The Celtics appear to have put the finishing touches on their offseason during the past two weeks, completing a significant overhaul of the bottom half of the team’s roster largely forced by the signing of free agent All-Star Gordon Hayward.
Boston will head into the 2017-18 season with a fresh influx of young global talent, with rookies hailing from four different countries. One Celtics executive at the forefront of locating that talent overseas is Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge. As one of Boston's top scouts, Ainge has spent a large chunk of the past several seasons overseas evaluating the top international talent.
Boston Sports Journal sat down with Ainge for an exclusive interview this weekend to get an inside look at Hayward’s decision day, Paul Pierce’s retirement in green, and what to expect from Boston’s young crop of talent.
Boston Sports Journal: Let’s start with July 4th, the day you guys landed Hayward. What was the perspective from inside the Celtic organization on that day with all the conflicting reports?
Austin Ainge: We were following along like everyone else. I was at lunch with some members of our staff and someone checked their Twitter feed and goes, "Twitter says we have Gordon." And we go, "That's weird...we would have heard. Let's call Brad, let's call everybody, make sure no one has heard." And no one had heard so that was very weird. People in the media we trust were reporting it and we're just going, “this is very strange.” Gordon's agent was telling us he hadn't made a decision yet. There was some confusion there for a minute and then a dead period where we're just sitting on pins and needles and waiting. I remember I was with my dad [Danny Ainge] at my brother's [Tanner Ainge] house. He was back and forth between campaign stops [for Congress] in Utah and he was getting a lot of attention on that at his campaign stops. We were laughing sitting there wondering what was going to happen.
BSJ: That must have been a tough dynamic for Tanner during his campaign, particularly on that day.
Ainge: It was a very weird feeling being in Utah, listening to Utah talk radio and being with my brother who is out in crowds hearing about Gordon Hayward every stop he makes and us just sitting and waiting to see what happens. It was kind of surreal.
BSJ: Were you guys worried at all about showing your faces in Utah at the arena after Hayward went with Boston?
Ainge: We were expecting [trouble] but everyone was respectful. Everyone was very good. The Utah Jazz fans and staff treated us very well.
BSJ: That’s back-to-back years now where you guys have landed a top flight free agent. How much does it help you from a team building perspective to land those guys without having to give up assets, knowing you still have a big stockpile of young talent and picks in place?
Ainge: We couldn't be more excited and grateful for Al and Gordon's decision. Not only are they really good players, they really establish a culture of selflessness, work ethic to add to the guys we already have like Isaiah, Jae and Marcus. They fit in on the court and off the court with our guys and it's huge for our franchise. These young guys we have in Jaylen, Jayson and the rest of them, they couldn't have better guys to learn from.
BSJ: The endless lineup possibilities must be going through everyone's head already after the significant roster changes this offseason. It's obviously Brad's decision, but how much are guys already spit-balling with each other on those options?
Ainge: Every trade, every move we make, we are penciling out potential lineups and rotations on the whiteboard. That's an everyday, all day saying. We do have a lot of good players and that's going to be a challenge for Brad and a challenge for our players to just focus on winning to sacrifice some of their own goals to try to win a championship. That's something they've all expressed tons of interest in and everyone is on board. It's exciting.
BSJ: You were obviously very close with Avery Bradley, working in conjunction with him as he spent time with the Maine Red Claws over his first two seasons. How tough was it to say goodbye to a guy like that who had really played his heart out here?
Ainge: It was very hard to let Avery go. He's done everything we've asked of him and he got better every year. He's embodied what being a Celtic is. We will miss him dearly and wish him lots of success. I think he'll continue to get better because that's the type of person he is.
BSJ: You get to spend some time with Paul Pierce after he signed a one-day contract last week? Was that a cool feeling to see him back in green one final time?
Ainge: I'm not the guy for the sappy emotional stuff, but you can't say enough about Paul and what he did for our franchise. It's always fun to see him. He was mainly just joking around with Johnny Joe and arguing about football players and his golf game, talking about his family. It was good to catch up.
BSJ: Are you buying into the Jayson Tatum/Pierce comparisons that some of your own coaches are even making?
Ainge: I think we do player comparisons for their first year and we never do those again because every player is unique. We'll compare the next group coming up to Tatum, right? It's always a cycle. I wonder who we compared Paul Pierce to when he was a rookie? I'm sure it wasn't very close by the end of his career. That's usually how those go, so I usually try to avoid those. I don't think they are very helpful...I will say I certainly hope Jayson can be as good as Paul because Paul was amazing.
