Look up and down the Boston Celtics roster, and you’ll be pressed to find more than a small handful of two-man combinations that play heavy minutes and make the team better.
One of those combinations, so far, is Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger. As two of Boston’s last three first-round draft picks (the unforgettable Fab Melo living on forever as the third), the numbers are hopeful—but far from definitive—in showing that the Celtics may have a promising stew in their frontcourt.
All NBA teams have boat loads of talent, but the smart ones target and add complementary skill sets to what’s already there.
If you got a high-volume scorer, then sign someone who can rebound his missed shots instead of another high-volume scorer. If you have a point guard with transparent court vision who takes plays off on defense, then pile up on three-point shooters and slashers—but make sure they can play man-to-man defense. These things are key.
It’s very early, but in 7.9 minutes per game (270 in total this season), Boston outscores opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions when Sullinger and Olynyk are on the court.
Those units tend to play faster, knock down a ton of corner threes, own the offensive glass (32.3 offensive rebound rate, better than the league-leading Detroit Pistons) and allow fewer than one point per possession, which would qualify as a top-five defense.
The Celtics are a bad team headed for the lottery, but as head coach Brad Stevens tries to figure out what he has with his mess of undeveloped talent, every second of every game holds significant value.
Important questions need to be answered: What are his player's strengths? With whom do they play well? In what areas do they need to improve? And so on...and so on.
Olynyk and Sullinger were both drafted with the hope that they’d develop into solid NBA starters. The 21-year-old Sullinger is already there. He seems to upgrade his game on a nightly basis and looks like a completely different player in his second season than he did before back surgery cut short his rookie campaign. Where he goes from here is anyone's guess, but the All-Star game isn't out of the question.
Olynyk is a year older, a step slower and has yet to prove he can have a nightly impact like Sullinger does on both ends of the floor. This wasn't expected of him so soon, but it's where things stand. He's impacting the game with his energy instead of his skill, but that will shift more toward the latter as he grows more comfortable within Boston's offense.
Both players symbolize hope for a rebuilding team that must prioritize the development of its young talent. Despite a clear difference in size and hair style, Olynyk and Sullinger play the same position, but that’s yet to pop up as a significant dilemma. While Olynyk may be better suited to defend smaller forwards, Sullinger is strong enough to body larger players in the post. He can’t be moved.
Sullinger is clearly the better player at this stage, but both can shoot, pass and rebound. Both will get much better with experience.
According to SportVU, Kelly Olynyk’s contested rebound percentage is 40.4 percent, meaning that’s how often he’s grabbing boards when an opposing player is within 3.5 feet. Blake Griffin’s contested rebound percentage is 40.3 percent. Joakim Noah is 42.0 percent and Dwight Howard is 37.5 percent.
Obviously those three are better rebounders than Olynyk.
(A very good rebounder grabs somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of their rebound chances—all missed shots that wind up 3.5 feet from said player—and Olynyk’s percentage of rebounds per chance is barely over 50 percent)
But the number goes to show just how active Boston’s 7'0" rookie already is on the glass, which is very good to see and could potentially devastate opponents when paired with Sullinger, already one of the finest rebounders at his position.
On an individual level, Sullinger has been far more accurate from behind the three-point line when Olynyk’s on the floor, shooting 35.7 percent with and 25 percent without. Olynyk is about five percent below league average from behind the three-point line, but he’s barely launched 50 attempts, and defenses tend to respect his pick-and-pop threat.
Here are a couple examples where Olynyk's presence helped Sullinger score inside the arc. On the first play, Olynyk completes a nifty one-handed bounce pass after blowing by his man and drawing Sullinger's defender. The rookie hasn't flashed that skill often this year, but it's nice to know he can do it.
On a rebuilding team like the Celtics, neither Sullinger nor Olynyk is a lock to stay forever. If a superstar becomes available, or general manager Danny Ainge is presented with an opportunity to exchange anybody for greater value, he'll do it.
Given the sizable financial commitment Boston will have to make three and four years from now, the ultimate question is whether this duo can ever start on a championship contender. Despite their combined success, the sample size is small, and unless one of them grows into an elite rim-protector (not likely), Ainge will have to upgrade.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.