BOSTON—The Boston Celtics were the only team this year to have two of their players named to the Rising Stars Challenge. The inclusion of rookie Kelly Olynyk and second-year forward Jared Sullinger in the event would appear to be a positive development for the future of a rebuilding Celtics franchise.
Head coach Brad Stevens is proud of both of his youngsters but knows each is a long way from being the player he wants to be.
“I think it’s obviously an honor for them. I think the nice part about it is, I think they can both get a lot better. Good start to their young careers, although I think both of them would like to play better on a night-in, night-out basis,” Stevens said.
As the trade deadline approaches in the coming weeks, Danny Ainge has to make a decision on not only which veterans he should deal but also whether young players like Sullinger and Olynyk should be a part of Boston’s future. So what has the team seen from both guys so far?
Sullinger has been the better of the duo and without a doubt the most encouraging part of a largely dismal season for the Celtics. After missing the final three months of his rookie campaign due to back surgery, Sullinger has arguably been Boston’s most consistent player this year.
The 21-year-old is averaging 13 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in just 26.9 minutes a night. The rebounding in particular has been a major bright spot, as the undersized power forward is on pace right now to be Boston’s best offensive rebounder in the last 20 seasons with an average of 3.2 per game.
Even more importantly, Sullinger has shown durability in his return to the floor this year. The big man has missed just one game due to injury and has remained productive despite playing through a bruised left hand and dislocated right index finger in recent weeks.
A heavy offensive onus has fallen on the young forward, as he also leads the Celtics in usage rate. With plenty of scoring opportunities every night, Stevens wants to see Sullinger make the most of his chances. This philosophy led to the coach laying out a challenge to the big man after a recent stretch of subpar games.
“We’re in a unique situation in that we’re asking some of our young guys to be almost leaders and almost more vocal in their approach. My talking point with him was: ‘I know you’re 22 [sic]. But you’re a mature basketball player, you know the game. And for our team to grow, we need to continue for you to maybe play and be a few years ahead of where you are.’ It’s not fair to him, but it’s a great opportunity for him. So that was my challenge to him,” Stevens explained.
To his credit, Sullinger has responded to his coach with authority. Sullinger has posted two straight double-doubles, averaging 22.5 points and 14.5 rebounds in those contests since their talk.
“I’m just playing hard honestly, just understanding that I have a bigger role than I had last year. I’m pretty much playing hard,” Sullinger said of his recent performance.
That type of play and attitude bodes extremely well for Sullinger’s future in Boston. He’s established himself as one of the team’s pivotal building blocks in the rebuild with a ceiling higher than Danny Ainge and company may have anticipated.
“He’s very intelligent,” Rajon Rondo said of Sullinger, “High basketball IQ, and he’s very unselfish. He doesn’t need a play called for him. He’s been getting his points off little dirty work.”
Signed under a team-friendly deal for the next three seasons, Sullinger is probably one of the most untouchable pieces on the roster, unless he's used as the centerpiece of a package to land an All-Star-caliber player.
The jury is still out on Olynyk’s future in Boston, however. His inclusion in the Rising Stars Challenge was more the result of a weak rookie class than a strong performance by the former Gonzaga star.
The 22-year-old is averaging 6.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18 minutes per game. He’s shooting a meager 42 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range. The seven-footer has also had trouble earning a consistent role in a crowded Celtics frontcourt.
Stevens touched upon Olynyk’s ability to co-exist with Sullinger on the floor, given their similar positions.
“I think they can play together. In an ideal world, they are probably both 4s. They can certainly play together because of Kelly’s length at the 4 and Jared’s strength at the 4. I think in an ideal world, you don’t have those guys on the court for 30-35 minutes together.” Stevens said.
One area of work needed for both players, though, is on the defensive end.
“I think Kelly and Jared have some things they can really get better at defensively. Certainly you’ll learn those with experience and time, you’ll get them with strength and just getting used to the speed of the game and those types of things,” Stevens said.
Olynyk should get more of an opportunity in the coming weeks, when Ainge clears out some of the logjam in his frontcourt by potentially dealing veterans like Brandon Bass or Kris Humphries. At that point, Stevens will likely get a longer look at Olynyk, which will help decide whether he’s better off as a part of Boston’s future or just another trade chip for Ainge to play with.
For now, Sullinger is firmly entrenched as part of this team’s future. It is now up to Olynyk to prove he should be as well in the coming months.