Introducing Celtics Fans to the other draft prospects
Like many Celtics fans, I spent countless hours falling into YouTube rabbit holes watching Markelle Fultz highlights. So much for nothing. Here’s your meet and greet with the next tier of prospects and how they would fit in Boston.
The Boston Globe reported that the “overflow” of current Celtic guards contributed to their reasoning for trading the #1 pick. While that reasoning might be ancillary, it’s evidence that the Celtics will likely pass on Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, and other guards at the #3 selection. There isn’t a true center projected to be drafted until the end of the lottery. In a league that is gravitating to more versatile wings, it feels like some kind of forward will be the choice. So who’s in play?
Josh Jackson, 6'8 combo wing, Kansas
Jackson fits the mold of many recent Celtics draftees. An anonymous GM stated that the Kansas freshman is “a[n] [Danny] Ainge player all the way”. A tenaciously athletic two-way player, Jackson’s switchable defensive versatility and hyper motor is highly coveted in today’s NBA. He doesn’t have quite have DPOY upside, but his ceiling projects him a solid defender 1–3, with the possibility to guard 4s if he adds size.
What he lacks in natural scoring talent, Jackson makes up with a high basketball IQ. He’s instinctual on and off the ball offensively, showing quick and correct decisiveness about when to cut, or pull up for a jumper, or attack the rim. Jackson’s overall offensive game needs refining, but he projects to be a utility belt player who can flourish in almost any system. That kind of position and role flexibility makes him really desirable to GMs. Jackson is deadly in transition. He uses his athleticism to maneuver around defenders in coast to coast scoring. He’s the best lane filler in the lottery, and his quick leaping ability allows him to avoid weak side shot blockers and play high above the rim. However, he doesn’t project as a go-to scorer, especially in the half court. Per Synergy Sports, he only took 46 shots total in isolation. If Bill Self didn’t use Jackson in isolation, there’s probably a good reason. Jackson feels more like a solid role player than a star.
Also similar to other recent Celtics picks, Jackson’s NBA success will largely depend on if he can develop his three point shooting. On the one hand, Jackson shot an impressive 39% on catch and shoot threes, according to hoop math. He also finished his freshman season knocking down 25 of his final 59 distance attempts. In contrast, Jackson’s shooting motion is a bit of a mess. His low release is too far in front of his body and he got away with the occasional flailing shooting elbow at Kansas. He’ll have to clean it up as he becomes accustomed to handling NBA level close outs and contests.
The Celtics have had mixed success drafting perimeter players with questionable shooting potential. Avery Bradley’s 3 point percentage has risen 8% since becoming a full-time starter, and Terry Rozier climbed 9% between his rookie and sophomore year while shooting 1.1 more threes per game. Still, Marcus Smart hasn’t shot over 28% since his rookie season. Boston was third in three point attempts per game. Spacing the floor with reliable shooters was the primary reason for Isaiah Thomas’s offensive leap last season, and Jackson’s first few seasons will largely hinge on his shooting results.
For the Celtics, Jackson’s skills seems a bit redundant to that of Jaylen Brown. They’e both long rangy defenders who feel more like combo wings (2/3) than combo forwards (3/4). A team can never have too many skilled 3 and D wings, but Jackson’s thin frame (listed 207 lbs) could really limit his ability to defend stronger power forwards. Until or Brown and Jackson could prove capable of defending larger players, the small ball 4 role will belong to Jae Crowder. However, Brad Stevens could easily find ways to utilize Jackson’s defensive versatility to help conceal Isaiah Thomas’s deficiencies.
