NEWARK - Danny Ainge hasn't made a habit of taking big names during the draft. His last three drafts have included names such as JaJuan Johnson, E'Twaun Moore, Avery Bradley, Lester Hudson, and so on. This time around, Ainge bucked the trend, as the Boston Celtics drafted Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo with the No. 21 and No. 22 overall picks in the 2012 NBA Draft, which took place at the Prudential Center in New Jersey on Thursday.
Sullinger and Melo both made names for themselves, but they did so in very different ways.
One, Sullinger, played in nearly every game during his college career and was a projected top ten pick had he entered the draft after his freshman season last year, but he decided to return to Ohio State for another year. The decision nearly paid off big time, as Sullinger helped lead the Buckeyes to a Final Four appearance after beating Melo's team, Syracuse, in the Elite Eight.
Stardom found Sullinger at an early age. After four years at Northland High School, Sully had already captured the attention of national scouts. In his senior season at Northland, Sullinger led the team to a 21-0 record as well as the No. 1 ranking in the nation. He averaged 24.5 points and 11.5 boards that season, was named a McDonald's All-American and received the James A. Naismith award, which recognizes the top boys high school basketball player in the country.
As it often does many student-athletes making the transition from high school to college, success didn't evade Sullinger when he was recruited by and signed with Ohio State. Sully's talent was clear from game one, in which he scored 19 points and racked up 14 boards. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in a year that would end with the Buckeyes bowing out in the Sweet Sixteen after a loss to Kentucky, despite being the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. Sullinger was named a First Team All-American by FOX Sports, as well as the Associated Press. Not bad.
Instead of making the usual play by a talented young athlete in his position, Sully shunned the draft to come back and make another run at a title at Ohio State. Boy, did he come pretty close.
Sully's averages of 17.5 points and 93 rebounds again paced the Buckeyes, who finished with a 31-8 overall record and made it to the Final Four in New Orleans, before losing to the Kansas Jayhawks. Sullinger's efforts were again good enough for a First-Team All-America selection from the Associated Press, the second of his career. No doubt, Sullinger lived up to his hype in college.
Things were looking pretty good for Sully entering the 2012 NBA Draft, which he did declare for this time around. Unfortunately, Sullinger would be on the receiving end of the NBA Draft Combine's kiss of death, a bad report from physicians. Doctors red-flagged Sullinger's back.
Just like that, Sullinger went from a projected lottery pick to having some experts predict that he would fall out of the first round entirely. What an unfortunate twist for such a hard working kid.
But as usual, the experts were wrong, and Sullinger didn't fall out of the first round, instead falling into the laps of the Celtics at No. 21. Doc Rivers, head coach of the Celtics, and Ainge were ecstatic that Sully dropped as far (the feeling may not be mutual, at least from a financial standpoint), as they still had him pegged as a lottery pick and didn't expect him to be available.
"You sit there and you think, 'Wow, this guy... people may pass on him,'" said Rivers.
Then, we have the story of Melo, and it unfortunately isn't as feel-good or inspiring. Like Sullinger, Melo (full name Fabricio Paulino de Melo - put THAT on a T-Shirt!) came into college with high expectations, but his first year with the Orange was a total bust. Melo put up just 2.3 points and 1.9 rebounds in 9.9 minutes per game as a freshman, but because of his limited action, did have a high shooting percentage (60.7 percent). Still, that wasn't the showing that most were looking for.
Year two went much, much better. Melo put forth improved averages of 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in an average of 25.4 minutes, good enough to earn him Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. After that successful season, Melo decided to throw his chips into the draft, and the Celtics took the chance. Just think of where he could have been drafted had he done well in his first season. It's very possible that Melo, like Sullinger, could have been a lottery pick.
"For us to get a seven-footer at that pick is a good pick for us," Rivers said about Melo.
You've heard about the potential of these two kids, something the Celtics will be working hard to sell you on as they integrate Sully and Melo into the Celtics system. There's more to the story, of course. With the good comes the bad, and both Sullinger and Melo have their own baggage.
Sullinger's baggage solely relates to his health, and the bulging disc he has certainly doesn't make anyone feel any better. After all, there's a reason a player with his talent (again, once a top five projected pick) falls that far, right? Melo's baggage is on and off the court. Some have questioned his worth ethic and conditioning, and faced criminal mischief charges after allegedly getting into a fight with his girlfriend and damaging her car back in November of 2011. Melo also could not participate in the 2012 NCAA Tournament due to academic ineligibility, which hurt the Orange.
Two young bigs with a lot of potential but a lot of questions. Boston's decision to pick the pair was definitely a risky one, but if the payout is what they expect, we could look back on these selections as two of the biggest steals of the entire draft. After all, the Celtics filled a major hole with Sully and Melo, as they were in desperate need of big men. Now the question is whether or not Rivers and company can integrate them into the Celtic way, and more importantly, if they will be willing to put in the work to make it on the next level. The integration should not be a problem, especially for a team with such a tight-knit locker room, and if Kevin Garnett re-joins the mix, that really helps.
It isn't fair to anyone to assess draft grades for the Celtics two first round picks less than 48 hours after the draft, so I'll hold off on judgement. Personally, I love these picks, and I'm eager to see what coaching and veteran teaching can do for Sullinger and Melo. The sky truly is the limit.