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.
Without further ado, let’s get to the final installment: The best of the best.
5. Delonte West (No. 24 pick in 2004 NBA Draft)
The second name (Tony Allen is other) from the 2004 draft class in the top-10 of these rankings features an under-appreciated pick for Boston in the grand scheme. West only played three years for the C’s largely during some woeful years for the franchise (2004-07) but he emerged as a bright spot amid the rebuild. The 6-foot-4 guard turned from a reserve in year one to an above-average hybrid starting guard for his next two years in Green, showcasing a useful mix of outside shooting, dribble penetration and useful distribution while manning the point guard spot. All of those skills combined with feisty defense turned West into a valuable role player at just age 23, a rarity for a guy taken at the end of the first round. His cheap salary and talent allowed Danny Ainge to use him as an important young asset to help put together his Big Three in the summer of 2007
Ainge needed to thread the needle with his collection of picks and young players in order to land Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and West's early emergence allowed him to do that. The C’s were giving the Sonics back a very bad contract to salary match with Allen's pricy contract (Wally Szcerbiak) in that deal so West ended up being the sweetener for Seattle to take that two years of money on with the No. 5 overall pick serving as the centerpiece of the trade. Sure enough, a few months later, West found himself playing a pivotal role on a contender in Cleveland as a starting guard alongside LeBron James. Sonics GM Sam Presti used West to send him to Cleveland to help convince the Cavs to take on Szcerbiak (one of the worst contracts in the league by 2008) as part of a blockbuster trade at the deadline. West played a pivotal role for three years in Cleveland prior to off the court woes and mental issues derailing his career with the Cavs by 2010. A couple of second chances with the C’s and Mavs didn’t pan out due to injuries and mental issues, bringing his NBA career to a premature end by 2012 but West served as a tremendous value in his draft slot at a critical time for the franchise.
4. Kendrick Perkins (No. 27 pick in 2003 NBA Draft)
Taking a high school player in the draft is always a roll of the dice, especially late in the first round. Ainge has never been afraid of risk however and he elected to go with a development project in the 6-foot-10 high schooler out of Texas just a couple months into his gig with Boston in June 2003. At age 19, there was no real expectation that Perkins would be able to contribute anytime soon but that lined up well with Ainge’s rebuilding plan timeline that was put into motion with the trade of Antoine Walker in October 2003. Perkins played minimally during his first two seasons in Green but by the time 2005 rolled around, he was ready for a bigger role, earning the starting gig for a couple of woeful C’s teams in the mid-2000s. Perkins was incredibly limited on the offensive end throughout his career with no range outside of the paint but that didn’t matter by the time the Big Three came to town. Ainge wisely locked up Perkins on a four-year extension for a modest $16 million in 2006 on the heels of him landing the starting role, which allowed the C’s to keep the cost-controlled center as a crucial defensive anchor and rim protector through 2010.
Perkins was happy to rebound, block shots and set picks as a complementary piece during the Big Three era but he also did show he could do a little bit more offensively when injuries popped up. He averaged a double-double during the 2009 playoffs with Garnett sidelined and delivered a couple of big scoring games during the 2008 title run as well (against the Pistons). He never was quite the same player again after his ACL tear in the 2010 NBA Finals but the C’s had received four strong starting level seasons out of him by that point. That’s a big win for any player taken at the end of the first round, especially when they can do it for a championship-caliber team.
3. Al Jefferson (No. 15 pick in 2004 NBA Draft): The biggest challenge for Ainge entering his rebuild in the mid-2000s was simply having a lack of elite picks to try to strengthen his young core. With Paul Pierce and some other useful veterans on the roster, the C’s were too good to fully tank and land a top-5 pick. That left the C’s with plenty of picks in the middle and end of the first round after trades allowed Ainge to add to his draft stash but no top-10 choices up until the 2006 NBA Draft.
That left Boston's front office trying to pry diamonds from the rough and Ainge did just that during the 2004 NBA Draft. One year after identifying a talented high school big man late in the first round with Perkins, Ainge found a classic post power forward out of high school in Al Jefferson to mold at No. 15 overall. Jefferson was a bench contributor right out of the gate age 20 during his rookie year but he managed to turn into a potential franchise building block two years later during the 2006-07 season. At that point, Jefferson was a walking double-double (16-and-11 per game) who was capable of drawing contact and providing some rim protection as well.
The Celtics need a potential cornerstone piece to have any chance of landing Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2007 and that’s exactly what Jefferson turned into by 2007 at the end of his rookie deal. His career never quite reached the heights it should have (one of the most talented players to never make an All-Star team) thanks to an ACL tear and being stuck on bad teams in Minnesota and Utah for large chunks of his career. However, a case can be made that this was the most important pick of Ainge’s career since the Big Three likely never gets formed without his development. In an era that lacks true post players in this day and age, Jefferson was one of the last great ones of a dying breed.
2. Jayson Tatum (No. 3 pick in 2017 NBA Draft)