As Celtics head toward lottery, here’s a look at top prospects in NBA draft
|02.06.14 at 10:07 am ET|
The Celtics are coming off of their worst month in team history — a record of 2-15 in January.
Wrap your mind around that: the worst month in Celtics history. The 2006-07 team that lost 18 straight never dropped more than 14 games in a month. Even M.L. Carr‘s 1996-97 tank-squad that won a total of 15 games never topped 14 losses in a single month.
The trade deadline is looming, and Danny Ainge already has showed that he is not afraid to make moves for the future — trading Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford for expiring contracts and draft picks is evidence. And it’s safe to expect similar moves between now and Feb. 20.
It’s also safe to expect Ainge to hold a high draft pick come June. Boston currently has the sixth-worst record in the NBA and has reached as low as third (the C’s were fourth worst entering Wednesday). Recent wins over bottom-feeders Orlando and Philadelphia have the Celts sitting a bit higher in the standings. Losing another game or two would allow them to get in that bottom three, which yields a 96 percent chance at a top-five pick. The timing couldn’t be better, as the class of 2014 is loaded with prospects that project to be NBA stars.
Given the Celtics‘ current position, selecting somewhere in the top five seems reasonable. So let’s look at the top five prospects in the draft and how they would work in Boston.
Joel Embiid, Kansas, freshman – Embiid has scouts drooling over his NBA potential. He has grown from a mid-to-late lottery pick to a probable first overall pick in just about half a season.
Embiid is a 7-footer with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. And oh, yeah, he’s only been playing basketball for about three years. Originally from Cameroon, Embiid still is learning the game at Kansas under Bill Self. The conventional wisdom was that he would take more time to develop, but Embiid has been masterful on the defensive end and is far less raw on offense than we were led to believe. “He’s skilled, he’s tough, he’s learning quickly, he’s all of 7 feet and he battles,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman said in a Thursday interview with Mut & Merloni. “And he’s getting better.”
Embiid has posted season averages of 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 1.3 assists in only 22.7 minutes per contest. He has done all this while shooting 61.6 percent from the field and making plays that have (rightfully) drawn comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon. The lone flaw in his game? Embiid fouls far too often. His 3.5 fouls per game are much too high, especially considering his minutes.
One note of caution: We can’t be sure Embiid will enter the draft. The lanky freshman is smart; he knows the great big men he aspires to emulate all stayed in school multiple years. If he feels he is not ready for the NBA, Embiid will further develop at Kansas, and he told Goodman on Tuesday that’s he’s “strongly considering” returning to for his sophomore season. We’ll see if Embiid has a strong enough second half to make up his mind to go pro.
Embiid would be an excellent fit in Boston up front with Jared Sullinger. Those two would complement each other perfectly on both ends of the floor. Embiid and Sully along with Rondo would be a heck of a start to rebuilding. Ainge would simply be left with finding a reliable wing scorer.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, freshman – Ainge probably would trade the entire Celtics roster for the Kansas roster. The Jayhawks have the top two prospects in this stacked draft. Wiggins has not lived up to the preseason hype, but he has shown flashes of brilliance. His 15.9 points and 6.0 rebounds per game should both be higher, but Wiggins has dropped 29 in one game and posted 19 boards in another (both in meetings with a highly ranked Iowa State squad), so he has the potential to excel at the next level.
Wiggins is a 6-foot-8 wing player known for his lightning-quick first step and his pogo stick-like second jump. Basically he is a freak athlete built for the NBA fast break — something he is ready for today.
Wiggins’ halfcourt offense is far from NBA ready right now, though. He needs to be more aggressive getting to the basket and his jump shot needs work. The upside is that Wiggins has the tools to make these tweaks to his game.
Wiggins also has everything it takes to be a good defensive player. Yet he gets lost at times and some wonder if it is due to lack of effort. Wiggins’ motor has been questioned in the past — not a good concern to have. He is going to have to prove he wants to be one of the greats by showing the effort. “He’s got probably the highest upside of anybody in the draft,” Goodman said. “But again, you question whether he loves this team and is a killer.”