Until Jackson sharpens his half court efficiency, his offense will come off of turnovers and up tempo play. A fast break of Terry Rozier, Jackson, and Brown would be electric. All three can push the ball in transition and all three have explosive finishing ability to fill the lane. I can see the Garden jumping right now. Jackson could be deployed as a pressure heavy on ball defender to help spell Avery Bradley and Crowder. He’s also a candidate to be installed as a defensive possession specialist at the end of quarters and shot clocks. Brad could rotate Jackson and Isaiah in a crunch time offense-defense substitution scheme. ESPN’s Chad Ford reported last week that Ainge was considering selecting Jackson at #1. He remains the favorite to be selected at #3.
Jayson Tatum, 6'8 combo forward, Duke
Tatum projects as a starting 3 who will find his best offensive success as a small ball 4. Other than Fultz, Tatum is the most NBA ready prospect on the offensive side of the floor. He’s a gifted isolation scorer, who relies on superb footwork and long strides to overcome a lack of natural athleticism. He’s a mechanic, who has very little wasted motion when he’s operating with the ball. His ability to create space with limited athletic ability reminds me of a hybrid between Paul Pierce and Danny Granger.
Tatum’s shot selection is evenly balanced between three pointers, shots at the rim, and 2 point jumpers. He shows a mature willingness to take what the defense gives him. He identifies mismatches well, and has an arsenal of offensive moves to exploit different kinds of defenders. He’ll have to learn to take less long twos than he did during his one year at Duke, but his 84.9% free throw percentage (key indicator for limited 3 point sample size) suggests that he can become a reliable shooter from 3.
Tatum has a NBA ready body. He uses his wide shoulders and mature upper body power to channel a seemingly limitless playbook worth of isolation moves, including a Carmelo-like jab step that opens up a lethal one dribble step back jumper. He’s not explosive driving to the rim, but has an assertive first step which allows him to get defenders on his hip. If there is one concern about his offense, it’s his ability to finish at or near the basket. Per hoop math, Tatum shot just 62% around the rim, which is low for a potential lottery selection being advertised for his offense. But Tatum’s body suggests that he will have no problem learning how to finish through contact. Whether Tatum can effectively get to the rim playing against NBA caliber athletes will be critical.
Defensively, Tatum is average. He will do fine guarding his position, but he lacks the speed and quickness needed to defend in mismatches. He does have the physical profile (broad frame, 6'11 wingspan) to theoretically become a disruptive defender, but he still lacks the lower body base strength to push players in the post. It is easy to forssee Tatum thriving as a 4. The same can’t be said about Josh Jackson.
One concern for Boston is that Tatum has a reputation of being a ball stopper. His scoring prowess is undoubtable, but he prefers to catch the ball, face up and survey the defense for a few seconds before he makes his move. Like his jab step, the tendency to hold the ball for too long is also very Carmelo-like. It resulted in his Duke teammates often staring at him and all off ball movement would come to a screeching halt. Boston won’t rely as heavily on Tatum’s isolation scoring as much as Duke did, but can he survive in Boston’s system? The Celtics run a motion heavy offense that was second in the league at 25.5 assists per game. Boston is not about to let Tatum change their offensive philosophy. Remember, this is the team that willingly traded the ball dominant Rajon Rondo right after he was named as captain. For a player who constantly had the ball in his hands, Tatum is an underwhelming passer (2.1 APG). He’ll have to learn how to scan the floor for kick out passes and basket cutters. Tatum can add to his deep array of offensive tools by making quicker decisions right off of the entry pass.
On paper, Tatum is exactly what the Celtics need. Boston lacks the instant offense bench scorer that most top tier NBA teams have, and Tatum would immediately become the most talented isolation scorer on the second unit. There were too many times when the Celtics offense looked lost without Isaiah Thomas. Boston desperately needs someone who can just go get a bucket when the offense is lull. Tatum is that kind of player. The C’s could feed it to Tatum and watch him work in the mid post, where he scored 1.30 points per possession, falling in the 99th percentile of all players (per Synergy Sports). He would be a massive offensive upgrade over Jonas Jerebko, and absorb most of the stretch four bench minutes. He’s a solid long-term building block compliment to Jaylen Brown. Offensively, Brown could work off of curls and cuts while Tatum surveys the defense. Defensively, Brown could guard quicker wings while Tatum could specialize in defending bigger forwards. If “team need” is the primary motivator for determining the #3 pick, Tatum is the guy.
