There are plenty of household names on this year's iteration of the Boston Celtics, but it's the less heralded players who will make or break the team's season.
Headlines have traditionally been awarded to big-money signings and splashy names, and the Celtics certainly moved a few of those this offseason. There's room on the ledger for the less-accomplished players, however. The rise of 24/7 sports coverage has ensured that every player, star or scrub, will see his name in the header upon moving to a new team.
This laser-sharp focus on the day-to-day minutiae of sports franchises makes it more difficult than ever to proclaim a player a sleeper. Just five years ago, Phil Jackson was mispronouncing the name of a Celtic who had just dominated his Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Doesn't that seem impossible now?
For all the advances we've made in how we cover sports, there are still guys who will catch us by surprise. The same hyperactive coverage that makes us feel informed causes the needle to swing too fast in many cases.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Phil Pressey. The lead ball-handler for a 2011-12 Missouri Tigers team that went 30-5, Pressey was named the 2012-13 SEC Preseason Player of the Year. Watching tape, it's easy to see why:
Pressey is a lightning-quick guard who shows an excellent knack for getting his teammates involved. He runs the pick-and-roll effortlessly and makes passes that show he has the mind of an NBA point guard. (Check out the no-look pocket pass at 2:30 of the above clip.)
So how does a guy with an obvious skill set and a number of award nominations go undrafted? For one, his Missouri team took a noticeable step back after losing several key players, slipping from 30-5 to 23-11 last year, which ended with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Greater production isn't necessarily his friend either. Pressey's numbers rose from 10.3 points and 6.4 assists to 11.9 and 7.1 respectively, but that boost came at the expense of efficiency, as he shot just 37.6 percent in 2012-13. His turnover numbers jumped as well, though his assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.0 was impressive considering the heavy load he assumed.
Look no further than his size for the true explanation. Pressey is only 5'11" with a wingspan under 6'3", ill-equipped to handle a lot of guards around the NBA. Micahel Atchison of Missouri Tigers blog Rock M Nation wrote, "If Pressey makes a roster, one day Russell Westbrook or Deron Williams is going to take him into the post, and it's not going to be pretty."
Is that a fair concern? Possibly, but Pressey showed tenacity during the summer league that will go a long way towards earning him minutes in the rotation.
The C's have needed a backup ball-handler to spell Rajon Rondo for years, and they need one now more than ever in the wake of his knee injury. General manager Danny Ainge has tried and failed to bring in guys who could spot Rondo at the point, and the Jason Terrys of the world aren't cutting it. Avery Bradley is qualified, but the defensive ace needs breaks too.
Pressey seems primed to fill this void.
Speed still kills, and with more viable shooting options surrounding the perimeter at the pro level, the diminutive guard will have a lot more room to operate. Getting the windows for highlight-reel passes is half the battle.
Marshon Brooks will hope to be on the other end of those passes. The 6'5" guard from Providence went from All-Rookie Second Team to afterthought in Brooklyn, leading to his inclusion in the KG-Pierce blockbuster deal. Why would Billy King give him away?
Take it away, Deron Williams and Avery Johnson (1:06 mark):
Brooks was relegated to bench duty in Brooklyn because of his defensive struggles. Ringing in with a defensive rating of 110 for his career, the metrics suggest his play ranges from bad to catastrophic when protecting his team's basket.
One positive to his limited action in 2012-13: Sitting on the bench has energized the young guard. According to the Boston Herald, Brooks revealed a distaste for his limited playing time last season (12.5 minutes per game):
It’s a situation that I don’t ever want to go through again, to say the least...I just don’t like being on the bench, so I’m just going to work as hard as possible to make sure that never happens again.
Brooks is going to be competing directly with Jordan Crawford for the right to be the Celtics go-to gunner off the bench, a spot for which he appears to be most qualified of the two. Considering that Crawford's most noted career achievement is last year's 41.5 percent shooting, it doesn't take much. There's no contest in the measurement department either, with Brooks' healthy 7'1" wingspan easily eclipsing Crawford's 6'7" reach.
Per-minute statistics paint a friendly picture of Brooks on the offensive end, as his numbers are virtually identical across two seasons. His shooting percentage rose almost four full points last year while he maintained his per-36 averages. If he can continue that trend in the preseason, he'll certainly beat out Crawford for a spot, even if he continues to play matador defense.
One player whose spot on the roster is in no jeopardy is Jared Sullinger. The only competition he'll be facing is from his body.
Sullinger had been touted as a top-five pick in the 2012 NBA draft until reports leaked that the 6'9" forward was red-flagged by doctors for a back issue. Boston was happy to scoop him up with the 21st selection as he plummeted down the board, making a risky selection less so since it was made after the lottery portion of the draft had come and gone.
Utilized primarily off the bench last season, Sullinger was a force on the boards, to the tune of 10.7 rebounds per-36 minutes. More than just a ball magnet, the rookie was praised by team leaders like Rondo for his basketball intelligence.
Just as Sullinger appeared poised to grab a bigger role, his season was cut short by injury. The back concerns are here to stay, unfortunately, and Sully will have to quell fears that he arrived in Boston as damaged goods.
That reputation may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Fear over his health is enough for many analysts to write him off like they have his team, something that has angered the second-year player while he recovers from surgery, as reported by the Sun Journal (Lewiston, ME):
For sure we're not tanking. I know that for a fact...We don't believe in that. Our whole squad is pretty upset about that. We're just going to go out and play hard and we're going to try to make the playoffs.
Bringing that type of attitude to the table can only help Sullinger and his team going forward. The chips on his shoulder keep piling up, and the 21-year-old appears intent on making his doubters pay.
These potential sleepers, and the rest of the Celtics in general, would do well to follow his lead.