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Jared Sullinger is poised for a big role in his rookie season with the Celtics.Each weekday leading up to next Tuesday's opening night, I'll play a game of 3-on-3 with ESPN Boston colleague Greg Payne and CelticsHub's Brian Robb to breakdown a key topic surrounding the Celtics' 2012-13 season. Up first: Jared Sullinger's potential rookie impact.
1. What's the top reason that Sullinger should be in the starting lineup?
Payne: He fits. Sullinger's game works with how the starting lineup wants to operate. Not only has he grasped the system and won't be a defensive liability, but he can perform any of the basic tasks required of a big man in Boston's offensive sets. Though we didn't see it much during the preseason, he can step back and knock down an elbow jumper, similar to Brandon Bass, or he can slide down low and serve as a reliable post presence. Additionally, pairing him alongside Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce gives the Celtics their best rebounding frontcourt in years -- an area they haven't exactly excelled in of late. Factor in him setting beefy screens for the likes of Rajon Rondo and Pierce, and his ability to outlet the ball quickly and move up the floor better than people realize, and Sullinger could easily emerge as a productive member of Boston's first five.
Robb: Rebounding, especially at the offensive end of the floor. Statistically, the Celtics were one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in history last season, and while part of that distinction is due to the team's philosophy of getting back on defense, there's no doubt personnel factored into it as well. Sullinger has established himself during the preseason as perhaps the team's best offensive rebounder and certainly a more capable one than Brandon Bass. With the C's first unit offense predicated on plenty of spacing and jump shooting, having a guy like Sullinger down low with a nose for the ball, and a willingness to do the dirty work, could be a major asset.
Forsberg: It might make the team stronger overall. For all the handwringing about the Boston offense in recent seasons, the first unit hasn't had too much trouble putting points on the scoreboard. When you've got Rondo running the show and Pierce and Garnett next to him, offense will come one way or another. With that in mind, you don't necessarily need a shot-happy power forward (particularly if you have a shooter like Courtney Lee or Jason Terry running with the first unit as well). As much as the Garnett-Bass pairing inverts the offense and pulls bigs to the perimeter, Sullinger adds a post presence that the team could surely benefit from (and he still has that sneaky range to his jumper). More importantly, Sullinger doesn't need his number called for him. According to Synergy Sports data, Sullinger averaged 1.088 points per play this preseason, a phenomenal number for a power forward (Bass was 0.955 points per play last season). A whopping 17.5 percent of Sullinger's plays came on offensive rebounds, second only in play types to post-up opportunities (25 percent). The Celtics don't necessarily have to start Sullinger every night, but there are going to be matchups where it makes a lot of sense. And having Garnett nearby will mask his defensive deficiencies during his rookie campaign.
2. What's the biggest concern with Sullinger in the starting lineup?
Payne: Experience. There are so many things that Sullinger does well, and will continue to do well, but as the season rolls along and the games become more meaningful, Doc Rivers might be more inclined to go with someone who's been there before. Not only does someone like Bass already have continuity with the core of Boston's starting lineup, but he has playoff experience and late-game experience, which can't be discounted. Sullinger, at some point, is due for the typical first-year NBA growing pains, and Rivers might not want to see those hinder what will be one of his best lineups.
Robb: Defense. Performing at an NBA level on the defensive end is a major challenge for most rookies upon entering the league and that reality will be no different for Sullinger this season. For rookies, there are plenty of new rotations to learn, schemes to master, and an expectation to communicate well on a team like Boston that prides itself on its stifling defense. So while it's tempting to place the rookie in the starting five with one of the best defenders in the league in Garnett, who should help cover up Sullinger's mistakes, there also is plenty of risk in doing so. By playing with the starters, Sullinger would draw a tough defensive assignment most nights, which could limit any added benefit he gives the C's on the offensive end. If Rivers chooses to bring Sullinger off the bench, the former Ohio State star would only have to face off with second-unit bigs, players who would be less likely to expose the rookie on the defensive end.
Forsberg: Matchups. Is Sullinger ready to be an NBA role player? Absolutely. Is he ready to start 82 games? Probably not. There are simply going to be nights when it's more beneficial to have Bass on the floor (like, say, opening night in Miami) and lean on what was so successful for Boston last season (heck, Bass played some solid defense against LeBron James at times during the playoffs). It all hinges on Sullinger's defensive development. He allowed 0.741 points per play in the preseason, according to Synergy Sports, ranking in the 58th percentile among all NBA players. He's still got strides to make on that end. Bass, who allowed a mere 0.673 points per play (ranking in the 95th percentile) last season, is a bit more athletic and, especially against an undersized opposing lineup, has shown he can hold his own next to Garnett. The reloaded frontlines of the Atlantic Division might open some starting doors for Sullinger.
3. What kind of season do you expect from Sullinger?
Payne: I think it's fair to have high expectations for Sullinger this season, but it'll be important to keep things in perspective. He plays with both a skill and an intelligence well beyond his years, and there will be plenty of nights when he won't look like a rookie out there. But he also won't be immune to some of the typical hurdles rookies face in the NBA. He'll battle foul trouble some nights, he might struggle with his shot under the basket against bigger defenders, and these are the times it'll be important to remember that it's only his first year in the NBA. While he certainly won't be immune to criticism if the Celtics are to rely on him, the most important thing is that Boston appears to have a player it can invest in both in the short term and the long term.
Robb: I expect a standout rookie season from Sullinger. Doc Rivers already has raved about his basketball IQ and awareness over the past month and the 20-year-old should continue to make advances in those departments as he gains some seasoning. While Sullinger is likely to struggle on the defensive end at times, his posting ability around the hoop, shooting range and rebounding ability should give Rivers plenty of reasons to overlook his weaknesses and make him a meaningful contributor in the rotation. I expect Sullinger to average nine points and six rebounds, while playing roughly 25 minutes per game, causing a dozen or so NBA teams to question why they passed on such an offensive talent in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.
Forsberg: A season unlike any other Boston rookie in recent memory. OK, that's not saying much considering the difficulty most first-year players have had in simply generating consistent minutes. We know rookie big men have the ability to carve out roles (see Erden, Semih and Stiemsma, Greg), but Sullinger's basketball IQ and his natural talents should keep him in Rivers' core rotation. Sullinger can be a top power forward reserve or shuffle to center in smaller lineups with the likes of Jeff Green at the 4. There are a lot of possibilities and opportunities, but if Sullinger keeps his focus on rebounding, improving his defense and scoring within the flow of the offense, he'll maintain his title of steal of the draft.