Jared Sullinger has some medical issues. Perhaps you have heard about them. If you managed to get through any mention of the former Ohio State power forward without some mention of the worrisome disk in his back, be proud.
In the lead-up to Thursday's NBA draft, "medically red-flagged by the NBA" became Sullinger's unofficial middle name. The same occurred with Austin "Attitude Issues" Rivers, Andre "Non-Existent Motor" Drummond and Harrison "One-Time Second-Coming" Barnes. All those labels affected those players' draft positions to an extent, but none suffered as greatly as Sullinger, who toppled out of the lottery to be taken 21st overall by the Celtics.
The status of Sullinger's back is a legitimate concern. A herniated disk felled the mighty Dwight Howard at the end of this season, and if an injury can take down Superman, the son of Jor-El, then a similar injury surely could cause problems for the son of Satch. For an NBA front office, "back" is almost as terrifying a word as "knee." Look how far Quincy Miller and his surgically repaired anterior-cruciate ligament tumbled Thursday.
Yet of the Celtics' two first-round draft picks, Sullinger still represents the least risk. Fab Melo, whom the Celtics took one pick later, does not have the troublesome medical report Sullinger does, but the basketball-related doubts may raise even more red flags.
Provided he can stay healthy, Sullinger is almost universally considered a solid, starting-caliber power forward in the NBA for the next eight to 12 years. He rebounds like an animal, possesses an arsenal of offensive post moves rare for a big man in this day and age, and always makes the right pass out of a double-team. He is known to be a mature young man and a hard worker who overcomes his lack of length and lift to be a handful for opponents around the hoop. It is rare to find a player with that collection of skills in the 20s of any draft, and without the health concerns, Sullinger most likely would have been taken long before the Celtics were on the clock. At 20 years old, he is more than two years younger than Melo.
Melo, an athletic 7-foot center out of Syracuse, showed the potential to be a formidable defensive presence. Most centers are either shot-blockers or charge-takers, depending on their instincts and vertical leaps, but Melo is the rare big man who can do both. That may make it challenging for Melo to stay out of foul trouble — his willingness to both block shots and take charges presents twice as many opportunities for referees to call bang-bag plays one way or the other — but with the right instruction he could become the latest raw talent to develop into a reliable man in the middle, somewhat like Samuel Dalembert's growth over his 10 seasons.
Several times on Thursday, Doc Rivers mentioned that the Celtics had to "teach [Melo] how to work." Fitness should not be a problem, as Melo spent his childhood participating in the cardiovascular boot camp known as "soccer." But eligibility issues at Syracuse were taken as warnings of a potential lack of dedication.
"We have to teach him the Celtic way," Rivers said. "We have to teach him how to work and understanding how to play as a winner. There's a lot of work that has to be done, but I love starting with size and potential. He has both those things, and if he has great character then we have a chance."
In addition, the Celtics will have to re-teach Melo many of the defensive fundamentals he learned in college, where he played exclusively in a zone under Jim Boeheim. Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations, shrugged off the adjustment for Melo and fellow Orange Kris Joseph, who Boston drafted in the second round. Ainge downplayed the challenge awaiting the Syracuse products, noting that "they've been playing basketball for a long time," but in Melo's case, he has not.
"I think there'll be a little bit of a learning curve with Fab, not only because he played zone at Syracuse but because he played soccer most of his life," Celtics assistant general manager Ryan McDonough said.
"He is fairly new to the game of basketball, but the coaches at Syracuse said he was a very quick learner. That's kind of what we saw before we even talked to them. Our eyes told us just by watching him last year as a freshman and watching his improvement this year as one of the more dominant defensive players in the country."
"Any time a guy only started playing basketball seriously about three or four years ago, there is a learning curve, but we're encouraged by his ability to learn."
Few players who are drafted in the latter third of the first round are ever sure things. Rajon Rondo was something of a gamble at No. 21 in 2006, and the players taken directly before and after Rondo — Renaldo Balkman and Marcus Williams — failed to become standouts in the pros. If Sullinger or Melo fall short of becoming dependable, rotation players in the NBA, they should never be called "busts," because no pick in the 20s can ever fairly be labeled a bust.
A bad back, depending on the severity, may be manageable with constant monitoring and treatment. Teaching the game to a 22-year-old potentially is a long-term project that is never certain to pay off. If both Sullinger and Melo fulfill their potentials, the Celtics could have a strong front line for the next six to eight years at a far lower price than that of, say, DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson in Sacramento. If only one becomes a serviceable pro, those odds would still be rather positive for the Celtics, based on their draft positions. Health issues or no, Sullinger still seems to be the most likely to contribute eventually in Boston.
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