Kevin Garnett left behind some awfully big shoes to fill.
He’s a 17-year NBA veteran, a 15-time league All-Star, a four-time All-NBA First-Team selection, the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2004 NBA Most Valuable Player. But most importantly, he was an integral piece to the 2008 squad that brought the Boston Celtics their first NBA title in 22 years.
How do you replace that?
Fortunately, the Celtics won’t have to look too far. That’s because the solution to their dilemma already calls Boston home.
His name is Jared Sullinger.
♣ ♣ ♣
Basketball was everything to the Sullinger household. You could even say it was in their blood.
Back in the 1920s and 30s, Harold “Suitcase” Sullinger featured for the Sioux City Colored Ghosts.
The all-African-American team was put together to entertain audiences with their talent and showmanship. The act would include basketball among other things. You could even say the group was an inspiration for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Harold would later settle down in Columbus, Ohio and have two sons, James and Harold Jr.
Both would go on to have similar success in basketball. James led Oberlin College to a conference title in 1976 and Harold Jr. became a Dapper Dan All-American at Woodrow Wilson High School.
While Harold Jr. pursued other interests later in life, James decided to continue his love for basketball by becoming head coach at Northland High in Columbus. He would coach there for a total of 10 seasons.
On his downtime, he helped develop the talent of his three sons, J.J., Julian and Jared.
J.J. and Julian both starred on the court, winning conference championships with Ohio State and Kent State respectively. However, it was the youngest, Jared, who displayed the most potential.
Over his four years at Northland High, Jared led the Vikings to an incredible 94-5 record. That includes a 60-58 victory in the 2009 Division I state championship during his junior year—a game in which Jared hit two clutch free throws with 2.7 seconds left. He capped off his impressive high school career by averaging 24.5 points and 11.7 rebounds as a senior.
Not surprisingly, the awards followed Jared.
Along with being named a 2010 McDonald’s All-American, he also received the 2010 James A. Naismith Award. It was an incredible feat for Jared, as the list of past winners included the likes of Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Chris Webber.
When the ESPNU 100 ratings came out, he was featured as the No. 2 player in the class of 2010. Scout.com ranked Jared fourth and Rivals.com had him fifth.
If it wasn’t there before, the pressure was certainly on Jared now as he entered the next stage of his career at Ohio State.
♣ ♣ ♣
One by one, NBA commissioner David Stern approached the podium and read off the names of each first-round selection. Twenty players stepped up to the stage, shook Stern’s hand and donned a fitted cap with the logo of their new employer.
Then it happened.
"With the 21st pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Jared Sullinger."
First came relief. Then shock. Finally disappointment.
After all, this was the same player who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game over two stellar seasons with Ohio State. The same player who led the Buckeyes to a 34-3 record as a freshman and a NCAA Final Four run as a sophomore. The same player who was predicted to be a top-10 lottery pick, with the possibility of going as high as fifth.
How could Sullinger possibly drop this far?
Three words: Medical red flag.
Weeks before the draft, NBA doctors examined Sullinger, finding what they believed were warning signs of a possible problem with a disc in his back. Some went as far as declaring the issue severe enough that it could shorten Sullinger’s career.
Instantly, league executives became skeptical.
Given the large list of talented players in the league who’ve undergone drastic changes in their careers due to back-related concerns, the fear is understandable. Greg Oden, Tracy McGrady and Baron Davis come to mind.
As for Sullinger, watching the draft from the luxuries of the green room inside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey was replaced by awaiting his fate from within the friendly confines of Eddie George’s Grille 27 in Columbus. When Sullinger’s name was finally called, it was the hands of friends and family that he shook—not Stern’s.
Although disappointed, Sullinger wasn’t going to sit and pout about his misfortunes. Instead, he took this latest setback as more of a challenge to prove his critics wrong.
“To me, this (not being invited to the draft, being picked low) still tells me I’m not a good enough player yet," he told ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson. "They told me I wasn’t good enough, now it’s time to go to work.”
