WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) – Al Jefferson showed that an NBA team can get lucky if a player of his caliber slips lower in the draft than expected. The Boston Celtics hope they can be that fortunate again.

They took the Mississippi high schooler with the 15th pick in last year’s draft and he was a pleasant surprise by averaging 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game.

The Celtics also got solid rookie seasons from their other two first-rounders, point guard Delonte West with the 24th choice and shooting guard Tony Allen with the 25th. Even second-rounder Justin Reed, a forward taken with the 40th selection, impressed Danny Ainge, the Celtics executive vice president for basketball operations.

The Celtics, with the 18th, 50th and 53rd picks this year, may not match that in Tuesday night’s draft, but Ainge said it is deep in talent and should provide the team with a player who can contribute as a rookie.

“Last year is last year,” he said. “I’m confident if we stay with the status quo, meaning we just keep our 18th pick, that we’ll come away with a good player.”

Ainge didn’t rule out trading the pick to move into one of the top four spots, an unlikely scenario. He also could package that pick with a current member of the roster to trade for a veteran.

If he keeps it, he said he has no preference for which position he’d prefer the draftee to play. With choices before the Celtics pick, it’s difficult to be certain who will be available when they choose.

And he’s not getting great guidance from agents, who have held players out of workouts with some teams because they expect those players to be taken before that team picks.

“I think I had (it) that 22 players are going in the top 15, according to their agents,” Ainge said. “And so we’re drafting at 18. We didn’t get a lot of the players (to workouts) that possibly could slide but were assured that they won’t.”

He said Jefferson, a forward, worked out once for the Celtics last year but didn’t attend a second workout the team requested because the player was expected to be taken before Boston’s 15th pick.

“That was the word we got from Al,” Ainge said.

Besides, one-on-one or two-on-two workouts that teams hold are “not a good test” of how a player performs as part of a team, he said.

West made enough of an impression as a rookie for Ainge to say he would be comfortable with West or Marcus Banks, a first-round draft pick in 2003, as the starting point guard next season. Gary Payton is not expected to return, and Ainge would like another veteran point guard who doesn’t necessarily have to start.

In games Payton missed last season, “Marcus and Delonte played together some pretty significant minutes and looked very good to me, so I have a great deal of confidence in those guys,” Ainge said.

The team’s biggest need is playing smarter basketball, he said. In losing to Indiana in the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics frequently failed to make the proper pass or control their emotions.

“We have some talented players,” Ainge said. “Our team basketball IQ needs to improve.”

Some of that can be attributed to inexperience, since six of the 12 players on last season’s playoff roster were in their first or second NBA seasons.

Ainge said he’s seen tape of more than 100 players and watched about 20 complete games of some players more likely to be available when the Celtics choose in the first round.

“It’s a competition, so it’s fun, but it’s definitely work. It’s a lot of work,” Ainge said. “A lot of video tape and a lot of phone calls.”

AP-ES-06-27-05 2006EDT

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