The Boston Celtics have four representatives among ESPN’s top 100 NBA players, all four of whom slot in between Nos. 11-50.
The highest-ranked player is Jayson Tatum at No. 11, followed by Jaylen Brown at No. 32, Marcus Smart at No. 37, and Kemba Walker at No. 48.
Walker is a bit of a surprise ranked this low. The Celtics’ big free-agent acquisition of the 2019 offseason averaged 20.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 4.8 assists last year, and he started on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. But Walker’s balky left knee limited him in the bubble and has continued to be an issue since.
The Celtics will need a healthy Walker to compete in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.
“Maybe we didn’t do him justice by bringing him back too fast in the bubble, being hurt and finding some urgency during the regular season,” Danny Ainge said last week. “We don’t want to make that mistake — if it was a mistake — this time. I’m not blaming anybody. But it’s not a perfect science. It’s guesswork, and we’re trying to do the best with the information that we have and get him as strong and healthy as he can be, so he can make it through the year.”
Smart and Brown are closer here than some might expect, and Brown, in particular, could rise up the rankings with a good season. He was a borderline All-Star last year and averaged over 20 points per game as Boston’s secondary option in Walker’s absence.
Tatum, who signed a five-year extension worth up to $195 million this offseason, had a breakout third year and established himself as the most important piece of the Celtics’ bright future. He made All-NBA third team and helped lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons since he was drafted in 2017. ESPN had not released its top 10 Wednesday evening, so the 10 players ranked above Tatum at this stage remain unclear.
While Walker’s health is a major concern, the Celtics are in an enviable position: Their three highest-ranked players are 22 (Tatum), 24 (Brown), and 26 (Smart). Brown and Smart will turn 25 and 27 respectively in March.
“I’m young, so every part of my game can get better,” Tatum told reporters last week. “I can improve from a more efficient standpoint, I can continue to get stronger, extending my range, be more efficient shooting deeper, going off the dribble, finishing through contact, and becoming even more of a defensive presence. I think that is a big goal for me.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.