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Breaking Down the Preseason Battle: Celtics Frontcourt

Philadelphia Inquirer/Zumapress/Icon Sportswire

With the preseason underway, there are some exciting battles for positions taking place across the NBA. Whether it be for a starting position or rotation minutes, there are places where minutes are up for grabs. We got you covered here at Today’s Fastbreak, and we’ll continue with the Celtics frontcourt.

Boston’s frontcourt is incredibly crowded this year, as the team returned Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, and then acquired David Lee and Amir Johnson.

Lee has the highest profile as a member of the champion Warriors last year who was phased out of the rotation for much of the year. He’s still an efficient scorer with a mid-range jumper, but he doesn’t shoot threes or offer any semblance of rim protection. He worked in units that needed a scoring lift last season for Golden State, but was always taken out when he was exposed. He’s expected to start in Boston, and it’ll be interesting to see if he moves the ball quickly enough for Brad Stevens’s liking. He’s a good passer, but tends to hold the ball for a while before making his decision. He also does nothing to solve the Celtics’ rim protection woes and will need to be paired with a good defender for the team to be successful.

That rules out a pairing with Sullinger, who hasn’t been impressive in the preseason and really hasn’t produced as much as the team hoped. He’s still a willing three-point shooter, but he shot under 30 percent for the third straight year last season and just 43.9 percent overall. He’s still a sub-par defender who appears to give inconsistent effort, and it’s hard to figure out where he fits in Boston’s scheme if he can’t make long-range shots. Sullinger will likely have to make the most of small minutes early in the season to break into a bigger role.

Olynyk has some serious defensive issues as well, but he at least flashed a more diversified game than Sullinger offensively. He’s a better shooter and better at creating off the dribble as well. He averaged 2.8 assists per 36 minutes last year and adds a dimension to the offense as a skilled big that no one else does. He’s probably never going to be an acceptable starter on a great team due to his limitations, and he likely won’t be the starter this season. However, he’s a valuable piece off the bench who brings a skill set no one else has on the roster. If he can play at a level close to last year, he’ll be in the rotation the whole year.

Jonas Jerebko had some success last year in Boston as a stretch 4 and has shot the ball well the last two years. He’s a decent passer as well, but like Sullinger and Olynyk, offers no type of rim protection. The issue with Jerebko is his age, as he’s unlikely to improve a ton as a player. Olynyk offers similar skills and is better off the bounce, and is only 23. Jerebko could still be a rotation big in this league, but on a roster this deep with frontcourt players, will likely be injury insurance and play spot minutes.

The only two frontcourt options who can give the Celtics some semblance of rim protection are Zeller and Johnson. Both offer limited offensive games, although both can be effective on that side of the ball. Zeller knows what he does well, and Boston was much better with him on the floor last year. He’s a smart player who stays within the system on offense and defense. He’s not a floor stretcher, but will shoot within 20 feet if he’s wide open. He rolls to the rim eagerly on pick-and-rolls and doesn’t seem to mind being a low usage player. He’s very efficient and knocked down his free throws at an 82.3 percent clip last year.

Johnson was the unsung hero of Toronto for most of his tenure there. He’s one of the best screen-setters in the NBA and is an excellent defender who doesn’t need to block a ton of shots to impact his man’s shot. He’s dealt with some injuries, but seems to be healthy now and would likely be the most talented player of the whole bunch if he can stay that way.

The last two years, Johnson’s at least toyed around with developing a three-point shot, and he seems to be more willing to shoot those in limited preseason action thus far. He was impressive in Wednesday night’s game, nailing a couple of three-pointers and aggressively getting to the rim.

If Johnson continues to be healthy and effective, he may end up being the most impactful player in the frontcourt, even if he isn’t starting. The Celtics need either Johnson or Zeller to produce, because all of the other options available to Stevens need to be paired with a rim protector. This is a situation that’ll remain fluid all year, but it seems as though Zeller, Lee, Johnson and Olynyk will get the first cracks at the rotation.

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