5 Players with a Chance to Shine During the Boston Celtics' Stretch Run
If you asked most Boston Celtics fans what they are most looking forward to for the rest of the 2013-14 season, the most common response would likely be, "the sound of lottery balls."
Despite the fact that the C's could still potentially snag a playoff spot in the dismal Eastern Conference, this team has effectively packed it in, choosing instead to ensure itself a quality pick in the strong 2014 draft.
That being said, there is still plenty of basketball to be played before Boston can try to draft their new franchise cornerstone and in that time certain players will inevitably step up.
Partially due to their own talents, partially due to circumstances, certain Celtics will see their minutes, roles and responsibilities increase as the regular season winds down in the spring.
These include Boston mainstays as well as young players and newcomers to the green, so let's take a moment to look at five players who could shine for the Celts during the stretch run.
All the trade deadline hullabaloo surrounding Rondo proved to be for naught, as the deadline came and went without a deal for the superstar point guard.
Rondo is still on a back-to-backs restriction and struggling with his shot but overall he has come back strong from ACL surgery.
He’s averaging 10.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists while shooting a career-best 35.3 percent from beyond the arc.
His touch from the field still hasn’t come back as he’s going just 39 percent on field goal attempts, but he shows enough signs each game of being the old Rondo to give the Boston faithful something to cheer about.
His PER of 16.5 is decent and should continue trending upwards, and he has been holding opposing 1s to a respectable PER of 14.8, according to 82Games.
The C’s are clearly a less talented team than they have been in years past, but Rondo is still doing an excellent job putting his teammates into positions to succeed.
This Boston squad is more up-tempo than past units, and Rondo has shown the ability to push the ball and create easy looks at the rim for his bigs.
He has a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass and he’s capable of putting Jeff Green in positions to succeed with the ball in his hands.
With Rondo out, each of the C’s ball-handlers was asked to do a little more than they were comfortable with, and it showed in their offensive sets.
The return of their All-Star playmaker won’t solve everything instantly but with Rondo handling the rock players like Green and Gerald Wallace are not being asked to do too much facilitating.
If he can find his touch from the field—he’s shooting just 15.4 percent on isolation plays, per Synergy Sports (subscription required)—he has a shot to lead the C’s in scoring and assists for the rest of the season and return to top-three point guard status.
From a sheer talent perspective, Jared Sullinger might only trail Rondo on the Celtics.
The sophomore big man has been having a solid campaign, but he is still brimming with more potential.
His numbers of 13.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists are strong, but he is shooting a ghastly 43.4 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from three due to a recent brutal shooting slump.
Sully is still not a consistent three-point shooter, but he always knows how to react to doubles and find open teammates spotting up along the wings.
He is also one of the best young rebounders in the game.
He uses his size extremely well, and he is currently seventh in the league in offensive rebounds per game at 3.4, tied with Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard.
Without a long wingspan, Sully is able to anticipate the placement of balls and use his frame to carve out excellent space on the block.
Perhaps most importantly, Sullinger has managed to avoid major injury and has looked relatively spry out on the court.
He’s thrown up some monster games, including a 20-20 game and 19 double-doubles overall.
Sully has worked hard to become a true post-up threat, and he’s shooting a solid 45.1 percent with his back to the basket, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
He is also shooting the three surprisingly well in pick-and-pop sets, according to Synergy. Sully makes 36.4 percent of his threes as the roll man, a far higher number than in any other three-point situation.
Every once in a while he still throws up a dud game where his jumper just won’t go down, but Sullinger has improved nearly across the board from his play as a rookie.
Still, Sully is posting a stellar 25.3 PER at power forward, per 82games, proving that the 4 may be his primary position of the future.
If he can continue to stay healthy and perhaps become a more reliable presence getting to the foul line Sully could become Boston’s most valuable player by the end of 2013-14.
The C’s didn’t clear any frontcourt minutes at the trade deadline but with the playoffs long out of reach it looks like Kelly Olynyk will be in line for a minute bump going forward.
The freshman is averaging just 7.1 points, 4.8 boards and 1.7 assists on 42.6 percent shooting and 29.4 percent from three, but he’s shown enough flashes to warrant an extended look.
