The last couple of years have answered the question of whether Danny Ainge can draft. When making his first choice in 2016 and 2017, he was higher on his guy than most. In both cases, he was right.
No major publication considered Jayson Tatum the best player last year; Ainge would have taken him No. 1 but was able to trade down because the Sixers were trading up for Markelle Fultz and the Lakers for some reason wanted to sign up for the Lonzo Ball life.
Jaylen Brown at No. 3 in 2016? You remember the boos, and you can understand why they happened. Fans were confused. If they'd been checking nbadraft.net like we all did, they expected him to be the ninth pick.
Yet in both cases, Ainge and Co. were clearly right. Holding a high pick with no consensus option awaiting him, they wound up with the best player available.
What's more impressive is that they've also done it later in the draft, and the further down the board you go to make your first pick, the easier it is to take a guy who won't amount to anything, let alone prove to be the best possible selection.
That's what the Celtics did three years ago with Terry Rozier at No. 16. At the time, Bleacher Report Senior NBA writer Howard Beck deemed that selection the "biggest reach" of the draft; at the very least, the Celtics were heavily criticized for taking him where they did.
Go look at that draft and the players who were selected after Rozier. Would you rather any of those guys over Rozier? Maybe Josh Richardson? Maybe? Probably not, though?
Now, here's where we need to note that the 2015 draft, for as good as it looks now for the Celtics, could have greatly derailed what's been an excellent rebuild. As the legend goes, Ainge intended to trade a whole lot to get from No. 16 to No. 9 in order to select Justise Winslow, who just had a worse third NBA season than Rozier.
How badly did Ainge want to move up? According to ESPN's Chris Forsberg that summer, Ainge offered Charlotte "as many as six draft picks, including four potential first-round selections," only to have the deal rejected. Keep in mind that the Celtics still had three Brooklyn picks (which would turn into Brown, Tatum and Kyrie Irving) at that point.
At any rate, the basketball gods saved Ainge from himself and he followed it up by making the right selection. The latter has happened three straight years now.
Before that, the Celtics looked more human at the draft. Using 2010 as the cutoff (they didn't have a first-round pick in 2009, so 2010 seemed like a good place to keep it semi-recent), the Celtics have had their fair share of not-quite-misses-but-not-quite-home-runs. The Marcus Smart pick (No. 6 overall in 2014) could have been better spent on Dario Saric. Jared Sullinger (21st overall in 2012) could have instead been Draymond Green (No. 35). Three picks after the Celtics took JaJuan Johnson at 27 (via New Jersey), the Bulls took Jimmy Butler.
Of course, there's no more devastating "what if?" to play than looking back at 2013, when the Celtics got Kelly Olynyk at No. 13 (via Dallas), only to later learn they'd passed on the best player in that draft (Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Yet that three-year run on not getting the best player has been sandwiched by stronger drafting. In 2010, the C's' selection over Avery Bradley at No. 19 proved to be the best pick they could have made.
The Celtics are slotted to pick at No. 27 Thursday, a spot that promises very little, though they've got more than enough ammunition to move up. Even if they get whoever proves to be the best NBA player of the guys on the board, there's no promise that said player will have much of an NBA career. Their last three top picks have shown that if they do jump up, they'll get the right guy.