Boston native Abdul-Malik Abu was one of 12 NBA hopefuls who worked out for the Celtics Wednesday.
Taylor C. Snow/Celtics.com

Celtics Host Jam-Packed Day of Pre-Draft Workouts

WALTHAM, Mass. – Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge recently projected this spring’s pre-Draft workout process to be the busiest in franchise history. If Wednesday afternoon’s jam-packed session serves as any indication, his statement was not an exaggeration.

Typically the Celtics will bring in six or so prospects for a workout. Wednesday was an anomaly, as the team welcomed 12 NBA hopefuls to its training facility in Waltham, Mass. and ended up splitting the group in half for two separate sessions.

Considering the fact that Boston has eight picks in the upcoming Draft, it is trying to squeeze as many prospects through its doors before Draft Night on June 23.

Given that the Celtics have picks ranging from No. 3 to No. 58, they will bring in a wide variety of talent as the organization hopes to strike gold with one of its selections.

“There are franchise players that have been drafted in every range," said director of player personnel Austin Ainge between Wednesday's two sessions. "That’s the benefit of having multiple picks: multiple swings at the bat."

Wednesday’s first session featured 6-foot-8 power forward and Boston native Abdul-Malik Abu (North Carolina State), shooting guard Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), 6-7 power forward Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), versatile 6-10 forward Malik Pope (San Diego State), 7-foot-2 big man Zhou Qi (China) and 6-8 forward James Webb III (Boise State).

Group two consisted of St. Joseph’s forward DeAndre Bembry, reigning ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), 6-6 wing Josh Hart of the reigning NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats, Wrentham, Mass. native and 6-9 forward out of Maryland, Jake Layman, 6-6 senior forward Abdel Nader (Iowa State), and finally, high-energy Baylor forward Taurean Prince.

Here were a few key takeaways from the multi-session afternoon:

Qi Brings Unbelievable Length

Perhaps the most intriguing prospect at Wednesday's workout was Qi, simply because of his sheer length.

The 20-year-old center is one of the most recognizable figures in China, and that's not surprising considering the fact that his height causes him to stand out in a crowd. He measured in as the tallest player at the NBA Combine last weekend, standing at 7-foot-2 1/4 in sneakers. His wingspan was also the longest at 7-foot-7 3/4.

That length, coupled with his soft touch and shot-blocking ability, is why he's been on Boston's radar for a while.

"I went to China and saw him play,” said Austin Ainge. “We’ve known about him for a couple of years. He’s probably the third- or fourth-most recognized name in Chinese basketball, so he’s a known commodity, but it was great to have him in today to workout."

Qi’s verbal communication skills may be an obstacle at first, seeing as his English is limited, but Ainge said he let his skills do the talking Wednesday afternoon.

"I compare him to when I took Spanish 1 in junior high – kind of that level of English," said Ainge. "But he knew basketball stuff really easily and picked it up quickly."

Pair of Local Sightings

If you pay any attention to local high school basketball, then you may be familiar with two of the names on the above list. Layman enjoyed a successful prep career at King Philip Regional High School in his hometown of Wrentham, while Abu, a Boston native, played his first two prep seasons at Marblehead High.

Both players grew up as avid fans of the Celtics, meaning this workout marked a monumental event in their young lives.

"It’s definitely kind of surreal at first," said Layman, who played four strong seasons for the Terrapins. "I grew up watching these guys at practice when I played on the [Boston Amateur Basketball Club] in this gym, so now it’s kind of cool to be back here for something different.”

Abu grew up right in the city, just a few miles from TD Garden.

"It’s a dream," Abu said with a grin, while peering out from below the brim of his Boston Red Sox hat. "I watched Paul Pierce play every day. We had Antoine Walker, all those guys… It’s fantastic that me, a kid from the city, has the opportunity to come out here and showcase my abilities and possibly even play for the Celtics one day."

It also helps that the Ainge family is very familiar with Abu's career, given that he played high school hoops with Danny's son Crew during his final two prep seasons at Kimball Union in New Hampshire

"He played on my little brother’s high school team, so I’ve seen him play a lot,” said Austin Ainge. “He’s a great kid, he’s really athletic. He’s still a little raw skill-wise, but he’s made improvements on his body and his game in his two years at NC State."

Danny's Impactful Presence on the Hardwood

It's somewhat unusual to see NBA head coaches on the court during pre-Draft workouts. It's even stranger to see a general manager on the floor with the prospects. For Danny Ainge, however, that's all part of the process, as he likes to be involved with the NBA hopefuls by giving them guidance throughout the sessions.

"He likes to interact with them a little bit, try to get a feel for them," said Austin Ainge.

That's something that apparently rubs prospects the right way, as a number of them commended Ainge's hands-on approach.

"He’s very active," Brogdon observed after the second session. "He’s obviously very into it, very invested in the process, invested in the workouts, invested in who they draft, and I think that’s why this organization is so successful."

Added Abu, "Some GMs will sit there and watch, let you make mistakes, kind of just watch you go. But he was very avid in teaching us, giving us learning points. He was on the court with us; I don’t think he sat down. So that’s the type of guy you need to run your organization."

That's a good notion to be aware of as the C's make their way through the early stages of pre-Draft workouts. Having a hands-on GM, especially one with extensive NBA playing and coaching experience and championship success, is certainly a drawing point for young prospects.


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