Olynyk still hasn’t quite found the range from beyond the arc, but his offensive versatility is impressive for a true 7-footer.
In February, he’s averaging 8.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists on a nearly respectable 44.3 percent from the floor.
Olynyk started his career as a point guard before a growth spurt, and that shows in his ability to read the floor and make passes far better than most big men.
He does a solid job in the turnover department and has good enough hands to make tough catches on the move.
While never expected to be a dominant rebounder Olynyk has actually been decent, he has four games with eight or more boards in February, and he posted back-to-back double-doubles against the Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs.
Defensively Olynyk has struggled, which is far from a surprise given his limited mobility.
Opposing 4s are posting a 17.2 PER against him, while centers are notching an absurd 27.6 PER against the “Olynyk Klynyk,” per 82games.
If he wants to be a starter in the league Olynyk will need to tack on some muscle and become at least a league-average three-point shooter, but his main improvement for the end of 2013-14 must be in the pick-and-roll.
Thus far, Olynyk has shot only 31.7 percent as the roll man in pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Boston likely won’t be buying out Bass or Kris Humphries so Olynyk will need to earn his minutes but if he can continue to show steady improvement he could certainly work his way into the starting group by year's end.
Battling injuries and an ever-shifting rotation, Jerryd Bayless hasn’t exactly wowed in his brief time with the Celts, but he can still turn things around.
In green, Bayless is averaging just 8.3 points, 1.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on 40.1 percent shooting overall and 26.2 percent from three-point range.
A true heat-check guard off the bench, Bayless has had his moments scoring the ball for Boston but overall hasn’t brought enough consistency to the backup guard role.
One game he’ll look great, slashing to the rim or launching nifty floaters in the paint and the next he’ll be settling for pull-up 20-footers and clanking them off the rim.
However, with Avery Bradley battling an ankle injury and Phil Pressey still a little too raw as a scorer, Bayless will have the chance to cement his spot as a mainstay in the rotation.
Perhaps no one on the C’s can heat up quite as quickly as Bayless and a team that struggles to score could certainly use a guard who can create off the dribble.
Despite being undersized for the 2 and a little too prone to gamble against ball-handlers, Bayless has actually been decent defensively.
He’s holding opposing point guards to a PER of 13.5 and opposing 2-guards to a PER of 11.9, according to 82games.
Part of that is because Bayless is guarding bench players, but it still speaks to his improved effort level.
He may not crack the starting lineup once the C’s are finally healthy, but Bayless has a shot at becoming a quality sixth man and potential long-term piece if he plays well.
He has dropped 29 points over the last two games, so clearly he senses the moment.
One of the few bright spots for the C’s in an otherwise bleak 2013-14 has been Chris Johnson, who was called up from the D-League and became a mainstay in their rotation, eventually earning a guaranteed roster spot.
On the year, Johnson is averaging 6.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.8 assists while shooting 43 percent from the field and a blistering 41.5 percent from beyond the arc.
He has plugged a much-needed hole on the perimeter, and he was particularly good in January, averaging 9.7 points, 3.2 boards and 1.5 assists while shooting 46.5 percent.
A wiry 6’6”, Johnson has the ability to play both the 2 and the 3 as needed, and he works extremely hard on the defensive end of the floor.
He’s holding opposing 2s to a PER of 14.4, but small forwards are averaging just a 5.7 PER, per 82games.
For a Boston team in desperate need of floor spacing, Johnson’s ability to stroke the corner three has been a huge boost.
He’s a reliable catch-and-shoot player, knocking down 40.6 percent of his spot-up threes, per Synergy Sports (Subscription Required), and he is also capable of reacting to a closeout and putting the ball on the floor.
The C’s obviously won’t be trading Green to open up minutes for Johnson, but they could very well shelve him towards the end of the year to ensure a higher lottery pick.
Though Johnson did not have the traditional path to the NBA, he is just 23 years old, and he has some upside as a three-and-D wing player who is much cheaper than someone like former Celtic Courtney Lee.
Boston has plenty to gain from seeing if Johnson is a legitimate NBA player, so expect to see his minutes creep up as the year goes on.