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Touching All the Bases

Tournament is no help in trying to identify Danny Ainge's main draft target for Celtics

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If you were watching the NCAA men's basketball tournament in part to catch a glimpse of the Next Great Celtic, well, I hope you caught that glimpse before him and his team ran short of shining moments.

The young presumed stars of this tournament did not stay long. Unless you're a Duke graduate or the lone surviving member of the Cherokee Parks fan club, it's always an ancillary pleasure of the tournament when the blood-blooded Blue Devils depart sooner than expected.

And while it was fun to see them lose to a school quite possibly (hopefully) named after former Celtic Ron Mercer, there was this fleeting but unusual feeling of disappointment in their first-round dismissal.

The end of Duke's season meant the immensely talented and likable Jabari Parker was done for the season, too. I know, an enjoyable Dookie. I'm vexed. Why couldn't he have gone to Wichita State or something?

Then there was Kansas, which lasted beyond the first round but did not survive the first weekend. Andrew Wiggins, who a year ago was arguably the most hyped high school senior since LeBron James, went into ghost mode during the Jayhawks' second-round loss to Stanford.

His performance had been spectacular at times and spectacularly uneven at other points during his freshman season, so the struggle wasn't totally unexpected, especially after fellow future lottery pick Joel Embiid was sidelined with a back injury.

It was, however, disappointing to see Kansas check out before we could thoroughly check out their talent, even if the upset might have been predictable. But it's not the first time in their history that's happened. Remember, they had a knack for early tournament departures when Paul Pierce was there. And he seemed to have turned out OK.

Given that Danny Ainge's roster concoction currently has the fifth-worst record in the NBA, it is reasonable to presume we saw -- past tense -- the next Celtic in the tournament. Whether we saw the next great Celtic is a mystery that can't be answered now.

If the hints that Wyc Grousbeck keeps dropping about a big June move don't happen -- and I suspect they will try to acquire Kevin Love, whose blank eyes suggest he's feeling the full effect of Minnesota these days -- then it would be satisfying to some degree to end up with one of the three aforementioned players.

Parker is defensive liability at this point, but he's remarkably unselfish for someone so coveted as a recruit, and Mike Krzyzewski has played him out of position at times out of necessity. Wiggins can do just about anything on the court; it's a matter of doing it consistently, hardly an original flaw in a teenaged player. And while Embiid's back issue is a concern and the comparisons to the one-and-only Hakeem Olajuwon need to cease immediately ...

... a high-motor 7-footer with quick feet is a scarce and incredibly desirable skill-set. All would look fine in green-and-white next season, with acknowledgement that none is an instant savior.

While we won't see this trio again this season, I can't help but wonder again what Ainge saw in them, especially after reading his comments to my colleague Baxter Holmes in this morning's Globe.

"There’s a lot of guys that I like so much that I want them to play bad [in the tournament],” Ainge said with a laugh. “And there’s guys that a postseason performance might break some ties because there’s a lot of close calls.

"A bad postseason game probably doesn’t affect positively or negatively on players. That’s just because that’s what history has told us. A lot of guys that play great in a game, [but] . . . it doesn’t mean they’re all of the sudden great players. It just means they had a great night.”

It's good to have the confirmation that Ainge won't be picking this year's version of Harold Jensen or Toby Bailey in the first round, though I think we all know better anyway. There is an element of fans in which they expect him to hit on every pick, who hold the Fab Melos and J.R. Giddenses against him.

That's unreasonable, in part because there is only so much talent to go around, but in larger part because these guys are so young that you simply cannot truly know how they will respond to the NBA life. There's no greater example of that than Gerald Green, who nine years and a million miles after the Celtics drafted him has finally found a secure place in the NBA.

The reality is that Ainge has done an exceptional job compared to most of his peers of finding valuable players at various points in the draft over the last decade, and he should be trusted to recognize in Parker, Wiggins, Embiid, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, and so on the on-court and life skills that make them a pick worth taking.

I'm just itching to find out who it is that Ainge covets. He has talked down this draft, but he's also insanely competitive and isn't about to tip his hand, which has led to this growing theory:

I don't know who Ainge wants. I can't wait to find out. And I do wish we got to watch a few more games in the tournament to gauge some of the prime potential candidates -- yep, even if that meant suffering a Duke win or two.

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