Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge looked weary after a day spent preparing and executing his team’s NBA Draft plan Thursday night. Ainge met reporters down the hall from the Celtics’ war room at TD Garden. He discussed his feelings for the draft but emphasized the importance of NBA free agency, which starts this weekend.
“For a team that is trying to win, it’s tough to count on three rookies coming in,” said Ainge. “Maybe one will be ready to go, maybe two will contribute. But we plan to fill in with veterans from here on out.”
The veteran on everyone’s mind is Kevin Garnett. The Celtics have exclusive negotiating rights with Garnett until July 1, when he can become a free agent. Ainge said Garnett was the team’s first priority.
“I’ve been talking with Kevin and his people and don’t really have any conclusions yet,” said Ainge. “That’s our No. 1 option. One reason is because he’s such a valuable player, and one reason is because he’s the only guy we can talk to.”
The Celtics took big men with back-to-back picks in the first round of Thursday’s NBA Draft, selecting Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and Syracuse’s Fab Melo with the 21st and 22d picks. Ainge said he was happy with the choices.
“Big guys are hard to find,” said Ainge. “We’re very excited about it.”
Sullinger slipped in the draft because of issues with his back. Ainge revealed that an MRI after the college season showed that Sullinger had a herniated disk.
“There are some issues there,” said Ainge. “Our medical staff thinks that short-term and long-term there may be some maintenance issues with the back. Doc Rivers played with a herniated disk for 13 years. It may need surgery at some point, it may not.”
Ainge later clarified that he didn’t mean Sullinger would need surgery before the start of the NBA season.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” said Ainge. “I don’t even know. I’m not a doctor, I don’t know. There’s a possibility of that some day.”
Another concern about Sullinger is that he may not be tall enough for his post game to translate to the NBA. Ainge addressed that as well.
“Length is an issue,” said Ainge. “He has good width. There were a lot of these same kinds of issues with Glen Davis when he came into the league. Guys that are smart and have a good touch make the adjustment.”
On being able to keep up with Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, Ainge said, “Sullinger’s not a sprinter by any stretch, but he’s a rebounder, and you’ve got to have the ball to run.”
Ainge and Celtics coach Doc Rivers agreed that Melo was more of a work in progress.
“I know that he can block shots,” said Ainge. “He was terrific this year in college blocking shots. He was terrific offensive rebounding. One thing that’s unique about Fab is that he does both block shots and take charges, and that’s unique for big guys.”
Ainge said Melo would have to transition from playing a zone defense in college.
“It’s just different fundamentals,” said Ainge. “I don’t think it’s that challenging. But there’s an adjustment for sure.”
— On second-round pick Kris Joseph:
“I think he’s an all around player,” said Ainge. ‘I like his potential. He wasn’t as consistent as I would like to see him, in his years at Syracuse, but he showed flashes of being a very good player.”
— Ainge declined to comment on the situation that led to the Celtics being awarded a second-round draft pick following the Jeff Green trade. The NBA awarded the Celtics the pick after Green missed the entire 2011-12 season following heart surgery. The league found the Thunder weren’t being up-front about Green’s health before trading him.