In fact, the degree of difficulty just skyrocketed for the 2012 first-round pick.
After a promising rookie season was chopped in half due to a persistent back problem, Sullinger rejoins an active roster that can’t look all too familiar. A major trade and some free-agency losses mean his sophomore year will be vastly different than Year 1.
The back was a red flag prior to the 2012 draft. As they usually do, that red flag came to fruition as back surgery ended Sullinger’s season prematurely. It seemed to happen just as he was hitting his stride—a short period after Rajon Rondo was lost for the year.
Undersized power forwards have a tough time adjusting to NBA speed and strength. Interior moves they could get away with in college aren’t readily available at the next level. Adding to that difficulty, Sullinger has lost any semblance of a mentor entering 2013-14.
As a second-year man, Sullinger can no longer be a learning understudy. Outside of Brandon Bass, he is the longest tenured Celtic big man. The learning curve is going to have to be a lot quicker than expected, as Boston needs to see rapid and vast improvement from No. 7.
Where that improvement will cost the most work is defensively.
That goes double because there won’t be a role model in house to look at. Because Sullinger seems like such a good kid, there is little concern or talk of him going the opposite way with no guidance from Garnett or Doc Rivers. Given the circumstances surrounding him, though, it seems worthy of a mention and warning.
Just because the Celtics have by default replaced one of the game's most respected, tough defenders in Garnett with a somewhat finesse shooting center in Kelly Olynyk doesn’t mean Sullinger can’t continue his growth at that end.
Offensively, there should be less to worry about. Even as a rookie he flashed inside-scoring abilities beyond his size and years. Getting shots off in the paint at 6’9” is rarely a teachable feat, and Sullinger seems to have a knack for it. Combining his post moves with Rondo’s handoffs and entrance passes should net a fairly easy 10-15 points per game. Sullinger was averaging 10.9 points per 36 minutes as a rookie second or third stringer.
Most of what we know about Sullinger at this point is from eye tests. Unfortunately, 891 minutes isn’t a large enough sample size to gauge a whole lot. Most of his advanced statistics are fairly meaningless due to that injury, and his minutes were too jumpy to get a grasp on many trends.
One of those trends heavily affects his ability to stay on the floor. Playing less than 20 minutes a night through 45 games, Sullinger averaged 3.4 personal fouls. Had he reached the necessary number of games, that rate would place him fifth in the league in fouls per game.
This is a major way the injury could have lasting effect on the player. Missing half of last season means referees weren’t able to get a decent enough look and grasp of how Sullinger plays defense. He won’t get a whole lot of benefit next season on bang-bang calls. His width and overall body type lends itself to taking charges.
Unfortunately, that only works consistently after earning the referees’ trust.
It is also a signal that Sullinger needs to work on his defensive footwork. When he takes his time and can choreograph something in the paint, he is stellar. Sullinger has some nice footwork on the offensive end. However, when he has to react with post defense, he will resort to guessing, which leads to costly fouls.
Frontcourt starters in the NBA simply can’t withstand a foul rate like Sullinger had as a rookie. Obviously, as an undersized power forward, there are going to be situations he can’t avoid. Still, the Celtics won’t hesitate to bring him off the bench, if that is where he’ll be after a few minutes of playing time off per start anyway.
There were nine other big men taken before Sullinger in the 2012 NBA draft. Among them, he seems to rank right in the middle. Five players had a better PER than his 13.52, but players like Thomas Robinson, Tyler Zeller and Meyers Leonard similarly struggled to gain footing.
In comparison to his teammates, Bass’ PER fell to a miserable 12.68, while Kris Humphries had a similar 13.67.
One of the major things Sullinger has going for him in the playing time argument is that the Celtics hold control of his contract for around 8.2 million over the next four years. Bass becomes a $6.9 million expiring contract next summer and Humphries is already a $12 million one.
That is pretty much it for Sullinger’s depth-chart competition right now. Vitor Faverani and Olynyk will be playing more center. This isn’t, however, an opportunity to rest a bit. Per DraftExpress’ 2014 mock draft, nine of the top 15 picks in next year’s class are bigs. That includes the likes of Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker, all power forwards who could attract the Celtics' lottery eyes.
Sullinger having a good-to-breakout year helps him two-fold. It will keep Boston out of range in the lottery to grab one of those potential studs next June while also helping his own case for being the power forward of the future.
In nine of the 11 games as a rookie that saw Sullinger play 25-plus minutes, he registered either double-digit points or rebounds. That includes four double-doubles.
After two months, it really seemed like Sullinger was getting into a groove. In 15 January games, before his season-ending injury, he was averaging 7.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in 23.2 minutes per game.
Fearlessness was possibly his most impressive trait as the year went on. It didn’t manifest itself in drives to the hoop or post-up moves, but in hard fouls and protecting the paint. Sullinger will never be a big shot-blocker or intimidating enforcer, but protecting the paint and standing up for oneself is how you earn respect as a smaller power forward.
There is nothing scarier than a smaller big shying away from contact in the paint. That could potentially be a death knell in the NBA. Sullinger is tougher than his season-ending back problems would suggest. That will serve him well moving forward.
Altogether, Jared Sullinger had a promising rookie season. Unfortunately, even though he will be wearing the same-color jersey, his team has vastly changed in makeup and outlook. While you can’t necessarily throw out those 45 games of last season, he has to prove himself once again to a new coach and set of teammates.
To do so, there is a vast amount of work to be put in. Falling behind in development next season could be far more detrimental to his future than Sullinger may realize. Fortunately, he seems like the kind of player who understands that and takes motivation from it on and off the court.