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Ainge keeps rival teams and fans guessing about No. 3 pick plan

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Ainge very confident in No. 3 pick (0:20)

Celtics president Danny Ainge believes that trading with the 76ers was a "great opportunity" and says that there's a good chance they'll end up with the same player they would have taken at No. 1. (0:20)

What do you think Danny's going to do?

This is how most conversations about the Boston Celtics have started this week. It doesn't matter if it's two fans in a bar or league executives on a call; seemingly everyone is wondering what Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will do with the No. 3 pick in Thursday's NBA draft.

No one seems to know for certain, and Ainge wouldn't want it any other way.

Ainge has to love that the rest of the league has no idea which way he's leaning. Having already stunned many by trading down from the top spot, Ainge has offered only enough (mis?)information to keep heads spinning.

During a conference call Monday, Ainge said he believes the Celtics can get the same person at No. 3 that they would have picked at No. 1. So, Ainge was asked, are you keeping the pick? He quickly clarified that a secondary move remained a possibility. OK, but the Celtics had locked in on a player should they elect to use the No. 3 selection, right? Ainge then suggested there were multiple players the team liked and the front office had not committed to a player yet.

Combine all that with the NBA tornado of pre-draft activity that ripped through Tuesday and, given how the Celtics are instantly attached to every big-name player who dances through the Twitter rumor mill, it's felt as if the Celtics could go in 20 different directions on Thursday night.

Some of the top talent evaluators in the league believe Kansas' Josh Jackson has the potential to be the best player in this draft, which supports Ainge's decision to move down. As one general manager told ESPN's Chad Ford last week, Jackson is an Ainge-type player with his hard-nosed style and penchant for defense. Few seem to think the Celtics will be discouraged that Jackson did not make an effort to work out for Boston this week. (His suggestion Wednesday that it was simply "too late" to visit the past few days is laughable, however.)

There are others who believe that Duke's Jayson Tatum is a safer choice, a player with the scoring ability that Boston desperately needs and potentially an impact defender with his length. That Tatum has compared his game to that of Paul Pierce is enough for most Boston fans to be content if this is the pick.

Another group of observers wondered out loud whether Florida Sate's Jonathan Isaac, with his freakish measurements -- 6-foot-11 height, 7-1 wingspan -- and versatility might provide a skill set that Boston sorely lacks, particularly in a frontcourt in which Al Horford is the only big man currently on a guaranteed deal. Isaac is also an advanced-stats darling who projects well because of his defensive rebounding and shot-blocking talents.

It seems a solid bet that the Celtics will end up with one of the three J's, but there's always a wild-card scenario. There have been steady whispers about other prospects, including North Carolina State point guard Dennis Smith Jr. The Boston Herald cited a league executive Wednesday who suggested that the Celtics might be motivated to move back to land Smith.

In early January, Ainge and assistant general manager Mike Zarren elected to skip a game from the visiting Washington Wizards to get an up-close look at Smith against Boston College. ESPN cameras showed Ainge watching Smith again during the ACC tournament. Smith also recently visited for a pre-draft workout.

These were likely instances of due diligence by Boston, but maybe they are clues?

The lingering uncertainty about what Boston might do seemingly makes the Celtics' pick more valuable. If you're a rival team coveting a player who might be available at 3, maybe you're more inclined to splurge before Boston goes on the clock.

With Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball expected to be the top two selections, the draft essentially starts with the Celtics. The slow march to the No. 3 pick could play out like an eBay auction. Teams with interest in moving up can certainly wait to see whether their initial bids are enough to sway Boston, but what if they find that "Buy It Now" button sitting right there?

The Celtics could ultimately be content to let the auction lapse if no one meets their reserve price. Short of failing to actually make a selection, nothing Ainge does on Thursday night would be all that surprising.

Whatever move Ainge makes will be under the microscope moving forward. While there would have been absolute outrage if Ainge simply used the No. 1 pick to select, say, someone like Jackson or Tatum, the decision to pass on Fultz (and Ball, too, to some degree) will be scrutinized based on how those players develop.

For his part, Ainge is embracing the scrutiny.

"We'll all be judged on [trades] like this," Ainge said. "And I'm not afraid of that."

Ainge has reason to be secure. The Celtics are coming off a 53-win season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. Armed with a ridiculous treasure trove of draft picks, including as many as seven first-round picks over the next four drafts, there's an opportunity for Boston to remain competitive while still laying the foundation for a team that might have legitimate title aspirations.

For that to happen, Boston has to hit on some of these recent draft picks. Early returns on 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown are encouraging, and 2014 No. 6 pick Marcus Smart is an elite defender whose game would be more celebrated if he developed consistency with his jump shot.

ESPN Stats & Info crunched the numbers on Boston's draft success -- and you'll hear it repeated often on Thursday -- that the Celtics haven't drafted an All-Star in 15 years, the last being Joe Johnson, the 10th pick in the 2001 draft.

It should be noted that this list doesn't include players dealt to Boston as part of draft-night trades, such as four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo, who was the 21st pick in the 2006 draft but was selected by Phoenix at the behest of Boston.

Stats & Info also noted that, since 2012, only five teams have drafted an All-Star: New Orleans' Anthony Davis, Portland's Damian Lillard, Detroit's Andre Drummond, Golden State's Draymond Green and Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo (who the Celtics left on the board after moving up to grab Kelly Olynyk at No. 13 in 2013).

There's a case to be made that Boston might be better off moving the No. 3 pick for more established talent, maybe revisiting those trade-deadline pursuits of Jimmy Butler and Paul George.

So what do we think Danny's going to do? It might depend on how much he truly wants to gamble. Tatum seems like more of a sure bet; Jackson is a little more risky; and Isaac the big gamble with a high-reward payoff.

Rather than chase George or Butler, Boston might be better served to snag another young talent this year and press on with the core it has (remember, Boston can create max space to chase a big-time free agent this summer). The Celtics want to keep enough ammunition to pounce when a sure-fire top-10 player becomes available.

In fact, that's maybe the only certainty we have with Danny Ainge: that he's still waiting for the right moment to go all-in. When that opportunity arrives, there won't be any guessing about what Ainge is trying to do.