Boston has a tough decision to make at No. 5
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Tragedy denied the Boston Celtics' chance at a franchise player in 1986 when Len Bias, their top selection and the No. 2 pick overall, died days after the NBA draft.
Eleven years later, luck wasn't on the Celtics' side as Tim Duncan eluded the Cs in the draft lottery when they had the best chance to land the top pick.
Last month, the Celtics seemingly had another shot at landing the first or second pick in the draft. But again the draft lottery frowned on the Celtics, and they missed out on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant by falling to No. 5.
So now, for a franchise that prides itself on being a major player in the league, the 2007 NBA draft Thursday presents a quandary. Do the Celtics trade the pick to find a veteran to creep them closer to the playoffs in the East, or do they bank on yet another rookie?
That was the conundrum ESPN.com/ESPN witnessed this month as the Celtics allowed access to their workouts for the potential fifth pick.
The process started when Danny Ainge, the Celtics executive director of basketball operations, and Boston head coach Doc Rivers traveled to Los Angeles to watch China's Yi Jianlian. They had seen him before, and have been constantly impressed with his potential. Although Ainge admitted the big difference between potential and actual worth, he pointed to Yin's success in the Chinese Basketball League.
"He does have some experience," Ainge said. "So it's not like someone who you are just hoping can become a player. He does have a body of work, regardless of how you rank that body of work."
After Yi, the Boston brass returned home to work out Florida's Corey Brewer and Florida State's Al Thornton. And assistant coaches Dave Wohl, Armond Hill and Kevin Eastman put the players through the paces.
Eastman started the two on a weak-hand passing drill. Boston has scouted these players and already knows what they can do with their strong hands. By forcing them to do a left-handed passing drill (although the players at times needed to be reminded of "the other left hand" at times), the Celtics are able to gauge the players' weaknesses.
"No matter what you do the rest of your career, you've got to develop your weak hand," Eastman tells the players during the drill.
Next, the players moved to a shooting drill that emphasized quick release. Ainge stepped in and told the players to imagine the last five seconds of the game. They were supposed to catch the ball, go one-on-one and shoot within five seconds. As a loose ball rolls out of bounds, both Thornton and Brewer dive for it. The hustle drew the praise of a nearby coach.
Overall, the prospects impressed with the hour-long workout.
"It was very competitive," Brewer said. "It was a good workout. Al's a hard-working guy. I'm a hard-working guy, and we had to go at it today."
Four days later, Florida's Joakim Noah and North Carolina's Brandan Wright arrived in Boston for their workout. But unlike the first workout between Brewer and Thornton, Wright declined to compete against Noah or anyone else. He declined to work out against another player throughout the entire draft process.
"Working out by yourself has benefits and downfalls," Wright said later. "Obviously, I think the coaching staff and all the representatives get to look at you one-on-one as a person, just look at you on the court and not worry about who you are going against or what he's doing. They get to look at just you, and I think that is a really big thing."
"I'm going to do whatever the team asks," he said. "If you don't want to work out against somebody, eventually you are going to have to. So what's the difference now or in three weeks, you know what I mean? Eventually, you are going to have to play. Basketball is competition, so I don't know why [he wouldn't compete]. Why do you have people telling you that you should hide from competition? To me that's stupid. But that's OK. Everybody has their different motives, and I realize that there is a lot of money involved and people are going to influence you to do things you don't want to do."
The workout ended with the Celtics' famed three-minute run. The player has to sprint the length of the court and sprint back and do that as many times as possible in three minutes. It's a grueling run that tests a player's endurance and toughness.
Ainge offered some advice to Noah before the run.
"I think about 85 to 90 percent cruise through the middle part and then turn it on at the end," Ainge told Noah. "You can't start off sprinting. How many do you do typically in a minute? If you can do 10 if you sprint, [then] you can do 10 in 55 seconds. If you can get to 10 at the 1:01, 1:02 mark, you know that is pretty good. Then you try to maintain eight or nine in the next minute and try to turn it up in the last 40 seconds or so.
"If you've got a kick in, make sure you don't kick too late. That's what happened to Corey Brewer. He had a lot left, but he kicked too late with about 30 seconds left. He was tired, tired and then he started sprinting and then he had a lot left. He could've gotten a couple more."