Jonathan Isaac, 6'11 combo forward, Florida State
Isaac’s biggest selling point is his overall upside. Everything about his game is unique. He plays with astounding fluidity and smoothness for a 6'11 wing, drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant (though he isn’t close to the same stratosphere as a prospect). Despite the fact that he’s just 19 years old, he showed a mature level of coordination and control of his long frame. He has good foot speed defensively, often being able to cut off players 5 or 6 inches shorter than him. He’s a capable shooter, where he drained 35% of his 3 pointers. He’s a solid weak side helper (2.2 blocks/1.7 steals per 40 minutes). Despite being a tertiary offensive option behind Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Isaac showed an ability to get to the free throw line at an impressive rate, an indicator that he has prolific scoring potential. Isaac’s distinctive body type with the quickness of a wing and the standing reach of a center makes him an intriguing defensive prospect. He’s a quick leaper who gives impressive effort to every 50/50 ball. Those physical tools suggest that he has the potential to develop into a multiple position lock down defender.
Another part of Isaac’s mystique is that he played for an egalitarian Florida State team that ran a systematic 12 man rotation. Essentially, the theory is that Isaac’s college system denied him from showing his full brilliance, and that the right NBA coach could unleash an untapped skillset. Other than Kentucky, college teams hardly ever prioritize showcasing players to NBA executives, and Isaac suffered the most of anyone in the lottery. He was strictly used as a spot up shooter (83% of his threes were assisted). In the brief stints where Isaac was given the keys to the offense, he proved to be a surprisingly capable ball handler for his size, and showed flashes of brilliance as an isolation scorer. His off ball scoring was limited to back door cuts, and he has good agility and decisiveness when his defender was overplaying the passing lane.
Much like Jackson, a biggest question for Isaac is whether his rail thin frame will eventually fill out (listed at only 210 pounds), and if he can become less of a finesse player. He lacks strength everywhere. He struggles finishing through contact, and his lack of lower body strength disadvantages him on the glass where he prefers using his length rather than boxing out. He’ll get easily outmuscled for a few years, but his physical attributes suggest that he can grow into a multiple position lock down defender. The ultimate question for teams in the top 8 picks is whether Isaac’s limited body of work is enough to prove that he can do it on a consistent level.
For Boston, Isaac would be a project. If he’s selected, it’s an indication that Boston is preparing for a long build. Isaac is the kind of prospect whose best immediate progress will come in the weight room and by watching games. He’s not ready to handle a heavy workload, and will have to add muscle before ready to defend the more physically imposing wings and combo forwards. Stevens would likely bring Isaac off the bench as a matchup dependent stretch four. Early on, Isaac could be a matchup nightmare against certain slower power forwards, and as the NBA continues to phase out the last of the dying breed of low post bigs (Sorry Zach Randolph), the featherweight Isaac will become less exploitable defensively.
Does Isaac align with the Celtics championship window? If Boston aims to compete for a championship over the next few years, they’ll have to do it without Isaac. He’s simply too raw and slender to survive in a playoff setting. But if Danny Ainge is secretly stockpiling for the post Warriors era, Isaac could be gold in a few years. If he is the choice at #3, Boston fans will have to be patient. As opposed to everyone else on this list, Isaac doesn’t have clear identifiable NBA ready attributes, but he may have the highest ceiling as a complete two way player. With most prospects, evaluators can point to a weakness or two that will forever hinder the player’s potential upper limit. But with Isaac, his all-around upside shows a feasible path for him to become a dominant player if things fall into place correctly. The intrigue surrounding him is tantalizing.
