I’m from Maine and consequently—that state not being known as a hotbed of professional sports—I grew up a Boston fan. So you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I was fairly excited about how the NBA Draft played out last night. And it wasn’t just a, “hey, guys from Syracuse are playing on a pro team I like” kind of thing, either. Unlike a lot of Boston fans, who were seduced by the athletic allure of Perry Jones III, I actually think Fab Melo and Kris Joseph make a lot of sense for Boston, and they both have a great chance to be successful.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: Melo fills a huge (ha!) need for the Cs, who, let’s remember, were playing Ryan Hollins 10 minutes a game in the playoffs. The Celtics went small a lot this year, with Garnett playing center, but, should the Hall of Famer be back for another year or two—not a sure thing as he enters free agency, but likely—that’s not something his body can handle for an 82-game season. Boston needs height, a big body to plant in the middle, block shots, play defense, and let Garnett roam and do his (with apologies to Tim Duncan) best-defensive-big-of-his-generation thing.
There’s legit uncertainty about Melo’s ability to defend the pick-and-roll, and whether he has the foot speed/lateral quickness to show on the perimeter and get back in the paint. And, of course, there are always questions about how defenders in Boeheim’s 2-3 zone will translate into the NBA.
But look. This isn’t Indiana’s Roy Hibbert we’re talking about, who has all the plodding footspeed and lateral quickness of a geriatric brachiosaurus. (Boston filled their super-slow-big-man hole with Jared Sullinger.) Melo’s athletic enough that he has a chance to play defense effectively in the NBA. He has great instincts—Danny Ainge specifically called out his ability to both block shots and take charges, which is virtually unheard of in a big man—and he anchored one of the absolute best defenses in the country this year. If Garnett returns, he’ll have a defensive genius teaching him. (Assuming Melo listens—KG is notorious for freezing out young players who ignore his advice. To be honest I’m kind of worried about this happening.) Moreover, I’m not sure how relevant the zone criticism is. Boston essentially plays zone anyway, albeit a very different one from what Melo’s used to.
Obviously Melo’s raw offensively but Boston has a solid recent track of developing big men: Leon Powe before his body broke down, Big Baby Davis, Al Jefferson before the KG trade. Melo showed improvement this year, and if he can hit his jumper consistently, he’ll be able to play in the weirdo inverted offense the Cs like to run where Rajon Rondo goes into the post with two bigs spacing the floor on the wings.
Melo’s shot blocking can help ignite the fast break for a Celtics team that’s been desperately trying to run more in recent years. He’s a good screener and finisher who’ll be playing alongside the best passing point guard in the game outside of Chris Paul and Steve Nash. He’ll be one of the best alley-oop targets Rondo’s ever had—and Rondo is, let’s be honest, somewhat better at throwing those than Scoop was.
As for Joseph, the Celtics make sense for him, too. It’s true that he never put things together quite the way we hoped he would. But Boston’s not going to ask him to dominate. They’re going to ask him to spot up, slash, run the floor, and play defense in 10-15 minutes a game off the bench—all things he can do. He may not have been comfortable being The Guy, but he won’t be in Boston, and I wonder if a complementary role suits him better and will take some pressure off him, and let him just play. He’ll be working within a system that plays to his strengths.
Joseph also brings all the typical defensive caveats that Syracuse players come with, and as a perimeter player, it might be a bit harder for him to translate to the NBA than it is for Melo. But Boston has had one of the stingiest defenses in the league since the Big 3 arrived. (Side note: I was so, so disappointed that “Big 3” caught on instead of “Boston 3 Party” or “PGA Tour.”) It made Ray Allen not terrible at defense. It’s a system with a proven track of covering up defenders’ weaknesses.
In other words: I think Kris’s defense will be fine.
Boston coach Doc Rivers tends not to play rookies much, so even if Joseph does make the squad he’ll likely be buried on the bench. But this is an old team, and injuries happen. Plus, no fewer than 10 of Boston’s 15 rostered players are free agents, and a lot of those players probably aren’t coming back. The Celtics need bodies, plain and simple, and they’ve been trying to get younger for years. I think he gets a shot.
Wing depth is a particular issue. Jeff Green, if he comes back after missing a year with a heart condition, is a tweener who’s more suited to be a smallball power forward. Outside of him, the Paul Pierce Backup Committee includes Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic, and Marquis Daniels, all of whom are free agents, and all of whom are various degrees of terrible. In other words: this is an area of need. If Sasha Pavlovic can break into the rotation, I have high hopes for Kris.
It’s also worth noting that Boston GM Danny Ainge has been great at finding talent deeper in the draft: Rondo and Avery Bradley (AKA The Most Annoying Perimeter Defender In The NBA, AKA The Face Jameer Nelson Sees In His Nightmares) were both picked late in the first round. Davis was the 35th pick in 2008. Powe, who destroyed the Lakers in Game 2 of the ’08 Finals, was the 49th in 2006.
Obviously, I don’t know if either Melo or Joseph will have successful NBA careers. But I do know that they both find themselves in a fantastic situation: on a veteran team, surrounded by Hall of Famers, with one of the best (and best liked) coaches in the league. Boston is a team with a coherent identity, the most successful franchise in league history.
Everything’s in place for them to succeed. Now it’s on them. When does Summer League start? I can’t wait to see these two in green.
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