One thing is clear: the Boston Celtics draft will be one of the most interesting in the league.
Rumors are swirling about the Celtics talking to the Atlanta Hawks about a trade. General Manager Danny Ainge has made comments about not wanting to add four rookies to a potential Finals team. The writing is on the wall that Boston is looking to move up or add an impact player. Moving up may mean they are sacrificing Marcus Smart or Gordon Hayward in the trade. It makes a lot of sense for the Celtics to build the best possible lineup around Jayson Tatum and Jalen Brown as their two main wings.
The idea of trading up to no. 6 with the Atlanta Hawks is interesting. While the 2020 NBA Draft is regarded as one of the weakest drafts at the top for All-Star potential, it’s still very possible there’s a star waiting for them in that range. With the Celtics as one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, here are three players they could target with the no. 6 pick.
1. Onyeka Okongwu, USC
This pick makes the most pick for what the Celtics need right now. They desperately need an upgrade at center and better rim protection. The solution? Draft debatably the best rim protector in the entire draft.
Okongwu isn’t your prototypical seven-foot towering center but has a long wingspan and great timing. He averaged nearly three blocks a game at USC. He does a lot of things well as he can operate out of the post and pass the ball well, roll to the rim at a high level, and has a great ability to finish around the basket. He’d fit perfectly into the Celtics starting lineup. He’s drawn comparisons to players such as Bam Adebayo for his impact he can have defensively.
The problem? The way his stock has risen, moving up to the sixth pick may not even be enough to bring in Okongwu. Everyone wants him now and teams at the top of the draft like the Golden State Warriors and Charlotte Hornets both have a need at the center position and it may not be possible to acquire his talent. It’s the best-case scenario for the Celtics, but maybe not realistic based on projections.
2. Obi Toppin, Dayton
The best college basketball player from last season has a high degree of variance in mock drafts. You either love the skill set and have him projected in the top 10, or you hate the age risks and the defense and have him a late lottery. For the latter projections, the Celtics may not even need to move up to six to select him. But if they love him, they may want to make sure they can get him, regardless of spot.
Let’s start with the positives for Toppin. He dominated college basketball last season and should at the very least carve out a role in the league. He’s a terrific athlete who can finish with authority around the rim while also stepping out and hitting jump shots at a high level. He shot almost 40 percent from three-point range.
I think Toppin makes a lot of success for the Celtics. He’s almost a complete package in terms of development and if you look at him in a closing lineup, he can fit with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Daniel Theis almost seamlessly. He rebounds well and he and Theis can work on an inside-out game that allows them to both thrive in different spots. He’s drawn plenty of comparisons to Amar’e Stoudamire, but that seems like a best-case scenario where maybe a not-insane Morris twin seems to make more sense. Adding Toppin could give the Celtics one of the best forward groups in the NBA.
Here’s the downside to Toppin, he’s old and, like Stoudamire, is a disaster defensively. He’s one day younger than Tatum. Not many teams are looking for a 22-year-old in the top 10 and you worry there’s not a lot of room for improvement. Outside of Buddy Hield, there’s not a lot of cases of older players panning out with lottery picks. On the other hand, his age sort of fits the Celtics’ current timeline. They just sort of did the same thing with Grant Williams, who was almost a finished package out of Tennessee and drafted at age 20. It’s still a young core but is looking for win-now type of players and Toppin might be that.
The other part is his defensive instincts. Every time he’s stuck in a pick and roll it looks like he’s seeing the play for the first time. He has no idea what he’s doing, which is surprising because he’s so good offensively in that same play. It shouldn’t be an end of a discussion point for the Celtics, however.
Since Brad Stevens has taken over, they’ve done a great job of developing players on the defensive end. Tatum was taken third overall and one of his biggest knocks was that his offensive game was miles ahead of his defensive ability. He’s now a very good defensive player. Toppin has insane athleticism and is capable of developing into a passable defender. If not, the Celtics have good wings in Brown and Tatum to hide him on that end and take advantage of his offensive upside. If something were to happen with either trading Hayward or he opts out, Toppin could be a perfect fit.
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State
This should come with a caveat. If the Celtics move up to six, it likely means Atlanta is getting Marcus Smart in return. If they need a guard to replace Smart in that scenario, Haliburton fits. Haliburton is regarded widely as the smartest basketball player in the NBA Draft. That is certainly going to catch the attention of a lot of NBA head coaches. Surely, Stevens would love to have a guy like that in his lineup.
Haliburton is almost a perfect foil to what Smart is for the Celtics. He’s not as energetic and frenetic as Smart on both sides of the ball, but unlike Smart, he rarely ever makes a mistake and he seldom takes a bad shot. It’s not because he’s a bad shooter either, his shooting splits last season with the Cyclones were 59/42/82. He’s just so efficient with his shooting that it’s almost always the right play.
That decision making also works in the rest of his game. He’s a fantastic distributor who can become elite at that part of the game. When looking at the Celtics roster, he’s got the size and length to start alongside Kemba Walker, but also the ball-handling and decision making to serve as a backup point guard or help out, which could be important given the uncertain health of Walker’s knees. Stevens likes to stay calm and collected on the court and Haliburton could be his extension of that demeanor on the court.
His downsides aren’t a whole lot, because his upside is he does everything pretty well. When you’re looking at him and Smart, he’s not the same defender Smart is by any measure. Smart is one of the best one-on-one perimeter defenders in basketball and brings the energy the Celtics need on that end. Haliburton’s defense in isolation scenarios might be his weakest part of his game, but he has the basketball IQ to still be positive on that end of the floor because he’s such a great team defensive player. It makes him nearly worth the risk of sacrificing Smart, but the Celtics would need to sign someone who can be a ball stopper against the point guards in the east.
If Boston were to move up, all three of these guys could put the Celtics in contention to make the NBA Finals.
Photo By: (Erik Schelkun/Dayton Flyers)