Jared Sullinger speaks like a basketball expert. He describes rebounding and discusses a basketball’s tendencies in certain situations. He already knows that E’Twaun Moore’s contested misses are likely to err long and his uncontested ones will probably fall short. Sullinger is already noticing the crucial differences between the college and pro game, things like “if the first set doesn’t work, sprint to run a screen-and-roll because there isn’t time for much else.” He long ago passed Basketball 101 and has also picked up his Bachelor’s degree. Now, he is preparing to study for his Master’s under Professor KG.
Fab Melo doesn’t yet have a Bachelor’s degree in basketball. He entered hoops kindergarten six years ago and is ascending his way through school (hopefully on the Billy Madison plan), but once in a while he still spells rock “r-o-k” during a proverbial spelling bee. Damn it, the ‘C’ is silent. He struggles with simple things, like hedging screens and understanding the Celtics’ coverage calls, but occasionally solves complex equations by jump-stopping to avoid his defender and then slamming home a monster dunk in transition. Nobody is under the impression that social studies and long division are going to be easy for Melo, who has a lot to learn.
If you could put the two Celtics first-round picks together, they’d be a near-perfect combination of height, length, skill and basketball knowledge. But instead they are two teammates with entirely different sets of strengths and weaknesses, both of whom enter the NBA with question marks about how their games will translate to the NBA. Sullinger has the brains, girth and soft touch, but he’ll never be a threat to hammer home a windmill dunk. Melo has the length and run-jump athleticism, but he might bowl a gutter ball with his next jump shot or outlet pass.
Together, they hope to form part of a young nucleus that Danny Ainge has quietly established while allowing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to continue leading Boston (with Rajon Rondo) past what many thought would be their expiration date. In Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Sullinger, plus maybe E’Twaun Moore, Melo and/or Kris Joseph, the Celtics have silently formed a stable of 27-and-under horses to help ease them into the post-Pierce-and-KG-era, whenever that might arrive.
Sullinger is expected to contribute immediately, though he might improve significantly in the next two or three years if he can shed a little weight and gain a few inches on his vertical leap (think: Kevin Love). Melo’s development is expected to take a few years and plenty of tutelage, though worse players have seen playing time in the NBA and his potential defensive presence might help him get onto the court sooner than most observers expect.
Thanks to Boston’s thin front court — which currently features only the two rookies, KG, Bass, Chris Wilcox (who only resumed basketball activity during the last couple of weeks after season-ending heart surgery) and JaJuan Johnson (who’s lucky to have a guaranteed contract) — Melo might even be forced into some amount of action this season. I’m not sure Doc Rivers is overly excited about that possibility, though he has surely been intrigued by many of the brilliant (and usually brief) flashes Melo has displayed during summer league.
Melo and Sullinger are two drastically different players with drastically different accomplishments at drastically different stages of their development. And together, they might become Boston’s front court of the future. Opposites attract, they say, and sometimes they even mesh together and bring out each other’s best.