Reward Outweighs Risk With Sullinger

By Marc D'Amico
June 29, 2012

BOSTON – The 21st pick in the 2012 NBA Draft yielded a top-10 talent for the Boston Celtics. Jared Sullinger, widely regarded as the most polished offensive post player in the draft, fell to the Celtics due to concerns about his back.

Sixteen teams made selections before the Celtics did Thursday night, and all of them chose to pass on Sullinger. Clearly, his back issues scared many of those teams off. Boston, however, is confident that those issues will not deter the 6-foot-9 power forward from excelling at the next level.

“I played 13 years with a bad back and I was OK, and I think he will be too,” Doc Rivers said Thursday night. “All of the doctors that we’ve talked to gave clearance and none of them red-flagged him, so that’s fine by us. When you don’t get red-flagged, you’re pretty much safe.”

Rivers played through a herniated disc during his playing career and the Celtics revealed Thursday night that Sullinger will need to do the same. Sullinger underwent an MRI after his final season at Ohio State, and that exam revealed a herniated disc.

Boston’s decision makers have been forthright about Sullinger’s back since drafting him Thursday night, but they don’t seem overly concerned about the ramifications. After all, the injury wasn’t serious enough to deter them from using a valuable first-round pick on the 268-pound 20-year-old.

“We were concerned and we did our research on the back issues and felt comfortable,” Danny Ainge said after the draft.

There’s a couple of reasons why they were comfortable with the selection. First and foremost, as already outlined, the team does not believe Sullinger’s back will prevent him from having a successful NBA career. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, Sullinger is just plain good.

Sullinger is coming off of two highly competitive seasons at the top echelon of amateur basketball. He just led his team to the Final Four by averaging 17.0 PPG and 8.8 RPG during the NCAA tournament. He was a consensus First Team All-American, a Wooden Award finalist and a two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection.

Yeah, Sullinger can ball.

If you haven’t seen him play, it’s really a thing of beauty. At just 6-foot-9, he is undersized for a power forward, but he knows how to play with the size that he has. He uses his wide body and long arms (he has a wingspan of more than 7-foot-1) to create space to get his shot off down low, and he rebounds with reckless abandon.

Scoring and rebounding aren’t the only talents the Celtics believe Sullinger possesses. In listening to Rivers, Ainge and assistant GM Ryan McDonough speak to the media Thursday night, it sounds as if Boston thinks Sullinger is a fine-tuned offensive weapon.

“What I like about him is he's complete and he can pass, he can think, he can rebound, he can shoot,” said Ainge. “And one thing you don't see him do a lot in college that I really believe he can do, because we see it in very short doses, is he can make shots. He can shoot the ball from the perimeter.”

Anyone who watches the Celtics understands that their big men, particularly power forwards, must be able to shoot the ball. From Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass this past season, to guys like Glen Davis and Leon Powe in the past, Boston loves to have bigs who can stretch the floor. The team apparently believes that Sullinger will be able to do that.

Whenever a talent like Sullinger slips all the way to the 21st pick, there are obviously reasons for concern. But the Celtics have been down this route before, most recently with Avery Bradley, and understand that sometimes the reward outweighs the risk.

Two years after being selected 19th overall, Bradley is now one of the most highly touted youngsters in the league. If the Celtics are correct in their assessments, we might be saying the same thing about Sullinger a couple of years down the road.