That said, Wiggins would be a good fit in Boston. He would have very high expectations unfairly placed on him right away, but if Wiggins develops his jumper and puts in the work required, he would be a star here. The Rondo-Wiggins fast break would be a regular on the #SCtop10.
Jabari Parker, Duke, freshman – Without a doubt, Parker is the most NBA-ready player in the draft. He has posted averages of 18.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 47.1 percent. Obviously he is well rounded, but he has a rare type of inside-out game that is comparable to Carmelo Anthony.
The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Parker is a scorer from everywhere on the court and has the handle to create his own shot. He is a much better passer than the numbers suggest and he is a better defender than he gets credit for. Parker could start in an NBA game right now.
“Parker’s the guy who can come in tomorrow and make an impact right away,” Goodman said. “I think he’s going to average 17 [points] and seven [rebounds] for his NBA career. He’s not going to be a great defender. But he’s the guy who can help you right away.”
Parker has superstar potential in Boston. He immediately fills a void Paul Pierce left in wing scoring. Down the line, Parker could even be a Pierce-type player in Boston. It would be pretty convenient for Ainge if Parker were to fall into Boston’s lap. If Ainge is lucky enough to have a choice between Parker or Wiggins, he’ll need to prioritize the immediate contributions from Parker vs. exploring the potential of Wiggins.
Julius Randle, Kentucky, freshman – Randle is a 6-foot-9, 250-pound specimen who absolutely dominates the NCAA physically. He outworks his opponents on the glass and bulls his way to the rim with ease. Randle has been falling a bit lately but still maintains averages of 16.0 points and 9.9 rebounds this season.
Randle clearly needs to develop some type of game away from the rim if he wants to find success in the NBA. It’s really as simple as that for him. Otherwise, he is physically capable of all aspects of the game once he adjusts to the league. Turnovers have been an issue for Randle, but at age 19, this is a fixable flaw.
Randle doesn’t fit as well in Boston as the other top prospects, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be welcomed. He projects as an NBA power forward, as does Sullinger, but if Randle can continue his dominance at the next level, they would be a scary rebounding duo. Much like if Boston lands Embiid, the C’s hole would then be a scoring wing to go with Rondo and their pair of young bigs.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, sophomore – Smart could have been the first or second pick had he come out of school last year, but he chose to develop his game for another season. That certainly has raised his NBA stock, but these spectacular freshmen have jumped past him on draft boards.
Smart is a big, strong, combo guard at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds and he can kill you in any and every way. His season averages of 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.4 steals clearly show his diversity on the court. Smart can shoot the ball from all over, but even when he shoots poorly he doesn’t have bad games. Smart will find a way to finish at the rim or draw the foul, leaving defenses helpless. His passing ability doesn’t make anything easier and he is ruthless on defense. Smart can give Parker a run for his money as the most NBA-ready player in the draft.
Many are not considering Smart becoming a Celtic because of Rondo, but Smart absolutely has the size and skill set to play the off guard. If Avery Bradley walks in free agency, Smart would be a perfect fit for Boston. And even if Bradley re-signs, Smart-Rondo-Bradley could be a deadly three-guard rotation.
So, those are the top prospects, but this is much more than a five-player draft. Some think there is a chance Dante Exum from Australia can end up as a top pick by the time June arrives. Aaron Gordon of Arizona is another freshman expected to go in the top 10. Doug McDermott of Creighton is a scoring machine and has four years of college under his belt. This entire first round is deep; even picks in the 20s should prove valuable.
A lot is going to happen between now and June 26. But two things that are fairly safe to assume are that this draft is going to be special, and Danny Ainge is going to hold a valuable key to Boston’s rebuild. We’ll see if he unlocks the right door.
Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow