As I watched the Celtics take on the Knicks on Saturday night I could not help but think about Iman Shumpert. The Knicks second year man suffered a devastating knee injury last season but up until then he was a surprise rookie contributor, the Knicks’ designated lock-down defender, and a most-of-the-year starter. I wasn’t struck by Shumpert’s absence or lamenting a detoured career. I was giddy of the opportunities that lay ahead for the Celtics in discovering their own “Iman Shumpert.”
The Celtics rarely have a rookie contributor worth excited speculation. Last season there was Greg Stiemsma (who was totally awesome both on the court and in the lockerroom) but he was given playing time out of necessity, not because Doc Rivers‘ had a notion he’d thrive. The unexpectedness of Stiemsma’s ability and contributions was almost better than a highly-touted rookie living up to his hype. It was awesome to watch his play transition from “flukey good game” to “wow, this guy can actually play in this league.” Just awesome.
This season, however, is different. Instead of having to hope that a rookie comes out of nowhere to save the Celtics in a pinch, the Celtics have a couple of prospective rookies that could easily become contributors.
The first potential stud is Jared Sullinger. The anti-Stiemah. There’s been talk of Sullinger potentially usurping the starting power forward role from Brandon Bass, which is crazy when you consider the Celtics last four first round picks (that they actually held on to) prior to Sullinger were JaJuan Johnson, Avery Bradley, JR Giddens, and Gerald Green. Those guys had “project” written all over ‘em. Sullinger is somewhere between “project” and “polished.” Through three preseason games he’s shown that he can play well in multiple roles, in various lineups, and against opponents with very different styles of play. Most importantly, he can carve out a role on his hustle alone. While there is no doubt Sullinger is talented, he has a powerful ability to be where the ball is; something the Celtics have been sorely lacking the past few seasons.
Then there is Dionte Christmas. The anti-anti-Stiemsma. He is pretty much Greg Stiemsma 2.0. He’s been around NBA training camps before, played over-seas, and has grown a lot since going undrafted in 2009. He is this season’s feel-good story. I don’t think there is a single Celtics fan who isn’t pulling for Christmas to make the team. Well, maybe those cautious ones who recognize the value of another roster spot down to road. To them I say, “c’mon! Live a little!” Christmas has all the makings of an over-achiever thrust into a reserve role due to some injury situation. He’s a stronger two guard who can handle the ball, rebound well, and doesn’t shy away from contact. While those are all things Christmas can do, he’s really a scorer first which is something of which the Celtics cannot have enough.
Last but not least, there is Kris Joseph. He’s not even a lock to make the team but if he does, I can see him making an impact this season. He’s not superbly talented at anything but like Sullinger he hustles. He has rebounded very well for a small forward which is something the Celtics always need. Like Christmas, Joseph plays with a fearlessness uncommon among rookie second round picks.
It’s not as if any of these scenarios are certainties. There’s a chance Rivers nails Sully’s butt to the bench and Christmas and Joseph don’t even make the team. For now though, I’m excited about the possibilities and seeing these guys in a few more games. Roster decisions are ahead and these next few preseason games will go along way in determining whether those decisions are easy or hard.
Note: Apologies to all the Jamar Smith and Micah Downs, and Fab Melo fans. I don’t think Smith and Downs have a chance to make the team and Melo is too much of a project.