Just over one week to go until the NBA Draft Lottery, which will also serve as the de facto beginning of the “Summer of the Celts.” NBA off-seasons don’t regularly warrant cheesy, loud, summer movie-type nicknames like that, but when considering the current plight of the Celtics, these next two to three months represent the most crucial stretch for the franchise in several years.
Next Tuesday, the ping pong balls will finally drop and the C’s and their fans will at last have the opportunity to stop speculating on where the team will actually pick first in next month’s draft. That spot, wherever in the lottery it winds up, is going to go a long way toward what further plans Danny Ainge has in store.
One school of thought that’s been swirling around both local and national hoop circles for months concerns whether or not Ainge will take the team’s lottery pick, along with its other first round selection, and package them with some hodgepodge of players in an attempt to land a big name, a la the Kevin Garnett deal in the summer of 2007 that ultimately led to a 17th championship not quite a year later.
This time around though, such a transaction is more likely just wishful thinking. And the biggest reason why is Jared Sullinger.
Sullinger, who slid from lottery lock in his early days at Ohio State right into the Celts’ collective lap at No. 21 overall in the 2012 draft thanks to a red-flagged back, is a very nice player who has shown distinct flashes of low post mastery in his 119 NBA games. He’s a wide-bodied load on the low block and in the paint, capable of using his ample backside to create enough space to both bull his way to the rim and grab bunches of rebounds, Charles Barkley style, while also possessing an array of fluid post moves along with quickness that belies his 280 pounds. By the looks of his game two years into his career, his ceiling appears to be that of a solid, NBA rotation power forward, especially if he has a true center/big man type playing next to him.
In the 2014 version of Ainge’s masterful summer of 2007 blockbuster with the Minnesota Timberwolves that landed Garnett in green, Sullinger plays the part of Al Jefferson, who served as the centerpiece of the package that went from Boston to Minneapolis. Like, Sullinger, Big Al was a first round pick tasked with patrolling the paint for the Celts potentially for years to come. And that’s pretty much where the similarities between the two players end.
Jefferson was drafted back before the NBA barred high schoolers from jumping past college directly to the pros. He was a 19-year-old kid when Ainge picked him 15th overall in 2004, and that, along with his size (6’10, 260 pounds) gave him more upside than Sullinger despite being far rawer and less polished upon arrival. And despite not playing much in his rookie year, earning about 15 minutes a night from then first-year head coach Doc Rivers, Jefferson found himself on the floor at a couple of very important times that season, not the least of which was an overtime win on the road in Game 6 of the Cs first round playoff series against the Pacers that spring (the Paul Pierce head bandage game), a performance that earned high praise from Rivers.
By the time the Garnett deal happened, Jefferson had played three seasons for the Celts, each better than the last. His final season in Boston was as lousy from a team perspective as this past one was (a 24-58 record and an 18-game losing streak in 2006-2007), but Big Al put up a sturdy 16 points and 11 rebounds a night while shooting 51 percent from the floor. He was a star in the making, so much so that legendary Celtics player, coach and broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn famously remarked that he didn’t want Big Al included in the Garnett deal.
Sullinger at this point in his career vs. Jefferson when he was traded simply can’t compare. The back issues that caused Sullinger’s draft night tumble crept up in his rookie year, limiting him to 45 games and costing him valuable time both in the playoffs and in practice, where he could have really used more time learning from Garnett. This past season, he showed significant improvement, averaging just over 13 points and eight rebounds per game while frequently having to play out of position thanks to the Celts lack of a true big man. But he started venturing out toward the three-point line after a little while and those trips toward the perimeter increased as the season wore on. He wound up attempting 208 shots from long range on the year but connected on just 56 of them, equaling a rather unseemly 27 percent.
Those are Josh Smith numbers, folks, and if you’re unaware of who Josh Smith is, all you really need to know is that you don’t want to hear your name mentioned in the same conversation as his, especially when the topic is shot selection.
One could make the case that given Sullinger’s size, trying to take his man away from the post from time to time makes sense. But his woeful shooting numbers from distance pretty much defeat the purpose. And herein lies another element of the comparison that doesn’t work in Sullinger’s favor. Jefferson has never had to worry about moving away from what he does best for matchup reasons. Without a true big man to play next to him, Sullinger always will.
In the early stages of the season, when Sullinger was putting up double-doubles on a nightly basis while only occasionally shooting the odd three-pointer, it was easy to get excited about where he was going as a player. But then the Kevin Love comparisons started, opposing teams started better recognizing his shortcomings against bigger counterparts and more ill-advised three-pointers started flying. Limitations to his game grew more apparent. And his potential value suffered as a result.
Whatever team winds up with Sullinger, whether it’s the Celtics or not, will have a player who is still growing and improving and should prove to be a vital building block provided he stays healthy. But he’s no Big Al, which is why if Ainge wants to produce another summer blockbuster, he’s going to need to cast some bigger stars.