Lauri Markkanen, 7'0 power forward, Arizona
Markkanen is the most offensively proficient big man in the draft, and has rare stretch five skills. He’s is a marksman from deep, shooting an impressive 42% as a freshman at Arizona. He and Luke Kennard are probably the best shooters in the lottery. His game will remind you a lot of Kelly Olynyk, Channing Frye, and Ryan Anderson coming out of college. Markkanen definitely lacks speed and explosiveness, but his size and quick shot release will help him overcome that. For a 7 footer, Markkanen plays with a refreshing modern poise behind the arc, but really lacks any traditional back to the basket skills. As much as NBA executives cherish big man floor stretchers, what separates the good and bad is the secondary ability to drag undersized defenders into the post for easy buckets. Dirk Nowitzki could do it. Olynyk and Frye can’t. You could blame Markkanen’s lack of offensive versatility on Sean Miller’s system, but 20-year-old Finland native could stand to add some jump hooks and running shot puts to utilize against smaller guards.
You’ll hear some Kristaps Porzingis comparisons, but Markkanen leaves a lot to be desired in the shot blocking category. He averaged just 0.5 send backs per game, and if he wants to become a starting stretch five, he will have to improve on his rim protection. His only move to keep defenders off balance is a pump fake. He will do find attacking NBA closeouts, but he could add some variety to his dribble game. Markkanen won’t give a lot on defense, but he’s manageable. He’s quick enough to slide his feet and defend the perimeter, but he lacks the overall strength to bang with traditional bigs on the glass. Don’t expect him to solve the Celtics rebounding woes.
Markkanen would be a reach at #3, but the current Celtics roster lacks size and he fits Boston’s system perfectly. They relied heavily on the likes of Olynyk, Jerebko, Horford, and even Amir Johnson to draw defenders away from the paint to either let Isaiah operate or to create cutting lanes for Bradley, Crowder, and Brown. Rim protectors would have to respect Markkanen’s distance shooting, which would open up dribble penetration for the guards. Markkanen could be used in pick and pop situations with Isaiah Thomas, or he could simply float along the perimeter and wait for a kick out pass. Markkanen wasn’t used as a passer at Arizona (0.8 APG), but the Celtics system relies on their bigs to be playmakers. Horford and Olynyk are astute at finding off ball cutters or open shooters. Markkanen’s shooting matches the Celtics’ profile, but he needs to add to his playmaking to thrive in the full system.
Markkanen was primarily used as a spot up shooter, and his immediate role wouldn’t change much under Brad Stevens. Having four or five capable spot up shooters spacing the floor is critical for the Celtics system. With the additions of Guershon Yabusele and Ante Zizic to the bench, the Celtics could use another non-ball dominant 3 point shooter in the second unit. Markkanen projects as being far more than just a spot up shooter. Per Draft Express, he made 46% of his dribble jump shots, and shows guard-like quickness coming off screens, so Boston design some off ball movement sets similar to that of Avery Bradley’s role.
I’d love to see the Celtics develop Markkanen as a rim runner. He doesn’t have crazy leaping ability, but has good foot speed and should be able to outpace opposing bigs. Per hoop math, 27% of Markkanen’s baskets came on put backs, where he shot 73.1% near the rim. He’s already a lethal pick and pop scorer, and would be dangerous if he could thrive in a pick and roll. The Celtics were in the bottom ten teams in pick and roll frequency last season.
He’s unlikely to be an all-star level player, but his ceiling projects as a knockdown shooter who can take one or two dribbles and finish both at the rim and in the mid range. Markkanen could serve as a nice developmental option if Boston prefers to let Olynyk leave in restricted free agency. He’ll fit into Olynyk’s role seamlessly. Fifteen years ago, Markkanen would be considered a “tweener”, but in today’s seemingly position-less league, his modern skillset outweighs the concerns about whether he is a 4 or a 5. Drafting Markkanen would be a further nod that the Celtics are gravitating toward the modern pace and space NBA.