When the 2006 NBA Draft was complete, the Celtics’ brain trust was confident it had acquired the franchise’s point guard of the future.
The dynamic Rajon Rondo would eventually prove the polar opposite of an afterthought during his career with the Celtics, but that’s pretty much how he was treated the night he became, by luck, by design, or perhaps a little of both, one of the best draft-day moves in franchise history.
Rondo came to Boston courtesy of a deal with the Phoenix Suns in which they chose the Kentucky point guard on Ainge’s behalf with the 21st pick, then sent Rondo and Brian Grant (or at least his contract — he never played a game here) to Boston for a first-rounder in 2007.
The deal is part of Celtics lore now, and just think of all the entertainment we’d have missed out on had the Celtics instead chosen, say, UConn’s Marcus Williams, who was considered stride-for-stride with Rondo as the best playmaker in the draft, or even Thabo Sefolosha, the current shutdown defender for the Thunder who was also believed to be on Ainge’s radar at the time.
Maybe you remember how Rondo became a Celtic. But do you remember that it was another precocious point guard the Celtics acquired that night who generated the biggest headlines the next morning, a player about whom Rivers said this: “It worked out for us.The things we like most about him are his great speed and great decision-making.”
Let’s just say that was probably one of the last times — perhaps the only time — Rivers verbally associated great decision-making with Sebastian Telfair.
Telfair, the New York City high school legend, was two seasons into what would become a journeyman’s career — the current Suns guard’s top career comp is Mitchell Butler. But in 2006, he still had some of his Sports Illustrated cover subject luster, and the Celtics were genuinely thrilled to acquire him on draft night from the Trail Blazers.
Such a thrill was enhanced by the opportunity to unload the bloated contract of Raef LaFrentz in the deal; he went to Portland along with Dan Dickau and the No. 7 overall pick (used on Randy Foye, but turned into Brandon Roy) for Telfair, Theo Ratliff and a second-rounder in 2008. Rivers said he believed had Telfair been in that year’s draft, he would not have been available with the seventh pick.
“We addressed some needs and we think we got two terrific young players and get some cap management at the same time,” Ainge said.
The rumor at the time was that the Celtics were going to use the post-Raef cap space to pursue another guard already long-established in the league, and while it would have been fascinating to see Allen Iverson play for the Celtics, had it happened, Banner 17 would not be hanging from the rafters.
That’s how it goes. Sometimes you’re lucky a desired move didn’t happen. Sometimes a coveted young player like Telfair never fulfills the expectations. And sometimes the 21st pick of the draft is spent on a player who will grow into one of the most electrifying performers in the league.
Don’t get me wrong; the intent here, in retelling the Rondo/Telfair draft-night story, is not to suggest that a significant portion of Ainge’s success in the draft is due to good fortune and luck more than any other factors. Thursday night will mark Ainge’s 10th draft with the Celtics, and there is plenty of evidence within that decade-long sample-size that Ainge has an extraordinary knack for finding NBA talent at a point when many of those selected will end up stocking D-League rosters or shelves in a supermarket.
Sure, there have been misses, out-and-out airballs. Gerald Green, taken 18th overall in 2005, had the talent — Rivers said he “absolutely” reminded him of another straight-from-high-school player he had coached in Orlando, Tracy McGrady — but lacked both maturity and fundamental basketball acumen and is only now salvaging an NBA career.
J.R. Giddens, picked 30th overall in 2008, four spots ahead of Mario Chalmers and five before D’Andre Jordan, was a talented, charismatic space-shot who habitually wore sunglasses indoors and didn’t have the good sense to take advice from Garnett, which is an effective way to wake up and find yourself playing for PAOK Thessaloniki in Greece by the time you’re 27 years old.
But for the most part, Ainge has used his draft picks shrewdly and with enough savvy that you imagine Red Auerbach would be proud of the job he has done.
He’s selected two unpolished high school big men, Kendrick Perkins (27th, 2003, via a trade with Memphis) and Al Jefferson (15th, 2004), who turned out to be fine NBA players. Perkins has had the best career among those involved in a deal with Memphis that brought speedy and clueless Marcus Banks to Boston while sending Dahntay Jones and former Boston College sharpshooter Troy Bell to Memphis.
Jefferson ended up in Boston after Seattle drafted Robert Swift, to whom the Celtics had reportedly made a promise, three picks earlier, so there was a little luck involved there. But Ainge is the one who made the most of it, and in the same draft in which he secured Jefferson, who of course would become the centerpiece of the franchise-altering Kevin Garnett deal, he added Delonte West (24th) and Tony Allen (25th), great value at that point in the draft. Both became valuable, if sometimes exasperating, pros.
While it’s hard to top the Rondo move in ’06, he’s not the only dynamic young guard Ainge has plucked at approximately that point in the draft.The Globe’s mock draft in 2010 had the Celtics selecting a University of Texas standout with the 19th overall selection — forward Damion James. Right campus, wrong player. Instead, Ainge stole his Longhorn teammate, Avery Bradley, who declared for the draft after his freshman season.
Bradley was regarded as No. 1 overall pick John Wall‘s near-equal coming out of high school, but an ankle injury and inconsistency plagued his lone collegiate season — which of course turned out to be a blessing both for him and the Celtics. “I’ve been the best defender on ever team I’ve played on since first grade,” he said the night he became a Celtic. “I feel like you can always have an off offensive game, but my whole thing is I’ll never have an off defensive game.” Not a bad way to endear yourself to your coach right away, kid.
Celtics fans also appreciate Ainge’s knack for coming up with useful “tweener” types in the second round — say, an undersized forward who may do one thing exceptionally well, or a player with an extraordinary work ethic or instincts so sharp that he can overcome his physical shortcomings.
There was Ryan Gomes (50th overall, 2005), the Providence College star who might have been chosen in the first round by the Celtics had Green, projected in the Globe’s mock draft to go sixth overall to Utah, not fallen their way. Leon Powe (49th, 2006, via Denver) and Glen Davis (35th, 2007, via Seattle) also were second-round keepers.
The hunch here is that last year’s second-rounder, E’Twaun Moore, soon will be regarded as a draft-day bargain, too, and his success in the second round leaves me almost as curious to learn what Ainge will do with the 51st pick Thursday night as I am regarding Nos. 21 and 22.
I’m nodding hopefully at colleague Gary Washburn’s mock draft, which has the Celtics ending up with Iowa State’s Royce White and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in the first round. I’m also intrigued by St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson, an athletic, bright big man who would be a fine understudy for Garnett. And the reports that indicate Ainge is trying to move up into the lottery add a whole different level of intrigue.
But no matter how it plays out, no matter which tall, talented kids become Celtics tonight, fans would be wise to be satisfied right away. Danny Ainge is both lucky and good. Soon enough, we’ll probably be saying the same thing about the players he chooses tonight.