BRIGHTON, MA – The Celtics aren’t just pushing the re-boot button. They’re pounding it into the keyboard.
It was clear from the moment they drafted a player that didn’t even work out for them that they were interested Thursday night in the character of the player as much as they were the talent.
“Good people,” Ainge told me when I asked about the intangibles of all four picks. “Very good guys, and that played a big part into why we selected them. Who they are, not just what they’re capable of doing on the court. Very excited about that. Their personalities, their character. They’ve got the will to be great.”
Obviously, talent drives the high-performance vehicle that is pro sports but as they found out this past season, character and leadership can steer it into a ditch. This isn’t to say they’re ungrateful for the talent Kyrie Irving brought to the table. They’re just more aware that the path to the Eastern Finals and the NBA Finals is lined with more effort like 2018 instead of 2019.
Said another way, the Celtics were still interested in taking the best player available but by the time their turn came around to No. 14, Danny Ainge and his staff were focused on intangibles as much as they were the talent.
Unable to make a trade to move into the top five of a thin draft, he took a flier on a 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing in Romeo Langford, who played through a torn ligament in his right (shooting thumb) in his freshman season at Indiana last year.
Langford, the all-time leading school boy scorer in Indiana history, proved to Ainge, Brad Stevens and the staff that will be coaching him this summer and into camp that he has the wherewithal to overcome an off shooting year in his only season in Indiana and show the glimpses that made him a McDonald’s All-American out of New Albany High School.
Playing through that injury, Langford was named Big 10 Freshman of the Week four times. He averaged 16.5 points per game, the highest among Big Ten freshmen and the third highest all-time among Indiana University freshmen, behind Eric Gordon and Mike Woodson. Not bad for having an off-year shooting the ball.
“A really versatile good player. He’s been a good player for a long time. In Indiana high school basketball, he’s probably as followed as anyone in the last 15 years. He can do a lot of things on the basketball court. He’s been well-coached, both in high school and in college. He’s a guy that we think has a lot of things that translate to the NBA. Obviously, a long, athletic versatile wing. Can play multiple positions, can handle the ball, can play pick-and-roll.”
What did Langford accomplish playing through pain? He produced a team-high 16.5 points (44.8% FG, 72.2% FT), 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 34.1 minutes in 32 games – all starts as a freshman.
Then there’s Grant Williams, taken 22nd after the Thunder swooped in and took Brandon Clarke out of Gonzaga. At Tennessee, the power forward led the Vols to a Top 5 ranking, captured back-to-back SEC player of the year honors and teamed with Admiral Schofield to become the hottest 1-2 punch in the Volunteer state since the Bernie and Ernie show of the 1970s. In addition to being a consensus 2018-19 All-America First Team selection, Williams was also a finalist for the 2018-19 Wooden Award – given to the most outstanding men’s and women’s college basketball players.
“Super smart,” Brad Stevens said of Williams. “He’s a guy I kind of look at as a guy with a point guard’s mind. You can run offense through him at the elbow, on the block, at the top of the key. He thinks the game. He’s a tough, tough guy and he’s a versatile player. Again, very intelligent.”
In three collegiate seasons at Tennessee, Williams, 20, averaged 15.7 points (51.6% FG, 75.8% FT), 6.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 104 games (101 starts). His 160 blocked shots rank third on Tennessee’s all-time leaderboard.
Ainge might have missed the boat and missed on Clarke when he traded down out of No. 20 to 24 (which was later traded to Phoenix along with Aron Baynes) in an effort to dump one of their first-round picks to save cap space. But he did get the next-best thing in Williams, which isn’t a bad consolation prize that late in the first round.
In hybrid guard Carsen Edwards, the Celtics get their Isaiah Thomas prototype back with a bigger, more NBA-ready body. He can, as he showed against Villanova and Virginia in NCAA tournament games, light it up for 40 (actually 42 twice). If it weren’t for a controversial ending to the regional final against the national champion Cavs, Edwards might have led the Boilermakers to their first title.
And in Tremont Waters, they get a proven college point guard who handled the duties for LSU in the hyper-competitive SEC, becoming the first NBA pick from Baton Rouge since Ben Simmons went first overall in 2016.
“All of them. I think they’re all great kids. But they all have to work to accomplish it. The world is full of unfulfilled potential and so it’s our job to work to get the most out of them.”
Sure, like the NFL Draft, we look at these prospects in the best possible light, which is their potential. Some pan out. Some don’t. But all four check off the important character box, which is something that mattered this June after the drama Ainge and Stevens just went through for the last nine months.
“I really like our team and what it’s capable of,” Ainge said. “We have a good core, I’m just not ready to say what that is right now.”
Ainge’s foray into free agency will define that much better.
Let the dust settle. That is really the only choice Danny Ainge had in the 2019 draft Thursday night. The Sacramento pick (which turned out to be Langford) may not have been that superstar in the making the Celtics and Ainge were hoping for when they made deal after deal following the Brooklyn windfall in 2013. But maybe it’s not about superstars now. Maybe it’s about putting pieces around Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown and seeing if Brad Steven can re-capture the magic of 2017 and 2018, when they made the Eastern Finals in back-to-back years, coming within one bad shooting quarter of the Finals.
Now, with a reworked roster built around four kids, the Celtics can move forward and wish Kyrie Irving and Al Horford all the best.