Ainge remaining steadfast on drafting Tatum when others in league circles and analysts felt Fultz was well-deserving of the top selection, and it proved to be one of the biggest decisions of Ainge’s tenure in Boston. The Los Angeles Lakers also helped the rival Celtics by selecting UCLA product Lonzo Ball instead of Tatum, a player LA was fixated on throughout the draft process. Ainge stated confidently that Boston’s would-be pick at No. 1 overall would be there at No. 3. He was right.
But what if that NBA draft went differently for the Celtics?
Not only is it fair to think Ainge would be remembered much differently if he gifted Tatum to Philadelphia because of his greed for another draft pick, but it’s also fair to believe the level of sustained success since that night would not be the same. After all, Tatum is not only far and away the most talented player out of that three-player group including Fultz and Ball, he’s one of the most talented in the NBA. In his first six seasons in the league, Tatum has been named an NBA All-Star four times and was selected to two All-NBA teams. He also was named the Eastern Conference finals MVP as he helped Boston to the 2021-22 NBA Finals and was named the MVP of the 2023 NBA All-Star Game after setting a scoring record.
He’s a legitimate budding superstar amid the 2022-23 campaign, and should he soon help the Celtics claim the long-awaited Banner 18, he’ll be well-deserving of that superstar distinction.
Meanwhile, Fultz lasted just two seasons in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Orlando Magic in Feb. 2019. Injuries have continued to hinder his potential as he’s played just 139 games for the Magic in three-plus seasons. Similarly, Ball lasted an identical two seasons in LA before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal that netted the Lakers star center Anthony Davis. Ball has played for three teams in his first five seasons, far from the ideal career path of a recent No. 2 pick.
While everything after landing Tatum probably is now seen as gravy, it’s also worth looking back on how Philadelphia’s future first-rounder played out. Boston selected Langford No. 14 overall in 2019 after protections pushed it from 2018 to 2019. Admittedly, Langford was an afterthought during his two-plus seasons in green, though that was in large part because he was behind wings like Jaylen Brown and Tatum. What Langford later became for the Celtics, however, remains notable.
Brad Stevens acquired Derrick White for Langford and other assets prior to the 2022 NBA trade deadline. Since his arrival, White has since become of one Boston’s key depth pieces and he even was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week when he saw more time due to backcourt injuries. White has been a welcome addition in his first 90 or so games in Boston, and could serve as a crucial depth piece on a championship team himself.
And to think, the Celtics were able to put themselves in an incredibly favorable position because of that 2017 NBA Draft and the ensuing dealings that root back to it.