Before the Boston Celtics had even played a game this season, many (rightfully) assumed that the team had entered into full-blown rebuilding mode after they traded away veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Similarly, with a rookie head coach in Brad Stevens at the helm and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo out indefinitely as he recovered from a knee injury, it appeared the young Celtics would struggle for wins and place themselves near the top of the lottery for the much-hyped 2014 NBA Draft. The term “tanking” plagued the Celtics in the offseason and overshadowed the work that the players and their new coaching staff were putting in to build not only for the future, but for the upcoming season. One player who took exception to the constant talk of throwing away the season was second-year forward Jared Sullinger, who repeatedly called out any media report saying the team would be losing intentionally in 2013-14.
While a single player can only have so much impact on the overall direction of a franchise, Sullinger has backed up his words early this season. Still working to improve his in-game fitness after back surgery last season, the 21-year-old forward has been a force for the Celtics and has become a reliable contributor on a team loaded with inconsistencies. Through the first 17 games, Sullinger has averaged 13.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists on better than 48 percent shooting from the field. He started out the season on the bench as he was admittedly a long way from being in game-shape, but more recently has worked his way into the starting lineup and has no doubt solidified his place there indefinitely with some outstanding performances.
Sullinger has a natural feel for the game and soft hands for a big man that, along with his physical strength, make him one of the most efficient rebounders in the league despite his inexperience. Coupled with his ability to score both in the post and from outside, Sullinger has proven himself as a starter at the NBA level and now looks to solidify his place among the best up and coming big men in the league. Since entering the starting lineup, Sullinger has posted impressive averages of 15.4 points and 9.9 rebounds in 31 minutes per game. Along with his proven ability to score down low and rebound, Sullinger has knocked down more than one 3-pointer per game since being given the green light as a starter, giving him more versatility offensively and allowing the Celtics to stretch out opposing defenses.
Amongst his seven starts this season have come some of Sullinger’s best games as a pro to date. In his first game starting at power forward, he scored 19 points and pulled down 17 rebounds against a strong Spurs’ frontcourt. Since then, Sullinger had a huge 23-point, 12-rebound performance against the Grizzlies and followed that up with 21 and 14 as the team lost to the Bucks. His performance has not gone unnoticed from opposing teams, the Bucks especially, who spent the entire second half double-teaming Sullinger every time he touched the ball after he had torched them for 15 points in the first. Facing the double is nothing new to the former Ohio State standout who carried his NCAA team offensively and routinely had to deal with double and triple teams at the collegiate level. This was, however the first time he had been shown that level of respect by an NBA defense and if he continues his high level of play it will certainly not be the last.
With less than a full season worth of games in the NBA under his belt, Sullinger already conducts himself like a veteran and seems to have quickly become a leader on the young Celtics’ roster despite his inexperience. He is accepting more and more responsibility and while he is not a vocal, boisterous intimidator on the court, there is no shortage of confidence from the second-year forward. He remains quietly determined and his competitive nature is driving him to prove all the naysayers who thought the Celtics would be a push over this season wrong. Amazingly, even with his outstanding performances recently Sullinger is still working his way back into peak condition and it may not be until later this season, or even the start of 2014-15 that we really see what he can do at 100 percent. If he improves his conditioning and mobility, continues to work on his outside shooting and adjusts to the added defensive pressure he is likely to face, Sullinger is set to become one of the league’s brightest rising stars and should be a cornerstone for the rebuilding Celtics.