Everyone around the NBA knew that the Boston Celtics needed help in the front court, whether Kevin Garnett decides to return or not. Thursday night they got some by selecting Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger and Syracuse center Fab Melo with the 21st and 22nd picks in the 2012 NBA draft. The Celtics have been undermanned in the front court for two years now. In 2011 Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal couldn't stay healthy. In 2012 every big on the roster seemed to get hurt, leaving Garnett as Boston's only legitimate interior presence. The Celtics have been getting hammer on the inside for too long, and Celtic GM Danny Ainge took steps to address it in the draft by grabbing Sullinger and Melo. Both were projected to be lottery picks at one point, but both slipped to the 20s due to off the court issues. Assuming those issues can be ironed out the Celtics may have just taken a big step forward. They said that they didn't draft for need, but there can be no denying that the Celtics needed more players like Sullinger and Melo.
Sullinger would likely have been a top five pick in in the 2011 draft had he elected to declare after his freshman year at Ohio State. Instead he returned to school for his sophomore season where he battled back injuries all year long. He still managed to lead the Buckeyes to a spot in the Final Four, but NBA doctors red flagged him due to his back issues, scaring many teams away from the man with an NBA ready game. The Celtics admitted that they had some minor concerns about Sullinger's back, but the opportunity to select a top 10 talent at a position of need at number 21 was just too good to pass up. "Doc Rivers played for 13 seasons with a herniated disc," said Ainge. "It may be something that requires surgery. It may not, we'll see." The back could become an issue if it were to become a chronic condition, but it didn't exactly slow Sullinger down last year, when he averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, so assuming that it will slow him down in the NBA may not be wise.
If he can stay healthy Sullinger is a steal at 21. With his 6'9" 265 pound frame he might be a touch on the small side for an NBA power forward, but he is the type of bruising low post player that the Celtics haven't had in a while. He also has one of the more polished offensive games you will ever see out of a college player. He can score with his left and his right hand, which is a rarity even in the pros, and he can even put the ball on the floor and score in face up situations. He is also a beast on the boards, an area where the Celtics have been crushed in recent years. Again, he is not overly large and isn't a particularly impressive athlete. However he creates a lot of space with his large frame, and has a legitimate nose for the ball that led to him averaging 9.7 rebounds per game over his two years in Ohio. He doesn't play above the rim, but his game is NBA ready right now, and he clearly knows how to produce. Additionally, everyone around the league says that Sullinger is a workaholic who will simply use sliding in the draft as motivation. Assuming that he can stay healthy, the Celtics may have just made a major upgrade to their front court.
The Melo pick will probably be much more of a project. Growing up in Brazil playing soccer, Melo is still very new to the sport of Basketball. Like Sullinger, he too was projected as a lottery pick at one point, but Melo's academic struggles at Syracuse led to him eventually being ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, bringing up major questions about his work ethic which scared a lot of teams off. He has been very forthcoming about his issues, saying that he was simply unable to keep up with the course work because he only started speaking English four years ago. However, one would still have expected him to do whatever he had to to be out on the court. The work ethic question is a major red flag as Melo is a project and it will take a lot of dedication on his part to realize his potential. However the Celtics believe they have already seen major improvements in Melo's game, and his potential is limitless.
Apart from his raw size and athleticism – Melo stands at 7 feet with a 7'2" wingspan and almost impossible leaping ability – there is a lot to like about Melo's game. He doesn't do much on the offensive end other than converting at the rim either in transition or in the half court off of cuts, but his defense is absolutely top notch. He averaged 2.9 blocked shots per game for the Orange last season before being declared ineligible, and is one of those rare players who can dictate the flow of a game from under the basket. Some brought up 2003 first round pick Kendrick Perkins as a comparison – selected at 27th overall, Perk clearly wasn't NBA ready at the time, but had the tough defensive minded approach that the Celtics liked, and eventually turned into one of the best low post defenders in the game. Yet a more accurate comparison might be Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka – another foreign player who started his basketball career comparatively late, but had all the tools and gradually improved into one of the better power forwards in basketball. Melo has all the tools as well. He probably has even better shot blocking capabilities that Ibaka, who led the league in shot blocks last year, and is even working on the 15 foot jump shot that Ibaka showcased in the Western Conference Finals. Melo has already made significant improvements just from his Freshman to his Sophomore year. He always has his hands up waiting for the ball, which is key for any player who hopes to play with Rajon Rondo who will throw you the ball whether you're ready or not. If he actually can develop a midrange jumper, and combine that with his obvious defensive talents and ability to run the floor, then the Celtics may have found Rondo the perfect running mate at the center position. He's still awfully raw, but he has already shown great improvements for a guy who is still fairly new to the sport. If that trend can continue, a few years from now people will be wondering how the Celtics managed to get such a monster so late in the draft.
The Celtics really swung for the fences here. They obviously needed more size after running out of bigs two years in a row, so they took two big bodies with huge amounts of potential. However both those bodies come with serious red flags surrounding them. If things go according to plan neither should be an issue, and Sullinger and Melo should really be able to help this team now and in the future, but the questions are there. The Celtics have had good luck in recent years selecting players who slipped on draft night. They got Rajon Rondo at 21 on 2006 and Avery Bradley at 19 in 2010, so if history is any indication, the Celtics just got two good players at a spot where they needed to get better. They have the size, and you can't teach size, and they have a lot of other qualities to boot. There are question marks, as there always are with rookies, however on talent alone this was an excellent draft. The Celtics added probably the two best players available and did it at positions where they needed to improve. Hard to argue with that.
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