The 2017 NBA draft lottery belonged to the Boston Celtics, winners of the top overall pick in what most believed would be the Markelle Fultz sweepstakes, a player widely regarded that night as the likely top overall selection.
But the Celtics had their eye on another elite talent; a young man from St. Louis who spent a year at Duke before making himself eligible for the NBA draft.
His name was Jayson Tatum, a player Danny Ainge and the Celtics were convinced they could get two spots later in the draft — similar to what Red Auerbach did 40 years ago when he traded the top overall pick to Golden State for a pair of dynastic pillars in the Celtics' run of greatness in the 1980s — a young big man named Robert Parish and the No. 3 pick, which was used to select Kevin McHale.
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In 2017, Ainge traded the top overall pick to Philadelphia in exchange for the No. 3 pick used to select Tatum, along with acquiring a future first-round pick that was later used by Boston to select Romeo Langford.
Hindsight tells us all that picking Tatum was indeed the best move Ainge and the Celtics could have made.
The 6-9 Tatum has blossomed into an All-Star, putting together the kind of stats that show how important his ascension has been to Boston’s efforts towards top-tier status in the East and the ultimate goal — bringing Banner 18 to Boston.
And while he was the Celtics' primary target with the trade, he wasn’t the only player Boston was considering with the No. 3 pick, nor was he the only player Boston drafted that year who has been a contributor to the team’s success.
Let's review the 2017 NBA Draft to see if Ainge and the Celtics got it right:
Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke (Round 1, No. 3)
A no-brainer, win-win for the Celtics in acquiring Tatum via trade and getting another draft pick out of it for a player (Fultz) who has already been traded and thus far has shown he’s an NBA rotational player … and that’s it. Meanwhile, Tatum has ascended to being the face of this franchise, earning All-Star status this year while evolving into one of the league’s best two-way players.
Who they could’ve taken: Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas (Round 1, No. 4)
We often praise Danny Ainge for the players he’s able to acquire. But the Celtics’ decision to take a pass on Jackson was one of the best decisions this franchise has ever made. For starters, he wanted no part of being a Boston Celtic with him going so far as to blow off an individual workout in Sacramento with the Celtics while the team’s brass was in mid-air en route to the workout.
It was indeed an unprofessional move on his part that serves as a reminder as to why in hindsight, he wasn’t cut from the kind of cloth that most Celtics are. Jackson, selected by the Phoenix Suns, was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies last year and spent the bulk of the season with their G-League affiliate.
Semi Ojeleye, SF, SMU (Round 2, No. 37)
Chalk this one up to another good bang-for-your-buck pick by Boston. Ojeleye has been an above average defender for the Celtics, showcasing skills that have allowed him to play multiple frontcourt positions. His defensive versatility, particularly on league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, has stood out.
Who they could’ve taken: Thomas Bryant, F, Indiana (Round 2, No. 42)
Bryant has been among the better scoring bigs in this draft class, averaging 9.9 points per game. Only two players from the entire 2017 draft class (Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen) who are 6-10 and taller have a higher career scoring average than Bryant. Still, Ojeleye’s defensive versatility makes him a more ideal fit in Brad Stevens’ system than Bryant.
Who they could’ve taken: Dillon Brooks, (Round 2, No. 45)
One of the big surprises in this draft class, Brooks appeared in all 82 games for Memphis as a rookie. A 6-7 wing, Brooks is strong but doesn’t have the physical strength of Ojeleye. But like Ojeleye, Brooks has made a solid adjustment defensively after coming into the league as a tweener position-wise. Brooks doesn’t have elite length or athleticism, but he has proven to be a better scorer (a career 12.4 points per game scorer) in the NBA — albeit on a team that doesn’t have as many elite scorers as the Celtics.
Playing time would have been limited in Boston at the wing position. And because of Ojeleye’s size, strength and lateral quickness, he brings more to the table defensively, which is exactly what the Celtics needed from whomever they selected with their second round pick.