BSJ: Jaylen Brown was one of the few bright spots of the Eastern Conference Finals last year for the Celtics. With Avery departing, there could be many more minutes available at the 2 and he spent a lot of time defending guards this summer in Utah and Vegas. Do you see him being able to handle a bigger role there in year two?
Ainge: Jaylen's combination of strength and speed is really unique. Can he guard some point guards and some shooting guards if we go with a bigger lineup? Can he guard some 3s and 4s if we go with a smaller lineup? Brad was having him all over the court in summer league just experimenting and trying, getting him used to those things. We started Jaylen at the 2 when Avery went out last year and he did a good job. I think he has all those skills, he just has to keep getting better and more consistent. Like many young players, Jaylen showed flashes of greatness and then he would make some mistakes last year. That's normal rookie basketball. He just has to do what he does well and do a little more consistently and that'll make him a great player.
BSJ: You guys officially signed Daniel Theis earlier this week, who has been a standout player overseas and played in the NBA Summer League a couple years back. What led you to believe that he's ready to make the leap?
Ainge: Daniel has been a prospect for a number of years now. He's a guy that has just slowly gotten better. He kept working on his game, kept improving. Now at age 25, he's ready to make the leap. He's won three German championships in a row and plays a lot at the 4 and 5. He can shoot 3s, he's athletic and he’s a national team player, so he's very experienced for a 25-year-old.
BSJ: Do you have an NBA player comparison for him for fans?
Ainge: I don't know a great comparison for him. He's equally comfortable rolling to the rim or popping and he can guard the 4 and the 5. He can switch some too. He's been wiry, strong and athletic.
BSJ: Ante Zizic had a rough transition to the NBA during summer league in Utah before finishing out strong in Las Vegas. What do you think will be the toughest part for him in making the jump to this level?
Ainge: I think defense is always the hardest part for young players. Ante's physicality and his rebounding will translate, and that's what he's great at. His skill level and strength and defensive positioning should continue to improve with time. I would put all of our young guys in that category. We basically have last year's draft class and this year's draft class joining our team. There's a lot of talent there, and we're really excited about a lot of those guys and hope they can learn quickly.
BSJ: Brad Stevens had some high praise for second round pick Semi Ojeleye when discussing his defensive versatility during summer league. How surprised were you guys on draft night that he fell to you, and is his level of defense at a place where he could play his way into the rotation early in his career?
Ainge: Semi's unique. He's 245 pounds and moves like a guard laterally. There are some 6'5'', 6'6'' guys that can move laterally but not too many of them are as strong as Semi. He's got a very unique skillset that allows him switch and guard 1 through 5 and is capable of making a 3-point shot as well.
BSJ: Jayson Tatum's offensive skillset was the biggest story of summer league from a Celtics standpoint, to the point where he found himself being regularly doubled teamed by opponents. How much easier do you expect it to get for him when opposing defenses aren't able to key in on him as much in the regular season?
Ainge: Jayson has a great offensive skillset and he can play on or off the ball, which makes him so valuable. He can create his own offense or he can spot up and make 3s. He can attack closeouts well and move the ball. He's a very versatile player at both ends of the court, which I'm sure you can tell, is the theme of our team the last couple years and maybe even more so this offseason. Coach Stevens really values versatile players. It feels like at the end of games and in the playoffs, it turns into a lot of switching and versatile guys and guys that can play multiple positions. That's what we focused on.
BSJ: One player Celtics fans weren’t able to see this summer was Guerschon Yabusele after he underwent foot surgery. How is he progressing at this point?
Ainge: He's doing better. He's improving and getting better. The surgery went well and he's back doing some stuff. He's currently on vacation in France, but the rehab is going very well.
BSJ: You guys will have quite the international flavor in your locker room this year. What kind of impact do you think that will have both on and off the floor?
Ainge: I think it's great. I think the fact that we have multiple guys with European experience helps the other ones out, right? They are making the transition together. They come from similar basketball backgrounds even if they are from different countries and can kind of have similar expectations and learn the NBA together. I'm not really talking about basketball, I'm talking about off the court things. We have a good mix. We've got Australia, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Croatia, Egypt....that's pretty good.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.