (Bynum + Howard + Olajuwon might be slightly outlandish) but I would definitely say I agree with the order and their pertinence to the Celtics. Unfortunately, there have been murmurs of Embiid staying at Kansas another year, I hope he comes out this year though. As a fellow youth journalist, I appreciate your level of detail and I can tell this took a long time to piece together. Awesome work

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  4. "Each player comparison is generally a best-case scenario, unless otherwise noted. The comparison is given mostly as an example of the NBA player that each prospect could grow to resemble, if they are able to reach their potential."

    I wasn't saying Bynum + Howard + Olajuwon = Embiid, I was just saying that he has certain attributes similar to each player. Thank you for the feedback.

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