Sullinger, Olynyk: Rising Stars to All-Stars?

NEW ORLEANS – Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk will make their All-Star weekend debuts when they play in the Rising Stars Challenge at 9 p.m. Friday night in New Orleans.

If history serves as any indication, both players have a great shot at playing in the weekend’s main event before all is said and done.

The NBA uses the Rising Stars Challenge, which was formerly known as the Rookie Challenge, to showcase its greatest talent from the rookie and sophomore classes. Eighteen players are selected each year to participate in the game and kick off All-Star weekend.

The concept of the game was brought to fruition at All-Star weekend in 1994. Beginning that year, the NBA has done an incredible job of identifying elite young talent and rounding them up to play in the game.

Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger slap hands

Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger will play for Team Webber in the Rising Stars Challenge Friday night.
Jared Wickerham/NBAE/Getty Images

There have been 274 players who have participated in the game’s 19-year history. Eighty-four of them have gone on to become All-Stars, good for a rate of 31 percent.

What can we take away from that? Well, history is essentially saying that Sullinger and Olynyk have a one-in-three chance of becoming an All-Star. That fact must make any Celtics fan giddy.

In addition to the overall success rate of Rising Stars players, the Celtics organization has its own successful history with the game. Boston has now had 14 players chosen as Rising Stars, which ranks second to only the Cavaliers’ 17. Four of the first 12 Celtics who were chosen to the game have become All-Stars, and Boston hopes that Sullinger and Olynyk will make a push to do the same.

To his credit, Sullinger is already well on his way. He is having a breakout season as Boston’s starting center with averages of 13.2 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game. The second-year big man has largely figured out the nuances of the NBA, which has led him to new heights on the court.

“I’m doing the little things,” Sullinger recently told Celtics.com. “I’m screening more, which creates more angles for me to score. I’m running the floor more. I’m finding ways to get the offensive rebound. I’m finding ways to finish without always using contact.”

Sullinger’s adaption to NBA basketball has helped him turn into a double-double machine. He heads into the All-Star break having racked up six double-doubles in his last seven games, and he has 18 overall on the season. That total ranks 13th in the league among centers and 24th overall amongst big men. Only current All-Stars Andre Drummond (39) and Anthony Davis (23) have more double-doubles among first- or second-year players.

Speaking of double-doubles, Olynyk just so happened to log the first two of his career just before Boston headed into the break. He tallied 14 points and 11 rebounds Monday night against Milwaukee, and then racked up 15 points and 10 rebounds Wednesday night against San Antonio. As Brad Stevens said after the Spurs game, Olynyk is also learning the ins and outs of the NBA game.

“He’s really starting to figure it out,” said Stevens. “He’s got a really good feel for the game and he’s starting to pick up where people are around him, which is opening up opportunities for himself and others.”

The numbers seem to agree with the coach’s assessments. Olynyk is displaying an impressive all-around game in his rookie campaign. Among first-year players, he ranks seventh in scoring (6.9 PPG), second in rebounding (4.7 RPG), first among bigs in assisting (1.6 APG), fifth in field goal percentage (43.0 percent) and fourth in free throw percentage (80.6 percent).

After looking at those numbers, it’s no surprise that the NBA identified him as one of the top players in the rookie class. The league realizes that he’s having a very strong rookie season and that he’s destined for success. How much success? That stands as the biggest question mark surrounding both he and Sullinger.

We already know how often Rising Stars players make it to the All-Star game. We also know that Sullinger and Olynyk are putting up strong numbers. Now let’s discuss who these guys might become.

There have been 16 big men who have played in the last 10 Rising Stars games that later went on to become All-Stars. Seven were centers and nine were power forwards. Sullinger’s and Olynyk’s numbers compare favorably to several of them.

The numbers Sullinger has put up over his first two seasons compare similarly to those of Al Horford, Chris Kaman, Kevin Love, David Lee and Carlos Boozer, all of whom have been All-Stars. All of those players have been known throughout their careers as elite rebounders and good-to-great scorers.

Olynyk’s numbers line up most similarly with those of Love, Lee and Paul Millsap, who have also been All-Stars. Those players are known as very good rebounders, but they can stretch the floor as well. Many expect that to be Olynyk’s strength moving forward, and for good reason. His 3-point percentage of 28.8 percent is better than that of any rookie big man who has been a Rising Star in the last 10 years.

Does that mean Olynyk is going to become the best 3-point shooting big man of all time? Unlikely. Is Sullinger destined to become the greatest big man in the league? Probably not.

We aren’t trying to get ahead of ourselves here, but we also aren’t trying look past what history is telling us. The success rate of players who participate in this game indicates that Sullinger and Olynyk have a one-in-three chance of reaching elite status in the NBA.

The NBA has already identified them as Rising Stars. Now it’s time to see if they can turn themselves into All-Stars, too.