Stevens, Ainge Enthralled by Tatum’s Potential

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BOSTON – Brad Stevens gazed intently across the Celtics’ locker room Thursday evening, his eyes locked on a flat-screen TV that was broadcasting the NBA Draft.

Boston’s head coach, sitting among roughly two dozen of his equally-eager colleagues, watched as NBA commissioner Adam Silver strode toward a podium stationed 215 miles away at the Draft’s host site in Brooklyn.

In his hand, Silver held a card. It contained the name of the No. 3 overall pick – the first, and most substantial, selection that the Celtics would be making Thursday night.

The commissioner stepped up to the podium’s microphone, glanced out at the Barclays Center audience, compiled of draft hopefuls, fans and media members, and announced, “With the third pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select… Jayson Tatum, from Duke University.”

Back inside the core of TD Garden, Stevens rose from his seat and slowly walked toward the TV as ESPN began displaying Tatum’s college highlights, all of which the coach had surely seen countless times before. Stevens eventually stopped less than four feet from the enormous screen – close enough so that one could watch the reflection of Tatum’s reel in the whites of his eyes – and smiled in admiration at his newest pupil.

For several moments, Stevens did not say a word. He had completely cut himself off from the buzzing conversations that were taking place behind him as he stood grinning with his lips slightly ajar, occasionally nodding with approval.

Finally, Stevens blinked out of his trance as the reel faded out.

“OK,” he stated to no one in particular. “Here we go.”

Stevens, along with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and the rest of the Celtics basketball ops staff, have become enamored by Tatum’s craft over the last several months. Clearly, observing the abilities of the talented wing has yet to get old.

“He’s a really skilled player, a really talented scorer,” Stevens later told the media. “He’s a great kid, has great work ethic. We’re excited to have him aboard.”

Later in the Draft, the Celtics welcomed aboard Southern Methodist forward Semi Ojeleye (37th overall), Arizona guard Kadeem Allen (53rd overall) and Cal-Berkeley guard Jabari Bird (56th overall).

Tatum, at No. 3, of course was the premier haul of the draft for Boston. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound St. Louis native was the star of the Duke men’s basketball this past winter and spring. During his lone collegiate season, he averaged 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game, all while leading the Blue Devils to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Prior to his college days, Tatum was regarded as one of the top high school players in the nation. He earned Gatorade National Player of the Year honors during his senior season at Chaminade College Prep in Creve Coeur, Missouri after averaging 29.6 PPG and 9.1 RPG, all while guiding his team to a Class 5A state title.

The previous three GNPOY winners – Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins – all ended up being selected No. 1 overall in their respective NBA Draft classes. Tatum likely would have continued that trend had it not been for a blockbuster trade that occurred three days ahead of the Draft.

The Celtics originally owned the No. 1 overall pick (acquired from Brooklyn in 2013), but they were confident that Tatum would be available at No. 3, so they decided to trade down. On Monday, Boston dealt the No. 1 pick to Philadelphia in exchange for the No. 3 pick. The C’s will also receive either the Lakers’ 2018 first-round pick (if it falls between 2 and 5) or the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick, both of which Philadelphia had previously acquired via trades.

“We would have picked [Tatum] with the first pick,” Ainge confirmed shortly after midnight, while the Draft was near the tail end of the second round. “We like his size and length, his rebounding, his shooting, his intelligence, his character. There’s a lot to like about Jayson. He’s going to be a terrific player.”

Above all, Tatum is incredibly versatile. That quality is what excites Stevens more than any other.

“A couple years ago, I talked about how we were thin on guys that could play a number of different positions, when you talk about 2-3-4,” said Stevens. “Now we’ve got a lot of position-less players that can dribble, pass, and shoot.”

Moments after being drafted, Tatum expressed how anxious he is to join the rest of Boston’s versatile core, which is fresh off of a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I’m extremely excited to be joining such a great, tremendous franchise like the Celtics,” Tatum said in an interview with CSNNE. “They’re a great team, they were the No. 1 seed in the East last year, and I just think with so many great veterans and great players like Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, [Jae] Crowder, [Avery] Bradley, there’s so much I can learn from those guys.”

At just 19 years old, Tatum still has a lot of growth ahead of him. That being said, he has prodigious potential and very well could be a major link in Boston’s pursuit of Banner 18.

Perhaps that’s what Stevens was envisioning as he stood by the flat-screen TV Thursday night, watching Tatum’s awe-inspiring highlight reel.

Now, all that’s left to do is wait and see how it all plays out.

In the words of Stevens, “Here we go.”