And go to work he did last season with the Celtics.
In 45 contests, Sullinger averaged 6.1 points and 5.9 rebounds over 19.8 minutes per game. He also shot 49.3 percent from the field.
But as the 21-year-old’s minutes increased, so did his production.
Sullinger logged 25 or more minutes on nine separate occasions. Over those games, he averaged 12 points and 10.3 rebounds while shooting 59.5 percent from the floor. That includes scoring in double-digits seven times and grabbing double-digit rebounds six times.
However, it was Sullinger’s defense that stood out the most.
According to Synergy Sports data, the former Big-10 Freshman of the Year allowed just 0.708 points per play. Sullinger ranked third in the category among all players with at least 300 possessions defended last season. Only teammate Avery Bradley (0.697 PPP) and former-Boston swingman Marquis Daniels (0.707 PPP) were better, via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg)
Not to mention, the Celtics finished plus-42 with Sullinger on the court compared to minus-60 when he was not. That’s quite the impact for a rookie.
Unfortunately, right before his season could really take off, his campaign came to an abrupt end when he started suffering from back spasms during a Jan. 30 matchup with the Sacramento Kings. Sullinger would leave the game and soon after undergo season-ending surgery.
Suddenly, the whispers of “Told you so” began reverberating across the league.
♣ ♣ ♣
Boston’s 2013 first-round draft selection Kelly Olynyk has played tremendously thus far during the team’s summer league in Orlando, FL.
Through four contests, the 22-year-old is average 19.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals over 26.5 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 57.4 percent from the field.
Olynyk has coach Sullinger to thank. Well…sort of.
No, the injured power forward didn’t retire and pull a Jason Kidd. But he’s sure acting like he did this summer, taking it upon himself to offer his knowledge and guidance down to the younger guys.
It’s a trait that runs deep for Sullinger.
“It’s been like that for a long time,” he told Mass Live's Jay King. “I’ve been doing that ever since I was 12. Even talk to my older brother. At the time, they didn’t listen, but as time wore on, it was like ‘You know you were right about what you said years ago.’ I’m just not afraid of showing my basketball IQ.”
Remind you of anyone else?
Over his illustrious 17-year NBA career, Garnett has been known to be one of the most intense personalities on the court—both to his teammates and his opponents (just ask Carmelo Anthony). Garnett’s passion on the court can only be matched by his intelligence off it.
If a teammate messed up, you could guarantee that Garnett would be the first one to call them out on it. If they succeeded, the 37-year-old would tell them how to do it even better next time.
Last season, it was Sullinger taking the notes.
“[Garnett] told me things,” he told The Boston Globe's Scott Helman. “How to approach the ref or how to approach your body, known when to go, know when to stop, have a routine, have a daily routine, stretching when you’re not doing anything. He taught me the little things in life to be a pro’s pro and to be able to play that long.”
Now with Garnett gone, it’s time for Sullinger to receive the metaphorical baton, so to speak. It’s his turn to grow into one of the Celtics’ locker room leaders.
Sullinger’s first step: Making a full recovery.
Following surgery, the original timetable was that he’d be good to go by the start of training camp. So far, everything looks to be on schedule.
According to The Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett, Sullinger believes he's 100 percent. However, team doctors have yet to clear him for contact.
Whenever he finally does step back onto the court, it’ll be interesting to see if Sullinger can regain his form. Undergoing surgery to remove two herniated disks is no joke.
However, he’s already proven his critics wrong once before. It’d be foolish to doubt him again.
♣ ♣ ♣
With an unmatched drive to succeed, a love for the game basically ingrained in his DNA and invaluable knowledge gained under the tutelage of Garnett, Sullinger is poised for success in the NBA for many years to come.
Ironically, he’s just the type of player that can help Boston overcome the growing pains of losing a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the frontcourt.
Who knows? Sullinger could even be the guy that propels the team to Championship No. 18 down the road.
Hey, like his predecessor famously cried after helping lead the Celtics to the NBA title in 2008… “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEEE.”