(ESPN) BOSTON — Call it the Avery Bradley approach. Two years after concerns about Bradley’s health forced him to slide down the draft board, the Celtics utilized their two first-round picks Thursday night to secure Ohio State sophomore forward Jared Sullinger (No. 21) and Syracuse sophomore center Fab Melo(No. 22) after issues surrounding each player left them available to Boston in the 2012 NBA draft. Bradley, once ESPN’s top-ranked high school player in the country, had lottery potential leading up to the 2010 draft (despite a somewhat unremarkable freshman season at Texas), but an ankle injury in a pre-draft workout caused him to tumble a bit and Boston snatched him up at No. 19. This past season, a healthy Bradley distinguished himself as the team’s starting shooting guard of the future, mixing All-NBA-caliber defense with an emerging offensive game. The Celtics are hopeful that Sullinger and Melo could be a frontcourt tandem of the future, this despite the fact that other teams ran from them on Thursday night. This is a good time to remind you to limit your expectations. Keep in mind that Bradley played a mere 162 minutes during his first NBA season. Rookies need time to develop, particularly those who are available in the latter stages of the first round.
Even as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge expressed satisfaction in his draft haul — which also included Syracuse forward Kris Joseph at pick No. 51 — he tempered expectations. “I think that a team that is trying to win, it’s tough to count too much on three rookies coming in,” he said. “So maybe one [rookie] will be ready to go, maybe two of them will be able to play a certain role. I’m not sure, but we’ll try to fill in with veterans from here on out.” For a draft that was billed as brimming with talent, it sure played out like a typical, top-heavy pick-a-palooza. Boston admittedly explored the idea of moving up to land more surefire talent, but the Celtics didn’t have the necessary assets to get anywhere near where they needed to land a sure thing. Yes, that sort of talent likely evaporated when the New Orleans Hornets landed Austin Rivers, son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, with the 10th overall pick. If Ainge had thoughts of a family reunion — and adding a bench scorer — it faded quickly and left a muddied mix of talent available in the mid- to late first round. Even as players over whom Boston reportedly lusted came off the board — most notably Iowa State’s Royce White, who went to Houston at No. 16, and St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson, who went to Orlando at No. 19 — the Celtics were content to let the draft play itself out and elected to travel the risk/reward route. Make no mistake, it’s not easy finding talent in the early 20s. Look at the years between Rajon Rondo (21st, 2005) and Reggie Lewis (22nd, 1987), when the team dabbled in picks such Dahntay Jones (20th, 2003) and Joseph Forte (21st, 2001). The success of players chosen in the top 10 is a lot less spotty, though even that’s an inexact science. And since Boston couldn’t get up that high, it settled for the next best thing: letting players with top-10 potential come to it. There’s no guarantee Boston will ever get top-10-caliber play. Only time will tell if other GMs had sufficient reason to be spooked by Sullinger’s back or Melo’s work ethic. Both concerns were thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks and were enough to scare off potential suitors (and remember, these are suitors desperate for talent). “[Sullinger and Melo] are two guys we had rated a lot higher; we thought they were both lottery talent,” said Celtics assistant general manager Ryan McDonough. “Frankly, we didn’t expect them to be there where we were picking.” That’s probably a little bit of GM-speak. Rarely do you hear a personnel guy admit, “Yeah, we thought this guy might still be here when we picked.” But Boston clearly had an inkling that Sullinger might slide. That’s why the team’s doctors checked him out at the draft combine in Chicago last month.