NEW YORK — The Boston Celtics got their man. On Thursday at Barclays Center, they selected forward Jayson Tatum out of Duke with the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft. Shortly thereafter, team president Rich Gotham told 98.5 The Sports Hub that they’ve had him at the top of their draft board “for a long time.”
This confirmed what was already suspected when president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said recently that he thought the Celtics would get the same player at No. 3 that they wanted at No. 1, justifying his blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. The fact they had Tatum ranked higher than highly touted point guard prospects Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball might boggle some minds, but it’s clear that Boston sees something special in him.
Tatum smiled when asked about this, but didn’t take the opportunity to talk himself up. Unlike Josh Jackson, who was selected next by the Phoenix Suns, he didn’t declare that those who passed on him would be sorry. He called Fultz and Ball “great players” and described the Celtics’ decision as “a great compliment.”
After Boston made the trade, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Tatum. It’s not clear that he knew exactly what was next, but he might have had an inkling.
“He was just ranting about how great of a person Brad Stevens is, and that Coach K would love the opportunity if they would pick me, and he really wanted me to go up there and work out for them,” Tatum said. “I was all for it. It worked out. I had a great time up there on my visit, and obviously they enjoyed me.”
The Celtics could have easily kept the pick and taken Fultz, the safer pick because of his lack of obvious weaknesses. They could have also taken Jackson, whose attributes — versatile defender, intense competitor — fit the profile of many recent Boston draft picks. Instead, they swung for the fences with a player who could turn out to be one of the rarest birds in the NBA world: a No. 1 scoring option on the wing.
The way Tatum plays, if he’s not extremely efficient, he might not help the Celtics. He’s not necessarily going to be a bad passer or defender at the next level, but he’s not particularly polished in those areas, either. If he does turn out to be an efficient scorer, though, he could be the perfect guy to take the pressure off of Isaiah Thomas, making opposing coaches account for another skilled playmaker. At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, his advanced footwork should help him get his shot off against anyone.
The day before the draft, Tatum invoked a popular name in Boston, saying his favorite player is Paul George and that he thinks their styles are similar. The on Thursday, but as of midnight, they did not get it done. They also watched another trade target, Jimmy Butler, get sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves. If they end up deciding that the price of adding an elite forward to their roster is too high, then perhaps the best plan is to groom their own.
Like Jaylen Brown before him, Tatum will likely have to fight for every minute of playing time he gets in his rookie season. Boston had the best record in the East in 2016-17, and as of now it looks like Jae Crowder and Brown will be ahead of him in the rotation. George is still a possibility, as is soon-to-be free agent Gordon Hayward. Tatum, of course, said all the right things about learning from veterans. On the television broadcast shortly after his name was called, he said he was “trying not to cry right now.” In the interview room, he was still processing it.
“Oh, man, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my young life — I’m only 19,” Tatum said. “It was the day I’ve always, the moment I’ve always been dreaming about and waiting for. It was as special as I could have imagined and that much more.”
The Celtics, too, had been counting down the days until they could add Tatum to their program. Over in Boston, Stevens praised his ability to play both forward positions and called him a “really talented scorer.” Unselfishness and defensive versatility have defined the Celtics’ culture over the past few seasons, but they have never quite had a player like Tatum. In crunch time, they don’t have players beyond Thomas who can create offense out of thin air or draw multiple defenders. While there is no guarantee that Tatum will become the dominant scorer they hope he will be, or that he’ll be better than Fultz, Ball and Jackson, give Boston’s front office this: It has a vision. And if Tatum makes good on his upside, it will be hard to argue with the move it made to realize it.