After being flagged with back issues in a Chicago pre-draft camp, rookie Jared Sullinger saw his 2012 draft stock plummet him out of the lottery. The 6’9 forward had long been considered a top ten talent in whichever class he decided to enter and had warranted some talk of being a top five pick. Team after team passed on the Ohio State Buckeyes star until the Celtics chose him with the 21st pick of the first round.
Sullinger had been a dominant high school and college player in Ohio. He led his Northland High School team to a 21 – 0 record while averaging 24.5 points and 11.7 rebounds. He was a Mcdonalds All American and the James Naismith award winner. A five start recruit with a selection of colleges to choose from, Sullinger stayed in Ohio and became a Buckeye.
With Ohio State, Sullinger was dominant from the outset. He had 19 points and 14 rebounds in his first game and led the team to a 23 – 2 overall record in his freshman season. As a sophomore, Sullinger again led the team to an impressive 31 – 8 mark while averaging 17.5 points and 9.3 boards. His team made the NCAA tournament’s final four where they were finally dispatched by Kansas.
By the time Sullinger decided to enter the NBA draft, he was a Freshman of The Year winner, Big Ten Tournament MVP and First Team All American. He had succeeded and excelled at every level and other than some concerns about his ability to deal with longer front courts, scouts believed he was a true impact player at the professional level.
Sullinger has quickly made an impact on this Celtics team. A team assembled to again fight for a championship, it is rare for coach Doc Rivers to spend a great deal of time playing or developing younger players. Given limited minutes early in the season, Sullinger impressed the coaching staff and teammates alike with his exceptional rebounding ability, his effort and focus. He was occasionally slow on defensive rotations and would often get in foul trouble but the rookie was taking it all in and learning quickly. “Half of my fouls come because I’m just out of position” Sullinger said, “I’m working on that.” The 20 year olds recognition of how to avoid foul trouble is fast improving as he studies the professional game. “I’ve been managing that lately. Understanding what type of referees we have and if they are going to let us be physical of passive” he said. “I just try to read the refs and see what type of game it’s going to be”.
There is no question that Sullingers fast developing relationship with Celtics legend Kevin Garnett has helped the rookies development immensely. Sullinger has started referring to Garnett as his big brother, and while the School of Garnett is a tough one, Sullinger is embracing the challenge and feeding off all the knowledge he can from the 17 year vet. Sullinger remembers his first practice, “(Garnett) scored the basketball, of course” he said. “Kevin caught the ball in the post, opened up, did his thing: go to the left, step-back, couldn’t guard it.” “After he scored he was running down the court and he said ‘Welcome to the league, big fella’ I was like, ‘Oh, Ok, thank you.’”
Since that first training session, Garnett has taken the rookie under his wing and under Garnetts tutelage, Sullinger has seem drastic improvements in his game over the course of his first few months in the NBA. “I can always hear him in the back of my head,” Sullinger said. “He’s always trying to mentor me, tell me what I can do, what he sees. Trying to make me see what he sees.” This is nothing new for Garnett, he has a rare, higher understanding of the game that he has often tried to pass on to younger front court players. For the most part, it is too much for inexperienced players to handle along with the intensity the message is often delivered with, but Sullinger has been a sponge, absorbing every piece of information the 15 time all-star offers and is not hesitating to translate it onto the court.
Sullingers improvement over his first 40 games has been drastic. He is now the first big off Rivers’ bench and is averaging 8 points, near 9 rebounds, shooting 52% in over 25 minutes per game. His impact is being felt across the league as he leads the Celtics in plus/minus, being the first player other than Garnett to do that since he arrived in 2007. Sullingers great play in January was a large part of the Celtics recent resurgence and a six game win streak which helped to get the season back on track.
Sullinger already has three double doubles in his short career, he had a career high 16 rebounds in a win against Phoenix along with 12 points and has seen a steady increase in minutes as the season progresses. He ranks 15th overall in rebound percentage and at 18% of available rebounds is just a percentage point less than Dwight Howard.
The rookie is not intimidated by playing in the big leagues, he embraces the challenge and loves to compete against the best. “He’s very poised” said Garnett. “You’re not going to get under his skin. And practice every day is not easy. Our practices are hard. They get emotional, passionate.”
For the season, Sullinger is averaging over 11 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. On a team with severe rebounding deficiencies the rookie has quickly earned his place in Doc’s rotation and has been the teams second best big man behind Garnett. With the return of Avery Bradley, Rivers decided to revert back to his successful starting line up from last season with Bradley and forward Brandon Bass starting alongside all-stars Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Garnett. However, Bass has struggled so far this season and often it is Sullinger playing heavy minutes with the starting unit and even finishing games in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics look likely to be active at the NBA’s upcoming trade deadline and one of the most likely candidates to be moved will be Bass. Boston needs an additional rim protecting big man and it is becoming apparent that Sullinger brings more to the table at a much cheaper price. His quiet toughness and competitive mean streak fits right in with the veterans on this Celtics team, his ability to quickly learn and develop has endeared him to the coaching staff. Whether there is a deal at the deadline or not, it seems clear that the Celtics are a better team with Jared Sullinger on the floor and he will likely challenge Bass for the starting role sooner rather than later.
Long term, if Sullinger can avoid the back problems that threw his draft night into chaos he will become a staple in Boston where he has become a fan favourite with his tough play and attitude. To those who followed Sullinger through college his success in the NBA is no shock, he had for years been projected as a lottery talent and a potential all-star power forward. Now, under the tutelage of one of the greatest ever to have played the position, Sullinger has a rare opportunity to feed off that experience and further develop his natural game.
The fans love him, the veterans believe in him and he has gained the trust of his coach. “He comes in with a chip” Rivers said of Sullinger. “I think he’s getting better, obviously, in front of our eyes and he’s going to keep getting better. His focus is what’s improved to me; he’s focussed on every possession.”
The Celtics should count themselves lucky. As they embark on an unlikely run at a championship six years after bringing Kevin Garnett to town, they have found a rookie to not only help them in that goal, but to carry the torch once the Big Ticket finally rides off into the sunset.
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