While the Boston Celtics will be without a representative in the NBA All-Star game for the first time since 2007, there has been some good news surrounding this years’ festivities in New Orleans with the selection of both Jared Sullinger and rookie Kelly Olynyk as participants in the Rising Stars Challenge. The game, which sees the brightest rookies and sophomores in the league battle it out on rosters hand selected by celebrity general managers, is traditionally a great experience for young players. It’s a chance to soak up the All-Star festivities and for Sullinger and Olynyk it will be a chance, if only for a moment, to forget about the tough season they are enduring in Boston.
Sullinger has been one of the most productive players for the Celtics this season and has emerged as a cornerstone player as the team rebuilds. After being selected with the 21st pick in the 2012 draft, Sullinger had showed glipmses of being a special player in the NBA before a lingering back issue finally required surgery and shut him down for the season. Now, with a clean bill of health on his side, Sullinger has already eclipsed the 45 games he managed to play as a rookie and has been a key member of coach Brad Stevens’ rotation. In 46 games, 33 of which he has started in, the second-year big man is averaging 12.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. As Sullinger’s role continues to grow, he has shown signs that he could become one of the most productive big men in the league with an expanded role. In games where he has played over 30 minutes, Sullinger is averaging 17.5 points and over 10 rebounds a game.
Recently, Stevens sat down with Sullinger and asked him to be more of a leader on this young Celtics team. The experience he will gain from the All-Star weekend should help him as he continues to grow into his new role. While the Rising Stars Challenge is often a perimeter-orientated game, we have seen sophomore big men dominate on more than one occasion. With his ability to score inside, masterful rebounding and a willingness to shoot the three with no hesitation, Sullinger could be a surprise contender for the game’s Most Valuable Player if he attacks from the outset.
Olynyk on the other hand is somewhat of a surprise selection for the rookies. While he appeared to be one of the most NBA-ready players in the draft, he has been inconsistent with his opportunities and has showed that he still has a lot to learn before he can be a big-minute player at this level. After being selected 13th overall out of Gonzaga in the 2013 draft, Olynyk dominated the Orlando Summer league but has been unable to replicate that kind of form in the NBA.
In 38 games, including six starts, he has averaged 6.7 points, 4.3 boards, 1.5 assists in just over 18 minutes per game. While he has struggled at times, the rookie has also had a number of breakout performances showing the potential that forced general manager Danny Ainge to trade up for the big man on draft day. On New Year’s Eve against the Atlanta Hawks, Olynyk broke out with 21 points, four rebounds, five assists, two blocks and a steal. He had another terrific night filling up the stat sheet on Jan. 17 against the Los Angeles Lakers when he had 25 points to go along with five rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block. No doubt the skillset is there but the rookie still has to adjust to the speed of the NBA and work heavily on his defensive ability. The game, which traditionally showcases offense first, second and third could be a great change of pace for Olynyk and allow him to gain some confidence in a low pressure environment, while also playing against some of the game’s brightest young stars.
Joining Sullinger and Olynyk in the Rising Stars Challenge are:
Rookies: Michael Carter-Williams (76ers), Steven Adams (Thunder), Pero Antic (Hawks), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Trey Burke (Jazz), Tim Hardaway Jr. (Knicks), Victor Oladip (Magic) and Mason Plumlee (Nets)
Sophomores: Harrison Barnes (Warriors), Bradley Beal (Wizards), Anthony Davis (Pelicans), Andre Drummond (Pistons), Terrence Jones (Rockets), Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers), Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) and Dion Waiters (Cavaliers).
The Rising Stars Challenge takes place on Feb.14 in New Orleans Arena.