Later, as Noah prepared for the run, Ainge murmured that despite Noah's size, he could have the potential to best Brewer's mark.
"I think he can beat Brewer. He's got it right here," Ainge said as he pounded his chest. "He's got it right here."
Noah finished with 27½ trips up and down the court in three minutes. Ainge remarked that while the number would have been poor for a point guard or wing player (adding that he himself completed 27½ laps when he was 37 years old), it was a decent feat for a 7-foot center.
After Noah and Wright, the Celtics watched Georgetown's Jeff Green in Washington, D.C., before the June 18 deadline to withdraw from draft consideration. Rivers has seen Green plenty since his son Jeremiah was a freshman point guard on the Hoyas last season. With Green making a last-minute decision to stay in the draft, he's an option at No. 5 although that might be a bit high. But if Boston were to trade down in the lottery, Green would be a viable option.
Last Friday, Florida's Al Horford came to Waltham for a workout. He was a hit in every sense. Despite concern that he would do what Wright did and not compete, Horford went through every drill and charmed the Celtics' brass. Still, the consensus was that Horford likely would be going to Atlanta at No. 3 or Memphis at No. 4 and would not be available when Boston picks at No. 5.
And with the bevy of information to digest, ESPN.com caught up with the Celtics' brass throughout the process to get their impressions:
Katz: What was your initial reaction when you didn't get No. 1 or 2 in the draft?
Ainge: I was disappointed. I knew [it might happen] and had been preparing from the time the season ended for that to happen, [that] we were going to get the third, fourth, fifth pick. But it was still disappointing. It felt like we just lost of playoff game.
Rivers: I think that was a pipe dream for anybody. Anyone who got it was lucky. But obviously I was surprised. It just caught me off guard when [our name] was pulled. But after that, I was actually fine. You know, you've got to make your own luck, you know what I mean. It's easy to say now, but I do believe that. You can't sit around waiting for a ping-pong ball to come out and save you. You have to make your own luck. That's the way I think most of us are built, and that's the way it has to be.
With all the injuries we had, I don't know if Al [Jefferson] would have progressed as quickly if we hadn't had those injuries, so now you have another guy you can go to. So it was a tough year in a lot of ways. And in some ways it was enjoyable, as far as the teaching because it was only the young guys at times. But I think we are closer than people think we are. I think people thought if we don't get this [top] draft pick, then we're terrible. I don't buy into that theory.
Katz: So you're saying maybe you don't need a franchise player to necessarily make it over the hump. What can you get at No. 5 if you are that close?
Ainge: Well, getting a top pick just makes it easier, obviously. But we've got some work to do. We've got to keep working hard on developing. Doc's done a good job, and his whole staff has done a good job of developing our young players. We've just got to continue to develop, and we have to try to find more experience on this team, I think. I think the players did gain experience, but I would still like to add another experienced player to this roster before the season starts.
Katz: So give me your initial thoughts on Joakim [Noah] in a competitive situation.
Rivers: I love his energy. We all know about how verbal he is. It's so overlooked. He instinctively talks defensively. He loves to talk. He likes to point. It's something a lot of guys don't do as much as you try to teach it. It's not an innate act, and he does that and that's important. You know it's tough to tell in this, but you do feel that his basketball IQ is extremely high, and that's important as well.
Katz: So in a situation like with Brandan Wright when he is being told not to work out in a competitive situation, what are you going to learn from that?
Rivers: You do learn a little bit. You can watch him shoot. You can watch him move. You can try to gauge his first step in some of the drills you can do. We do a lot of weak-hand development stuff, so you can see how weak that weak hand is or how strong that weak hand is. And so you do see some stuff. You can gauge how explosive he is in some of the drills you do, but still. I said jokingly I could look good against a chair. I think we all could.
And that's where Boston stands with the draft looming Thursday.
With general manager Chris Wallace's leaving for a similar position with the Memphis Grizzlies, that left only three primary decision makers -- Ainge, assistant director of basketball operations Leo Papile and Rivers, in addition to ownership. Late Monday, Ainge and Rivers left for Phoenix for a combined workout with the Suns to watch Noah, Brewer and Green one more time. And as the draft approaches, the Celtics still were listening to a trade offers but there could ultimately be an 11th-hour debate among four candidates: Yi, Noah, Brewer and Green.
As of Monday night, Yi held the edge.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.