BOSTON — With the Celtics picking late in the first round for the first time since the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era, the Boston media spent the first couple hours of Thursday’s NBA draft quizzing former C’s forward turned analyst Brian Scalabrine about his basketball knowledge.
What’s the first thing you need to know about a prospect?
“Does he love to play?” said Scalabrine.
What’s the funniest thing Rasheed Wallace said to you on a basketball court?
“When I was in New Jersey, he posted up, saw I was guarding him, turned to Lawrence Frank and said, ‘You put this motherf***er on me?’ The way he said that, I felt so insignificant.”
Are you ready to play in the BIG3 basketball league tomorrow?
Back in the green room, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and assistant general manager Mike Zarren already knew they weren’t moving into the lottery, because the opportunity cost was too steep. As the picks fell off the draft board, they started thinking right around the time the Bucks selected NCAA title game hero Donte DiVincenzo 17th that Robert Williams — the Texas A&M big once pegged as a lottery pick — might actually fall to them.
“He’s a really talented guy,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “There are a lot of good players out there, and each pick we were hoping more and more that he would be available at No. 27.”
He was, because of reported knee, attitude and work ethicquestions. Williams was suspended for violating university rules to start his sophomore season, and by the end of it, he declared for the draft immediately after an NCAA tourney loss by saying, “I’m just trying to get that money.” But the thought of him catching Kyrie Irving’s lobs was too tantalizing, and the C’s got their man.
“You never know everything about everybody, but we’re comfortable with who he is,” said Ainge. “A lot of the people we talked to were his coaches, his teammates, his trainers. We talked with a lot of people who were familiar with him, and everybody likes Robert. I know he’s not perfect, but most players aren’t, and we think he has a great upside, so we’re very excited to have him.”
Ainge watched Williams play live a few times this season, including once opposite No. 1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, and his staff has seen him even more. Stevens didn’t get a chance to watch Williams play for the Aggies during the season, but he’s seen plenty on tape, and a smile washed over the coach’s face at the the thought of his athleticism in a frontcourt that needs it.
“I don’t think you need to watch much to know how athletic he is,” said Stevens, who marveled at the kid’s 7-foot-5 wingspan. “It’s pretty evident on film, and obviously we think that translates.”
Williams averaged 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per 36 minutes for Texas A&M this past season, shooting 63.2 percent from the field, almost exclusively at the rim. He’s no stretch big, evidenced by his 47.1 percent free-throw percentage, but he can catch lobs upon lobs.
The Celtics’ scouting report on Williams:
• “A rim protector and rebounder” who “can play above the rim on both ends,” said Ainge.
• “An elite athlete with incredible length,” added Stevens.
• “Good feet.”
• A shot-blocker who alters shots out to the perimeter.
• Decent handle.
• Not a bad passer, sometimes a good one.
• And a devastating roll man when you surround him with shooters.
“You can just throw it up in the air,” said Stevens, “and he can just go get it and finish it.”
Ainge thinks there’s untapped potential lurking behind those qualities. There are shades of Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan, a pair of late-first/early-second round picks who panned out OK.
“When you can get a step with size and just throw it up in there, no matter how consistent the help is at getting over, you’re going to draw something,” said Stevens. “You’re either going to get lobs or you’re going to skip it to the corner, because they have to overhelp because that threat is just so big. So, I think that some of the best fives in the game are elite running athletes to the rim, and I think that certainly Robert has shown that he’s a very, very good athlete.”
The question now becomes whether he can tap those qualities, whether he can turn elite athleticism into elite performance, and Stevens said he better come ready to work next week.
As Scalabrine said, “You’ve got to love to play. This job is tough.”