The Celtics face a great quandary with Jared Sullinger next week. Walking away from Sullinger seems like a difficult pill to swallow, considering the Celtics know he can be a useful player against most, but not all, teams.
But a solution could come at the 16th pick in Domantas Sabonis, another skilled big man who also finds himself navigating the waters between low-post magician and contemporary power forward. Sabonis shows many similarities to Sullinger, but he also does not have a clear answer to the question of whether he will fit in to the Celtics' system.
Sabonis is attractive at No. 16 on the surface because he can replace Sullinger's efforts and role while costing ten times less. He flashes perhaps more potential to be a scorer on the block, something that Sullinger has struggled to pull off on a consistent basis. But like Sullinger, his defensive pull from the three-point line will only occur when he actually hits threes. His projection to be that guy is as clear as it is for Sullinger.
He is the kind of big that can crash the defensive glass and still be a part of the fast break. While Sullinger often trails in transition late in games, Sabonis shows promise to be charging the floor even in the late fourth quarter. While he cannot initiate transition with his passing and dribbling as well as Sullinger, he has an unshakable pedigree with his father being one of the great passers in the history of the game. While it's a false narrative to apply the attributes of a father to his son in the NBA, abilities like reading the floor and good footwork are as innate as they are learned.
Sabonis is not yet equipped to perimeter switch on defense and is yet another player who lives below the rim. While his footwork and motor make him an effective defender, being a fit in Stevens' switching scheme will be a lofty goal.
Domantas is the kind of player who could finish games at the five next to a hybrid four like Jae Crowder. But opponents will run one-five pick-and-rolls over and over until Sabonis is isolated on a switch to the point guard. His footwork and intellect could allow him to survive these cross matches, but he could eventually be the vulnerability that allows teams with good scoring point guards—otherwise known as 90% of the league—to control the game.
Once you get to the middle of the first round, the only all-around players have average skills. Sabonis projects to at least be an effective scorer in the post. It's a role that has waned across the league and especially in Boston under Stevens. But that phenomenon is as much a product of a lack of bigs with real post skills as it is a systemic shift to clear the lanes.
Post scorers still have a useful role in contemporary four-out offensive systems. But they must spend their time off the ball setting screens and pulling weak-side defenders out to the three-point line. They need to crash the defensive glass and then catch up to the transition play. When they get the ball on the block, they need to set up a quick post and move quickly. The defense can never have enough time to recover and set. Sabonis is still a bit methodical in the post, with a lot of his low-post buckets coming on messy rip-through moves that allowed him to pop short shots over smaller defenders. Those shots will not work in the NBA, which means his jump hook and up-and-under moves will be his bread and butter. It's enough to be a Luis Scola or David West type of player, but those guys had to add deep range and stellar passing to stay effective.
Sabonis displays good instincts to move off the ball and spot up from the midrange. But if the Celtics scouting department determines that his chances of being a 35% three-point shooter are about as good as Sullinger's, they may not be interested. If the Celtics still have the 16th pick by the time it rolls around, and if they are lucky enough for Sabonis to still be on the board, he is a worthy bet.
His development floor is a useful bench scorer, but he has the potential to be the kind of player Celtics fans have prayed for Sullinger to become. With Sullinger hitting free agency during a historic cap jump, Sabonis is the ideal reset button.