Commentary

Lottery dropouts shine in pro debuts

Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger show games worthy of a high pick in Orlando opener

Updated: July 10, 2012, 10:56 PM ET
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- You would understand if Perry Jones never wanted to hear the word "motor" again, much less use it himself.

Motor, or lack thereof, was one of the reasons Jones was the biggest slider on draft day, all the way down to the 28th pick, by the Oklahoma City Thunder. The concept that Jones didn't play with consistent energy was as big of a negative mark on his scouting report as an old knee issue that concerned some teams.

But in his first foray with the Thunder on Monday at the Orlando Summer League, Jones was throwing around the word in casual conversation. So were his teammates when talking about him. Motor this and motor that.

"It's like a song in my head, I've heard it so much," Jones said. "It's in my vocabulary now." Jones had an interesting matchup on the first day of the NBA's summer season, which really is a rookie showcase in central Florida, as it will be again starting later this week with the majority of the league playing in Las Vegas. Jones' Thunder played the Boston Celtics and their own bargain draft pick, Jared Sullinger, who fell to No. 21 because of poor athletic test results and concern over a long-standing back issue.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger, Perry Jones
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Celtics' Jared Sullinger, the No. 21 pick, and the Thunder's Perry Jones, the No. 28 pick, both stood out in their first pro game.
There's a few rules about summer league the years have taught. The most basic is that playing well in summer league doesn't guarantee anything when the real games start. But playing poorly in summer league is often an indication that a player is going to have a tough time making it.

Technically there's only one lottery pick among the eight teams playing at Amway Arena this week, the Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond, who was taken No. 9 overall. Watching Jones and Sullinger, though, you might not get that impression.

Forgetting about their draft positions, even during their first pro game, it was easy to see how both players' talents stood out among their peers. Who knows how Sullinger's back and hamstrings are going to hold up? It's hard to guess whether Jones' knee will be OK long term. Or whether the energy Jones played with Monday -- seemingly a message to all the scouts in the room and watching on TV who suggested their teams pass on him -- is really sustainable.

What is fair to say is the Thunder and the Celtics have legitimate reason to believe at this point that they took acceptable risks on the two versatile big men.

Jones had 16 points and eight rebounds, and showed off a wide-ranging display of ability: step-back jumpers, long-range shooting, hard defensive rotations, running the floor and a deft passing touch. If you'd never seen him before and didn't know what the general scouting report was, you'd never scribble down "poor motor" in your notes.

According to his teammates, he's been that way since the team started practicing last week.

"That whole talk about his motor, I don't know who started that but that was a bad rumor," Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson said. "The guy loves playing hard."

In fairness, let's see how he goes through a full season before making such judgments. But no matter the qualifiers, there just aren't many 6-foot-11 players who move as freely as Jones. He forgot where he was defensively at times, a classic young player mistake, and he had some trouble finishing in traffic against the other big bodies at the rim. He also shined as the most talented player on the floor, and that's something you don't often hear about the 28th pick.

"I truly believe he's going to be a special kid," said Thunder assistant Mark Bryant, who is the acting summer league head coach. "He's kind of like, I'm not saying he's like Lamar Odom yet, but he could be that type of player."

Down at the other end of the court, the Celtics were trying to swallow some smiles of their own. Sullinger's debut looked very much like his excellent career at Ohio State. He was smaller and slower than most of the players he was matched up with but he used his body and skill expertly.

A spin move to shake a defender, good use of footwork to create space and even a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer were all in Sullinger's arsenal. He had 20 points and six rebounds, and was the central reason the Celtics won the game 73-65.

For awhile he was playing center against Thunder 7-footer Cole Aldrich. It wasn't exactly Tim Duncan, it's summer league, but Sullinger performed. He played below the rim, like the scouting report says he does, yet was quite effective, just like at Ohio State.

"Guarding somebody taller than you is always a challenge but I'm used to it," Sullinger said. "You've got to play your game. You've got to be decisive with your movement."

Sullinger has plenty to work on. He doesn't have the NBA-ready body others at his position do and recently hired a chef to help him lose weight. He's slow-footed at times, and it won't take teams long to put that fact in their game plans. His outside shot isn't as consistent as his desire to take it. He's not used to playing physical defense, he said, because in college he constantly had to guard against foul trouble.

Once again, though, among current peers he emerged as a standout on the first day. Like with Jones, not reason to predict greatness. But certainly as encouraging as day one of summer league could be for two of the most polarizing players in this draft class.