Celtics

‘A poor man’s Russell Westbrook’: What, really, is Juhann Begarin’s NBA ceiling?

David Kahn, president of Begarin's French team, sees a bright future for the Celtics' draft pick.

The Boston Celtics' Juhann Begarin shoots against the Sacramento Kings during the first half of the NBA summer league championship basketball game Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Las Vegas. AP

Early last summer, Juhann Begarin was a name few Celtics fans had heard of. Then on a Thursday night in late July, “Juhann Begarin” was a name etched in Celtics history, the forever answer to a trivia question: Who was Brad Stevens’s first-ever draft pick?

Many years down the road, the difficulty of that trivia will depend on what becomes of the 19-year-old from Guadeloupe. As the 45th overall pick, the odds aren’t great, but there are always exceptions in the NBA Draft. Lou Williams was the 45th overall pick. So was Goran Dragic. The Grizzlies stole Dillon Brooks at 45.

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Is Begarin an exception?

The Celtics might like that. Look at the last decade of NBA champions: The Spurs had Manu Ginobili. The Warriors had Draymond Green. The Bucks had Khris Middleton. The Raptors had Fred VanVleet (although he was undrafted). Unless you have LeBron in his prime, it helps to hit it big in the second round. Unless you want to count Semi Ojeleye, it’s been a while since the Celtics even hit it little in the second round. Time will tell if Begarin spells the drought, but in the meantime, this month in Paris, Boston’s latest second round pick kicks off his first year in France’s top division. 

‘He really wants this.’

Begarin plays for a team called Paris Basketball. In only its fourth season, the club is co-owned and operated by President David Kahn. Yes, that David Kahn. The former NBA GM who ran the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-13. Five years later, he and business partner Eric Schwartz purchased a struggling second division team in the south of France. They promptly moved said team to Paris, with a dream to build a basketball powerhouse in one of the world’s greatest cities.

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“Juhann wants to be great,” says Kahn, who’s watched Begarin develop for two seasons, from 17-year-old from a tiny island into a bonafide NBA draft pick. “Last year, he’d routinely spend two hours in the gym, working with a private coach, after we practiced maybe once or twice a day. There’s a mentality there. He really wants this.”

The Celtics learned that this summer, shortly after the draft, when Begarin reached out to Stevens about playing in Summer League. It wasn’t part of Boston’s initial plan, but Begarin wanted to show what he could do. Turned out, at 6-foot-5 with a seven-foot wingspan, Begarin could do some things. He was more than worthy and surprisingly ready for the stage – excelling on defense, attacking the rim, even hitting a few jump shots. It was an inspiring yet equally dangerous glimpse, just enough for a mind to wander and wonder, if the stars align, and Juhann Begarin lives his best life, what’s the ceiling?

“A poor man’s Russell Westbrook,” says Kahn. “I’m a UCLA fan, so I saw Russell play as a freshman. And Juhann’s ahead of Russell Westbrook at this stage.”

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Kahn understands how hard it is to project potential onto the NBA stage. He’s not bestowing unhealthy expectations on the 19-years-old’s shoulders.

“I’m not saying he’ll be Russell Westbrook,” Kahn reiterates. “But I’m telling you that in terms of body, and also the weaknesses. Juhann’s shot needs to keep improving. But he can guard NBA players tomorrow.”

What it looks like so far

This will be Begarin and Paris Basketball’s first season in France’s top division, thanks in large part to Ryan Boatright.

New England sports fans remember Boatright as the starting guard (alongside Shabazz Napier) on UConn’s 2014 National Championship team. He landed in Paris last spring via Lithuania (via Russia, Slovenia, China and more). It was a leap of faith for the veteran to join a middling second-division French squad, but Boatright loved Paris and believed in the mission. He also quickly came to believe in the young wingman by his side.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to practice, and I needed Juhann to get better quickly in order for us to win,” Boatright said. “And it worked. That’s what I like most about Juhann. He listens and applies things you teach him right away.”

With Boatright and Begarin leading the way, Paris Basketball finished last season winning 10 of 11 games, including their last seven in a row to clinch an unlikely promotion to Pro A. It was a remarkable accomplishment for a club in its third season.

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For the year, Begarin averaged 11.9 points, while shooting 37 percent from three. He was Coach Jean-Christophe Prat’s most dynamic defender.

“We switch him from one to four,” says Prat. “We make sure Juhann is guarding the best player in front of us. If it’s a point guard, it’s a point guard. If it’s a two-man, it’s a two man. If they try to post him up? We give no help. No nothing.”

More of that is in store for this season, although Begarin has a little more help. Most notably, a new addition: 6-foot-9 forward Kyle O’Quinn.

O’Quinn, himself, is an exception. The 49th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, he played eight NBA seasons, earning eight figures along the way. He knows what it takes to make it as a late second round pick, and he’s already in Begarin’s ear.

“You might be a second-round pick, but there’s a reason you were a second-round pick and not an undrafted player,” O’Quinn says. “The team knows what you do. They scouted you. They used their pick on you. You have to fulfill that role.”

He’s known Begarin for a short time, but the first impression is real.

“He’s a pro,” O’Quinn says. “He looks ready for the big stage, and I know from experience.”

Did the Celtics unearth a gem?

Experience tells Celtics fans to pump the brakes on Begarin. Names like Ante Zizic, Guerschon Yabusele and Semih Erden are reminders of the oceans between international potential and sustained NBA relevancy. Then again if there was ever a year for international talent to slip through the cracks…

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“Because of COVID, the number of NBA teams that came over to scout players diminished dramatically,” Kahn says. “Normally, every GM sets up a long trip right after the trade deadline, and you might come back again a second time during the planning for the draft. There just wasn’t the same traffic last year.”

And let’s be honest, Begarin doesn’t need to be Ginobili or Draymond Green. Forget a future Hall of Famer, the next Leon Powe or Glen Davis would do just fine. How about a young guy on a reasonable contract, with a competitive spirit, who doesn’t mind doing the little things. When talking about Begarin, his current coach describes that very guy.

“Maybe I’ll be wrong, but I don’t think Juhann will average 25 points in the NBA,” says coach Prat. “But I can easily see him having five assists, seven rebounds, three steals, maybe 10 points. We work on his versatility a lot and it will help him in the future.”

What will become of Juhann Begarin?

For now, we can only sit back and let time tell the story. No doubt the Celtics will be watching. They already made one trip to Paris this fall, and one imagines it won’t be their last.

One imagines a night in the distant future, a bunch of Celtics fans sitting at a bar, throwing around trivia.

“OK, I got one,” says one guy. “Who was Brad Stevens’s first draft pick?”

“That’s easy,” says everyone else, assuming impeccable French accents. “Zjoo-on Beh-gah-RON.”

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