Commentary

Celtics gamble on Sullinger, Melo

Updated: June 29, 2012, 9:53 AM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Call it the Avery Bradley approach.

Two years after concerns about Bradley's health forced him to slide down the draft board, the Celtics utilized their two first-round picks Thursday night to secure Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger (No. 21) and Syracuse sophomore center Fab Melo (No. 22) after issues surrounding each player left them available to Boston in the 2012 NBA draft.

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Bradley, once ESPN's top-ranked high school player in the country, had lottery potential leading up to the 2010 draft (despite a somewhat unremarkable freshman season at Texas), but an ankle injury in a pre-draft workout caused him to tumble a bit and Boston snatched him up at No. 19.

This past season, a healthy Bradley distinguished himself as the team's starting shooting guard of the future, mixing All-NBA-caliber defense with an emerging offensive game.

The Celtics are hopeful that Sullinger and Melo could be a frontcourt tandem of the future, this despite the fact that other teams ran from them on Thursday night.

This is a good time to remind you to limit your expectations. Keep in mind that Bradley played a mere 162 minutes during his first NBA season.

Rookies need time to develop, particularly those who are available in the latter stages of the first round.

Even as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge expressed satisfaction in his draft haul -- which also included Syracuse forward Kris Joseph at pick No. 51 -- he tempered expectations.

"I think that a team that is trying to win, it's tough to count too much on three rookies coming in," he said. "So maybe one [rookie] will be ready to go, maybe two of them will be able to play a certain role. I'm not sure, but we'll try to fill in with veterans from here on out."

For a draft that was billed as brimming with talent, it sure played out like a typical, top-heavy pick-a-palooza. Boston admittedly explored the idea of moving up to land more surefire talent, but the Celtics didn't have the necessary assets to get anywhere near where they needed to land a sure thing.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Celtics are betting that Jared Sullinger's balky back won't be a major concern.

Yes, that sort of talent likely evaporated when the New Orleans Hornets landed Austin Rivers, son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, with the 10th overall pick. If Ainge had thoughts of a family reunion -- and adding a bench scorer -- it faded quickly and left a muddied mix of talent available in the mid- to late first round.

Even as players over whom Boston reportedly lusted came off the board -- most notably Iowa State's Royce White, who went to Houston at No. 16, and St. Bonaventure's Andrew Nicholson, who went to Orlando at No. 19 -- the Celtics were content to let the draft play itself out and elected to travel the risk/reward route.

Make no mistake, it's not easy finding talent in the early 20s. Look at the years between Rajon Rondo (21st, 2005) and Reggie Lewis (22nd, 1987), when the team dabbled in picks such Dahntay Jones (20th, 2003) and Joseph Forte (21st, 2001).

The success of players chosen in the top 10 is a lot less spotty, though even that's an inexact science. And since Boston couldn't get up that high, it settled for the next best thing: letting players with top-10 potential come to it.

There's no guarantee Boston will ever get top-10-caliber play. Only time will tell if other GMs had sufficient reason to be spooked by Sullinger's back or Melo's work ethic. Both concerns were thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks and were enough to scare off potential suitors (and remember, these are suitors desperate for talent).

"[Sullinger and Melo] are two guys we had rated a lot higher; we thought they were both lottery talent," said Celtics assistant general manager Ryan McDonough. "Frankly, we didn't expect them to be there where we were picking."

That's probably a little bit of GM-speak. Rarely do you hear a personnel guy admit, "Yeah, we thought this guy might still be here when we picked." But Boston clearly had an inkling that Sullinger might slide. That's why the team's doctors checked him out at the draft combine in Chicago last month.

McDonough suggested Boston's concerns about Sullinger's back are "minor," but Ainge admitted he has a disc issue that might require surgery.

Noted Ainge: "Doc Rivers played with a herniated disc for 13 years, so it may need surgery at some point, it may not."

Sullinger is clearly the most NBA-ready of Boston's haul. When healthy, his low-post game is something the Celtics sorely need, and he has potential to be a very good rebounder at both ends of the floor.

Melo is a bit more of a question mark. The 7-foot native of Brazil grew up playing soccer and is still developing his hoops skills (he has just 63 games of college experience). He can play defense, and Ainge raved about his ability to both block shots and take charges -- giving some of us unnecessary Jermaine O'Neal flashbacks. But Melo is still very raw and, fortunately, not as injury-prone as J.O.

Here's what we do know: The Celtics are suddenly stocked with young potential up front. Sullinger and Melo will join the likes of soon-to-be-sophomores Greg Stiemsma and JaJuan Johnson in competing for time next season.

"We didn't necessarily draft on need, although big guys are hard to find," said Ainge. "Quality bigs are the most challenging position to find in the draft and in free agency, so we're very excited about the results tonight."

Just don't expect immediate on-court results. The Celtics hope they added some players who can help them down the road, but it's the players they'll bring in or bring back next month in free agency who will likely dictate how the 2012-13 season plays out.

Put another way: If Sullinger and Melo are key contributors, the Celtics either hit the lottery without being in the lottery, or the youth movement began earlier than expected.

The Celtics would much rather Sullinger and Melo spend the next 365 days being groomed for the future. It's a better sign if the rookies spend a year getting their feet wet before being turned loose.

Maybe then they'll respond like Bradley. And leave some other GMs kicking themselves for not rolling the dice.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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