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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Draft is the least of Celtics' concerns

The NBA Draft is all about improving your team, and it's entirely possible the Boston Celtics tonight will select a gleaming young talent with the 18th pick.

It's hardly unprecedented to choose that far down and score big. Detroit plucked Tayshaun Prince with the 23d pick in 2002, San Antonio scooped up Tony Parker with the 28th pick in 2001, and Charlotte tabbed a kid by the name of Ricky Davis with the 21st pick in 1998. Bobby Jackson (23d in 1997), Derek Fisher (24th in 1996), and Michael Finley (21st in 1995) are all draftees from the past 10 seasons who were taken late but went on to become impact players.

A quick glance at the last three No. 18 selections does little to whet the appetite: J.R. Smith (2004, New Orleans), David West (2003, New Orleans), and Curtis Borchardt (2002, Orlando). Yet, when you prioritize all the pressing matters that are facing the Celtics' franchise, the person they anoint tonight as their newest member is hardly at the top of the list.

The Celtics have some major decisions to make, beginning with Paul Pierce. Do they want him, should they keep him, does he want to stay, can they get value for him if they do cut the cord?

Trying to discern whether the foundation to your house is cracked is far more of a concern than what color you should paint the trim. Pierce is the foundation; the 18th pick is the trim.

It's always tricky to solicit opinions when the draft is imminent, trade talks are bubbling, and free agency is looming. So perhaps it's merely gamesmanship when two Western Conference executives whisper to me that Pierce's off-the-court lifestyle has hurt his standing in the league. Pierce is a single, 27-year-old athlete who is known for partying hard and keeping late hours. Members of the Celtics organization have spoken to him in the past about his extracurricular activities, yet Pierce has not curbed his taste for the nightlife. Has it affected his play? His own front office believes it has.

Even so, I find it hard to believe that suddenly makes Pierce undesirable and/or untradable. Pierce still managed to submit 22.9 points and 7.7 rebounds a night in 2004-05, and while his implosion in the Indiana series raises serious questions about his leadership abilities (as if we didn't have such questions already), he is as close to irreplaceable as anyone on Boston's roster.

Danny Ainge insists he has no intentions of trading his four-time All-Star, but it's his job to say precisely that, even as he revisits the possibility of retooling his team by moving his most talented player.

Against that backdrop, the Celtics truly will follow the old cliche of ''the best player available" in tonight's draft, which makes perfect sense for a team that has needs nearly everywhere. Unless Ainge pulls off a miracle and moves up to snag Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul, whom he covets, they will be relying on the judgment of others to set their course.

Boston likes Hakim Warrick, a true senior who logged four seasons at Syracuse and made a game-saving block in the final seconds of the Orange's 2003 NCAA championship win over Kansas. Warrick is a leaper and a rebounder, but would need to bulk up to enjoy similar success at the next level. It's unlikely he will be there at 18; late word is that Golden State is contemplating taking him with the ninth pick.

European point guard Roko Leni Ukic impressed Celtics personnel during individual workouts with his quickness, creativity, and ball handling. Ukic also offers excellent size (6 feet 5 inches) at the point and currently plays for former Celtic and current Split (Croatia) president Dino Radja.

''He's a basketball junkie," reports Celtics general manager Chris Wallace. ''He knows the game very well."

And that is one of a number of reasons why the Toronto Raptors just might grab him at No. 16.

Joey Graham, the 6-7 forward from Oklahoma State and most valuable player of the Big 12 tournament has a sweet midrange jumper and is an excellent free throw shooter. It's unlikely he'll get past New Jersey at 15. Rashad McCants of North Carolina is loaded with offensive promise, but has an attitude that can be problematic, which means he will go as early as 12th to the Clippers, or as late as 22d to Denver.

European possibilities include Yaroslav Korolev, a 6-9 forward whose versatility will most likely lead him to be taken sooner; French 7-footer Johan Petro, whose potential is promising, but will require some patience; and 7-2 Lithuanian center Martynas Andriuskevicius, a tantalizing prospect with short arms who lacks athleticism and will require a lot of patience, but could pay huge dividends three years down the road.

One of the top players will slide inexplicably -- remember Pierce dropping to No. 10 in 1998? -- and if it's the right one, Boston will benefit.

''It always helps if you get a little good fortune," Wallace said. ''Last year, when Al Jefferson fell to 15, that was very fortuitous. Sometimes you need some breaks along the way. I can tell you Al never would have made it to 18 last year."

That's all well and good, but I'm still more interested in seeing which veteran Boston secures to add a little stability and sense to the locker room. I'm thinking of someone who would have grabbed Pierce as he walked to a national press conference with a ridiculous ace bandage wrapped around his jaw and told him to grow up, stop acting like an idiot, and, while he was at it, apologize to the Boston fans, owners, and coaches.

Someone like Finley, who is expected to be waived by the Dallas Mavericks once the collective bargaining agreement becomes official and teams are able to implement the new, one-time provision that enables teams to drop a player and not have his salary count toward the luxury tax, would be a fabulous addition, both for his ability and his personality. Don't count on it. Finley has other destinations in mind, specifically cities that are ready to win now.

The Celtics are not yet there. Too many of their young players have things they need to learn and too many of their veterans have things they won't learn.

No matter whom Boston takes tonight, it's too much to ask him to put the Celtics' house in order. That is a job that requires more than one NBA handyman.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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