Danny Ainge is one of the savviest executives in the NBA, however, there is one area of his tenure that involves plenty of debate among fans: His track record at the NBA Draft. Just how well has Ainge done with his drafting as a whole over the past 17 years in Boston? In order to get a better sense of his body of work, I teamed up with BSJ contributor Ryan Bernardoni to look closely at Ainge’s 47 draft night selections since 2003.
Bernardoni and I teamed up to rank all of Ainge’s selections from top-to-bottom over the past two decades. We considered each player’s stats, pick positioning, and performance, focused primarily on the time played with the Celtics. With the 2020 NBA Draft originally scheduled to be this Thursday, we will begin the countdown today, going from worst-to-first over the next week.
While there will be plenty of compelling choices to choose from at the top of the rankings, there was no shortage of duds in the mix for the bottom of these rankings. Without further ado, let’s get to Part 1: The busts.
47. James Young (No. 17 overall in 2014 NBA Draft)
In the early days of last decade’s rebuild, the Celtics went with the 18-year-old swingman out of Kentucky at the No. 17 overall pick, who was surprisingly available to them out of the lottery.
“He’s a young guy. We felt he was a very, very undervalued scoring wing in this draft,” Brad Stevens said on his first draft night with the Celtics. “Everybody in the room had him ranked higher than 17th, so we were surprised he was available and thrilled that he was available at 17.″
Young’s efficiency numbers weren’t great at Kentucky however, and those struggles worsened in the NBA. Injuries from a car crash forced him to miss summer league and Young never really got his feet under him at the NBA. He shot 34 percent from the field in his first two seasons and 25 percent from 3-point range. Contributions in other facets of his game were non-existent, limiting his games played to just 60 in his first two seasons as he was soundly outplayed by other youngsters and veterans across the roster.
By year three, the C’s patience was wearing thin. He outplayed RJ Hunter to earn the final roster spot entering the 2016 NBA season, but even having to battle for that spot was a bad sign. Young remained an afterthought in the rotation for a 48-win Boston team in 2016-17 and the front office wisely decided to cut their losses that October and declined his $2.8 million option for the fourth year of his rookie deal.
The choice hurts given the volume of better options taken after him in the first round. Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic were all selected in the next 10 picks, while the C’s were left with three years of wasted development. Young has spent the last two years putting up big numbers in the Israeli Premier League.
46. Guerschon Yabusele (No. 16 overall in 2016 NBA Draft)
Picking the Frenchman was a strategic play from jump street for Boston’s front office. The team had an absurd eight draft picks for the 2016 NBA Draft and did not want mid-tier first-round picks (No. 16, No. 23) eating up important cap room that summer as they tried to keep space open for the potential combination of Kevin Durant and Al Horford in free agency.
While the draft-and-stash strategy is a common tactic in this scenario and the Celtics were looking for a player that was potentially open to be stashed for two years (to keep cap space open for 2017 if needed), this was not a good draft class for international prospects in this mold. Yabusele was projected by most draft analysts to be a second-round pick, making his choice at No. 16 overall a questionable selection. He put up big numbers during his one year in China before the Celtics brought him back into the fold for the 2017-18 season once roster space cleared up following the Kyrie Irving blockbuster. The problem? Yabusele was not an NBA player despite his fun-loving personality. He played just 74 games over his two seasons while battling weight issues and his main appeal (power forward with 3-point range) never translated (32 percent from 3). By year three, the C’s patience with him wore thin amid an influx of new talent and the team decided to eat the $3 million they owed him to waive him during the 2019 summer league. The 24-year-old played in France last season but will collect checks from the C’s for at least the next two years.
While the C’s strategy was defendable here, completely missing on the No. 16 pick hurt, especially with reliable contributors like Malik Beasley and Caris LeVert taken within the next five picks. Ainge could have traded out of the first round entirely (for a future pick) and still solved his salary cap issue. Instead, the C’s reached for a talent that didn’t pan out.
45. Fab Melo (No. 22 overall in 2012 NBA Draft)
The backup center spot was a consistent trouble spot for the Celtics at the tail end of the Big Three era. Free-agent signings were generally old and broken down (Chris Wilcox, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal) or one dimensional (Jason Collins, Ryan Hollins). With minutes needing to be cut for an aging Kevin Garnett who had just made a transition to full-time center, the C’s sought out some young bulk in the frontcourt with the 7-foot Melo who had spent his entire career sitting in the middle of the 2-3 Syracuse zone. They grabbed Melo with the No. 22 pick, a selection they acquired from the Thunder in the Kendrick Perkins deal.
Melo’s skills did not translate to the NBA game as he played just 36 minutes for the C’s across his entire rookie year despite already being 22-years-old. Unfortunately, his most memorable moment in Boston may have been the time he suffered a concussion after hitting his head on a low entryway in Maine. After one season, Melo was shipped off to Memphis in a salary dump even as the Celtics started a full rebuild mode. The front office wisely surmised he was not an NBA player after a single season primarily in the G-League.
The remainder of the first round was full of subpar picks in this draft, which makes this misfire look a little bit better for Boston, but Melo was easily the worst of the bunch. The early second round was also full of gems (Tomas Satoransky, Jae Crowder, Draymond Green, Khris Middleton). Melo ended up playing in Brazil and Puerto Rico after his Celtics stint before his tragic passing at age 26 in 2017.
44. JaJuan Johnson (No. 27 overall in 2011 NBA Draft)
Outside of Avery Bradley, the Celtics didn’t fare very well with drafting during the Big Three era. One of the more painful misses during that era was with the Big Ten Player of the Year in JaJuan Johnson. The Celtics actually traded down from No. 25 overall in a draft-night move to snag him (picking up a second-round pick in the process) in hopes of providing some frontcourt depth behind Kevin Garnett. Johnson failed to deliver on that front, playing 36 underwhelming games for Boston during his rookie season before being thrown in as salary filler in a trade for Courtney Lee to Houston in the summer of 2012.
There are plenty of misses at the end of the first round in drafts, so the odds are against the C’s in general here for finding a useful bench player. However, this draft was littered with productive players at the end of the first round, none bigger than Jimmy Butler at No. 30 overall. It’s not always fair to play the hindsight game, but the backup wing was a huge need for Boston in 2011 to provide some depth behind Paul Pierce and Ray Allen as they aged. Butler could have extended the shelf life of the Big Three era if he were nabbed in this spot, but to be honest, almost any other player would have provided a boost in this range. Cory Joseph and Bojan Bogdanovic both went in the next five picks after Johnson while the second-round was full of useful wings/forwards as well (Jon Leuer, Chandler Parsons) in the early 2010s. Who would have thought the No. 55 overall pick E’Twaun Moore, taken in part to make Johnson feel comfortable as a Purdue teammate, would end up having the far more productive NBA career?
Johnson has played overseas since the 2013 season, last suiting up in Turkey.
43. J.R. Giddens (No. 30 overall in 2008 NBA Draft)