For Celtics, Jayson Tatum pick can go wrong more ways than it can go right

With the No. 3 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics selected Jayson Tatum, who had been talked about as perhaps the most polished scorer in the draft. Tatum figures to be good right away, and could well end up being the best player in this draft — a distinction that could realistically belong to any one of six or seven players a few years from now. 

So the Celtics made a nice pick. 

They got a potentially great player. 

Still, on some level, Celtics fans are going to long remember this 2017 draft not for the player they got, but rather, for the two players they didn’t get. That would be Markelle Fultz, who went No. 1 to the Philadelphia 76ers after the Celtics traded that pick, and Jimmy Butler, who was reportedly offered to Boston in exchange for the third pick.

Through that lens, the Tatum pick becomes a lot more controversial. Being that the Celtics, for nothing more than forgoing the right to draft Tatum, could have had either Fultz or Butler simple as that, there is only one way this works out in Boston’s favor: Tatum has to become a better player than Fultz, who has been most experts’ top-rated prospect for the past year, and Butler, a top-15 player right now. Anything short of that, and this draft will go down as a huge missed opportunity. 

For some people, the difference between Fultz and Tatum is negligible, so you could argue that move was as big a gamble for the Sixers as it was for Boston. But to have passed up Butler? A 27-year-old star just entering the prime of his career with two years remaining on his contract? That’s a lot for Tatum, who Ainge says he would’ve taken at No. 1, to live up to. 

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It’s not really a knock on Tatum, by the way, to wonder whether he’ll ever be as good as Butler. Go back through any single draft and count how many guys have turned into an All-NBA player and three-time All-Defensive team member. Butler is a star. One of the best two-way players in the NBA. Ainge has consistently taken the long view, priorotizing young assets at every turn, which is likely part of the reason he was reportedly engaged in trade talks for Kristaps Porzingis. All things being equal, he has shown time and again that he will not play the absolutely win-now card, but rather err on the side of players who have more ahead of them than behind them. 

But again, Butler is only 27. He has two years left on his deal. He would help you win now, yes, but also still be in his prime for the next wave of your team’s evolution, perhaps when the Warriors start to fall off a bit or LeBron James goes elsewhere. Speaking of that, there appears to be at least a slight possibility that James will leave Cleveland after next season, and if that happens, wouldn’t Boston want to be ready to step in right away with a championship team? Even if you think Tatum might become better than Butler five years from now, by that time Isaiah Thomas will be nearing 35 years old. Al Horford is already 31. 

You can say that after Thomas and Horford run their course, this this will be the time for all these picks to come to fruition, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown and now Tatum, but again, there is no guarantee any of them are going to turn into what Butler IS right now. And there is certainly no guarantee that collectively they’ll add up to a Celtics team that is any better than the one that just earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. There is such a thing as looking so far ahead that you miss what’s right in front of you. 

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All of this said, Ainge deserves the benefit of the doubt. The way he has rebuilt this team for the future, while also keeping it in the upper echelon of the NBA’s hierarchy in the present, has been a master class. He doesn’t do things because people think that’s what he should do. He’s a gut player, and it has worked out pretty well so far. 

Tatum has a chance to be great. His mid-post game is really fluid, and he can step out and make jumpers like a guard. He’s a super-skilled three and could develop into a dangerous stretch four. None of this is a knock on him. The simple truth is that very few draft picks turn into superstars. Maybe Fultz will become one. Maybe Tatum will, too. With Jimmy Butler, you know what you have. The Celtics just made a huge bet that Jayson Tatum is going to become something even better. 

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