BOSTON — Jared Sullinger just kept sliding. Pick after pick went by, and the onetime top-five projected pick gradually dropped out of the top 10, then out of the lottery, and then into the 20s of the NBA draft on Thursday.
The Celtics were there with pick No. 21, eagerly waiting to scoop up the proven power forward from Ohio State.
The medical red flag issued by the NBA two weeks ago over Sullinger’s bad back clearly was a deterrent for several teams, but the Celtics were confident they had performed their due diligence. Their team doctors had examined Sullinger at the pre-draft combine in Chicago and found only “minor concerns,” not nearly enough to convince them to avoid the otherwise inarguably NBA-ready big man.
“Our doctors and our basketball staff determined that it was worth what we considered to be a slight risk,” said Ryan McDonough, the Celtics’ assistant general manager.
If not for the medical issues, the Celtics and just about everyone else believed Sullinger would have been a lottery pick. He was one of the best rebounders in the draft, and in a deep class of power forwards he may bring the best combination of post-up and face-up offense along with textbook passing out of the post. Knocks against Sullinger include his relative lack of athleticism, generous 6-foot-9 height listing and struggles defending against pick-and-rolls.
Yet his back was what worried teams most. Sullinger, his father, his college coach and his agent all tried to allay those concerns by pointing out Sullinger’s productive college career, but the red flag may have helped make up several teams’ minds. The last player to be red-flagged, Pitt’s DeJuan Blair, became a productive but unspectacular NBA player.
After the pick was made, Celtics coach Doc Rivers recounted watching Sullinger haul in 30 rebounds in an AAU game against Rivers’ son Austin. Rivers, who made an All-Star team and played 76 games or more in a season seven times in his 13-year career despite back pain, said he was encouraged that although the NBA red-flagged Sullinger, none of the Celtics’ own doctors did.
“Sometimes when medical reports and things like that come out, you sit there and think, wow, people may pass on this guy,” said Rivers, who recalled running into Sullinger’s parents at a Starbucks during the Final Four in April. “I’m hoping the projections of him before the season are right, that he was a top 10 or lottery pick, and that the things that went on the last three weeks are wrong. I feel we got a pretty good pick.”
The pick was not completely without risk, which McDonough and Rivers admitted. It is uncertain if Sullinger will compete in summer leagues or if he will take time off to rest his back. During the season head athletic trainer Ed Lacerte, who was recognized as the best in his profession last season, will also have another regular patient to monitor and treat as needed.
Those risks, at least from the Celtics’ viewpoint, are manageable. If the Celtics are right, they snatched up a player who otherwise had no business still being available with the 21st pick.
Thumbnail photo via Facebook/Jared Sullinger