Scoring: it's the most obvious quality of a star. Put up 20+ points a night and you're in rarefied air in the NBA. Only fifteen players averaged 20 or more points per game and only two of them did not make the All-Star Game. It's sexy and puts you on SportsCenter and when fans talk about stars, it's often the stat that they'll measure players by.
For the Celtics last season and really for the last two, the team has lacked a scorer. Jeff Green had been the heir apparent to that title after The Big Three era ended, but Green's inconsistency coupled with the team's direction towards a full rebuild made him expendable. Brad Stevens has cleverly covered up the team's deficiencies with player and ball movement, but if Boston learned anything in its quick foray back in the playoffs last spring, it's that at some point, particularly late in games, they could use a couple of guys that they can throw the ball into to get a bucket.
In 21 games, Isaiah Thomas averaged 19.0 PPG playing only 25.9 minutes off the bench. Bump that up to 30 MPG (and possibly even start him) and he definitely clears the 20 PPG threshold. He's not the most efficient scorer with a 41.2 FG%, but he averaged nearly three times the amount of free throw attempts (6.5 per game) than any current Celtic and dished out 5.4 assists.
This summer, he's done some coy campaigning to become a starter in 2015-2016 and Brad Stevens didn't shut the door on that possibility, but Thomas may ultimately be better suited in his current role as super sixth man. He'll most likely be paired with bigger wings (Evan Turner, Terry Rozier, Jonas Jerebko) that will cover up his lack of size on defense and/or surrounded with shooters (Jerebko, R.J. Hunter, Kelly Olynyk, David Lee) to accentuate his playmaking skills.
In the back court, there may not be another candidate to put up those kind of numbers, but it's possible a front court big could hit that mark. Before Thomas' arrival, there were stretches in November and January where Jared Sullinger consistently averaged around 16 PPG in 30 minutes. He was the Celtics' best player while playing alongside former teammates Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo, but an injury derailed what could have been his breakout season and it's difficult to predict how he'll fit with a team where he could conceivably see the ball a lot more and not just as a third option. In limited minutes in the playoffs, Sully returned and put up games of 4, 14, 10, and 21 points (in 28 minutes of Game 4). There were moments, particularly in Game 4, when you could see what makes Sully special around the basket. He's got great hands for a big man and can challenge even bigger centers and forwards without having to necessarily be a stretch-4 or 5.
But we're not looking for moments from Sullinger anymore. He needs to put together a full season of solid play. It's a contract year for Sully and by all accounts, he's taking his summer workouts seriously and should come to training camp in the best shape of his career. He's averaged around 27 minutes a game for the last two seasons and put up 13 & 8; those numbers project to 17 & 10 at a per-36 rate. However, it's been consistency that's plagued Sullinger in his three years with the Celtics. If he can maintain his body, keep himself on the floor, and keep himself on the floor for longer stretches, it's not far fetched to think that he'll be in that star range.
@Jared_Sully0 Man U know just grindin. Getting ready for us to cook these boys this year— Isaiah Thomas (@Isaiah_Thomas) August 17, 2015
The question for me is whether or not free agents want to play with Thomas and/or Sullinger as "featured" members of the Celtics. Kevin Durant, listen up. Isaiah Thomas isn't the typical sixth man. Former winners of the 6th Man award like Louis Williams and Jamal Crawford are straight gunners, players with a shoot first mentality that only have scoring in mind. On the other hand, Thomas averaged over 5 assists in limited time as a Celtic. He possesses the same scoring spurtability as most sixth men, but he's a point guard at heart. I think that's an attractive quality to free agents. They want a guy that can make the game easier on them and get them the ball in the right spots, but they also want to team up with someone that can hold their own and score the ball.
As for Sullinger, his case for stardom isn't as clear cut. There are a lot of factors not in his favor. His three point shooting is a problem, but I suspect those attempts will decrease next season as he focuses on his strengths. He also lacks the athleticism to switch on pick-and-rolls and be an effective weak side defender. He doesn't possess the low post game of an Al Jefferson or Zach Randolph, but with Boston's constant ball movement and spacing, Sullinger often finds himself in a position to take advantage of a defender that isn't right square on his back. He's got enough touch to put the ball on the floor for a few dribbles, bump his defender to create a little more space, and flip it in with either hand.
He's also a savvy rebounder and if his weight loss makes him quicker to the ball and springier on putbacks and dump-offs, Sully could find himself in a similar role as Tristan Thompson in Cleveland. Thompson benefited greatly from the attention that LeBron and Kyrie Irving drew in the playoffs and made it his mission to crash the paint behind them when they penetrated for hand offs and putbacks. With Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier fulfilling similar roles, Sullinger should see a sharp increase in easier shot attempts.
A scoring point guard that needs the ball in his hands and a garbage man doing the dirty work down low: those aren't exactly the star quality-type players that fans have been expecting, but it's a start. The big question is whether these guys are Paul Pierces who can attract free agents and other vets or an Antoine Walker-like trade chip to be moved in the future.