BOSTON (CBS) — And so after years of waiting, after months of scoreboard watching, after weeks of speculation and trade rumors and posturing, Jayson Tatum is The One. He is The One the Celtics wanted over Markelle Fultz. He is The One they would not sacrifice in a number of trade scenarios. He is The One around whom Danny Ainge will build this renaissance, this next era of greatness for one of the most storied franchises of all time.
Pressure? You bet your high tops there is pressure, and Ainge is going to need his shoes if Tatum does not meet expectations because the Celtics president of basketball operations will find himself in quite a pile. Ainge confirmed at last night’s NBA Draft that the Celtics would have taken Tatum first overall had they retained the No. 1 pick, but Boston traded it earlier this week to Philadelphia because Ainge believed they could get Tatum at No. 3 just the same.
And so Ainge was right.
But as always, what happens from here is anybody’s guess, though that won’t stop any of us from looking back on the 2017 draft years from now – maybe sooner – and wondering whether Ainge was the smartest man in the room or whether he just acted like it.
When the Celtics won the lottery last month, they became the only team in the NBA that could do whatever it pleased. They could have drafted Fultz, Tatum or Lonzo Ball. They could have traded the pick for more draft capital, or they could have acquired Jimmy Butler, maybe Paul George, maybe even a unicorn named Kristaps Porzingis. All of those moves came with a cost, to be sure, and the only one Ainge proved willing to pay may have come with the greatest price tag of all.
He traded No. 1 for No. 3 and a future selection in either 2018 or 2019. He took the guy he wanted anyway. And now he waits to see whether he was right about Tatum or right about Fultz, because it simply does not seem possible that he can be both.
Can Tatum play? We think so, we hope so, but we don’t know so. For the optimists, Tatum would become a healthier version of Grant Hill, the supremely talented Duke forward selected No. 3 overall (like Tatum) in the 1994 draft. Hill was strong enough to play inside when necessary, skilled enough to play on the perimeter, smart enough to handle it all. He had the skills to pretty much do it all. He was a seven-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA selection, and he would have been even better had he possessed better luck with his health.
If Tatum becomes Grant Hill — and if you were born after 2000, look him up — then, well, it would be awfully hard to complain.
Nonetheless, this is Boston and this is the NBA, where the line between good players and great ones makes all the difference in the world. What if Fultz proves to be Chris Paul? What if Ball proves to be Magic Johnson? What if Ainge whiffed because he is too smart for his own good, too stubborn to make a deal for a proven player, particularly on a night when Butler was traded from Chicago to Minnesota for a package including the No. 7 pick, whether the Celtics ultimately had the other assets to match Minnesota’s package or not?
What if Ainge was wrong?
As for Tatum himself, let there be no doubt. More than Marcus Smart or Jaylen Brown – the two high lottery picks the Celtics took in previous drafts – Tatum is the real centerpiece of Ainge’s latest rebuild. Smart was the No. 6 selection in 2014. Brown was the No. 3 pick last year in what many believed was a two-player draft. Tatum may have been picked at No. 3, but Ainge has told us that the Celtics essentially view him as a No. 1, and those kinds of opportunities simply do not grow on trees.
In the coming years, of course, the Celtics will have more opportunities to build, more chances to add high-end talent, more openings to deal. They could have two more selections in the high lottery next year, maybe one (depending on how the 2018 draft falls) in 2019. And then that will pretty much be it for the high lottery picks. The scary truth is that Ainge may never again have a pick as high as this one, may never again have the opportunity afforded him in 2017, when the trade he made with the Brooklyn Nets remained the gift that keeps on giving, the money tree that gave him the No. 1 overall selection in the draft.
With that pick, ultimately, Danny Ainge chose Jayson Tatum.
From here to eternity, that is now a relationship that can never be broken.