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What’s in the cards in Vegas?

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 16, 2012
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LAS VEGAS – After a rather uneven week at the Orlando Summer League, Celtics first-round draft pick Fab Melo has five more games to show the team’s brass his progress before training camp.

The Celtics begin the Las Vegas portion of their summer league schedule Monday afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks, and already there are questions about whether Melo will contribute this season.

Of the team’s three draft picks, Jared Sullinger, also a first-rounder, has looked the most polished and ready for duty as a reserve forward. Second-rounder Kris Joseph has been the biggest surprise with his perimeter shooting and rebounding. Melo, however, was inconsistent in Orlando, his lack of conditioning a factor at times and also his limited knowledge of pick-and-roll defense.

At Syracuse, Melo simply stood in the middle of the Orange’s matchup zone, raised his arms high in the air, and then spun around to get rebounds. There is much more responsibility for a big man in the Celtics’ defense. Melo will need to cover smaller players on pick-and-rolls and also prevent the opposing center from flashing to the basket for layups.

So far, learning those concepts hasn’t come easy.

“Fab, this is only his sixth year of playing, but he’s getting better [learning] out of timeouts,” summer league coach Tyronn Lue said. “His conditioning, I guess at Syracuse they were playing zone the whole time so he would just stay in the middle of the lane. Here, there’s multiple things you have to do, so I think his wind and conditioning is a factor. But he’ll be OK.”

Melo, according to Lue, has been more than willing to learn and understands that the transition to the NBA could last beyond his rookie season. He is still a few months from hearing his first expletive from Kevin Garnett, who told Melo in a text message he was looking forward to tutoring him.

“It’s a professional life now, every day I come in here I learn a lot,” said Melo, who did not start playing competitively until the ninth grade. “I’m finally getting comfortable in the situation. I’m bringing my energy to practice. I think on the first days I was doing that, but now I’m getting comfortable. It’s been great.”

When asked the most difficult transition, Melo said, “I am used to sitting inside on the paint and when somebody goes to set a screen, I need to come up. I didn’t do that at Syracuse. I just need to get used to that. It will take a little bit of time. I will be all right. I played two years of zone. I think it’s a good thing of coach telling me all the time. I am picking it up. I am learning.”

While the Orlando Summer League was limited to coaches, players, media, and team executives, the Las Vegas games are open to fans, with many current players strolling in to catch their younger brethren make their NBA debuts. Sullinger attended games Saturday at Cox Pavilion and was stopped outside by several fans and former teammates looking to catch up.

He learned quickly that this wasn’t Orlando, and he is looking forward to playing in front of a curious audience.

“Everybody is trying to come out and show they can play,” said Sullinger, who was named to the second Orlando Summer League team, averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds. “You got guys that are trying to work their way back in the league and they’re playing as hard as they can to do it, so it looks like a very intense league. I’m always excited to play basketball.”

Lue said he planned to talk to his players about the different atmosphere in Las Vegas.

“Just continue to play the same way,” he said. “We don’t want to get stuck. We don’t want guys to try to do it on their own. We got a good group of guys and hopefully they will be fine.”

Lue said he was proud of the team after its 4-1 record last week.

“I took that from Orlando, having guys like Jared and Fab coming in, I thought the guys jelled really well,” Lue said. “I thought we played together, guys cheered for each other. We played hard. It’s been great.”

Center Sean Williams sprained his ankle in practice Sunday but should be able to play here.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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