Jared Sullinger Is Emerging as Critical Piece to Celtics' Present and Future

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013

Nov 27, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics forward/center Jared Sullinger (7) and guard Jordan Crawford (27) in the final seconds of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at TD Garden.  The Memphis Grizzlies won 100-93. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

When Boston Celtics team president Danny Ainge hit the reset button this summer, attention immediately split between the franchise's past and its future.

The narratives that followed Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett out the door first captured the hoops world's attention. When Ainge handed over the coaching reigns to 36-year-old Brad Stevens, analysts wondered how the baby-faced coach would mesh with his new enigmatic floor general Rajon Rondo.

No one was talking about the present. At least, not without discussing how it would impact Boston's ability to land one of the top-shelf members of the fully loaded 2014 rookie class.

But Celtics sophomore Jared Sullinger is changing all of that. The 280-pound banger is giving fans hope for today.

And an even brighter look at tomorrow.


Arriving Now, Blossoming Later

Sullinger is about as unlikely a savior as hoops heads could imagine.

The NBA is a size-speed league. Prospects preferably have both in spades.

Sullinger had the horizontal size, but his length presented problems given his lack of explosiveness. His speed? Try Lloyd Christmas' motorized scooter in a league littered with souped up Bugattis. 

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 30: Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics in a game against the Sacramento Kings on December 30, 2012 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

NBADraft.net's Adam Ganeles cast an ominous tone over Sully's NBA potential, writing that the big man had "no elevation," "severely limited" athleticism and was often "overwhelmed by size, length and athleticism on both sides of the ball."

His projections were further dampened by the NBA, who put red flags at full mast around Sullinger's back leading up to the 2012 draft.

His have already surfaced. His rookie campaign came to a screeching halt after he was shut down for back surgery midway through the 2012-13 campaign.

But those athletic limitations haven't limited his production one bit. The Celtics (7-12) aren't in the best spot now, but they'd be a wreck if not for Sully's contributions:

Staggering, isn't it? Somehow, the stat sheets get even more astonishing when you dig deeper.

With Sullinger on the floor, the Celtics have managed an offensive rating of 102.7 and a 99.0 mark at the opposite side. That plus-3.8 point swing per 100 possessions might not seem like a drastic spike.

Now consider this: No other Boston regular has a positive net rating on the season.

Avery Bradley, one of only two players to play all 19 of Boston's games, has a net rating of minus-5.0. Kelly Olynyk, a 2013 pick and star on the summer-league circuit, has a paltry minus-10.8 mark.

Yet it gets even more impressive as you start pouring through his stats.

His spent the first 10 games of the 2013-14 campaign fighting for a spot in Stevens' starting five. He averaged 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds over that stretch, numbers that appear underwhelming until you consider he was seeing just 21.0 minutes of floor time a night.

Finally, Stevens relented and put Sully out with the starters on Nov. 20. And the big man has never looked back.

In seven games as a starter, he's posting 15.4 points and 9.9 rebounds. And those aren't the only angles of the stat sheet he's touching:

On the season, his per-36-minute marks climb all the way to 19.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.

To put those figures into context, there are just three players averaging better than 19 points and 10 rebounds this season: Kevin (23.7, 13.6), DeMarcus Cousins (21.7 and 10.1) and Blake Griffin (21.2 and 11.1).

Now, remember where Sullinger is at in terms of his career. He's played a total of 62 NBA games to date, 20 short of a full season. He has all of 12 NBA starts under his belt.

For as good as it's been so far, his on-court product has substantial room for growth.

But that's not the only impact he's having on the Celtics.


Redefining Team Identity

So maybe the Celtics didn't lose as much talent this summer as we all thought they had. There's a very real possibility that if you look hard enough, you'll find bits of Pierce's (12.4 points, 36.8 percent shooting) and Garnett's (6.8, 36.6) games still hiding somewhere in Boston.

But the franchise lost more than a pair of Hall of Famers and one of the greatest coaching minds in the league this summer; the Celtics lost their identity.

One of the NBA's most reliable franchises suddenly became a massive collection of question marks.

Sep 30, 2013; Waltham, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo (9) talks to reporters during media day at the Celtics Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

How would Stevens adapt to this league? Could Jeff Green succeed in a featured role? How much of Rondo's game would survive his recovery from a torn ACL? Would he even be the same player with so many new faces around him?

The answers to those questions haven't surfaced yet.

What has, though, is a no-nonsense identity for this team. And blue-collar Sully has been at the forefront of that movement:

There are no cheap fouls in his book. But it takes more than a few hard fouls to institute a culture of toughness.

It means fighting, physically and mentally, for every rebound. It takes wearing a few floor burns after each game from hitting the deck in pursuit of loose balls. It's not letting the size-speed talk diminish one's effectiveness on the low block:

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 11: Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics dives out of bounds after being fouled in front of Jeremy Lin #7 of the Houston Rockets during the game on January 11, 2013 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User express
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

These Celtics won't win many games off talent alone. Contrary to popular belief, winning games is absolutely still a part of this team's plan.

Sullinger himself made that abundantly clear.

"Lot of guys expect us to just tank for [Jabari] Parker or [Andrew] Wiggins," he said, via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe. "Y'all might as well throw that out the door...We just want to win and show everybody that they can kiss our butts about that tanking stuff."

Maybe the Celtics lost their championship credentials this summer. Heck, they could have left a few seasons ago.

But this team still has the heart of a champion. A heart that skips a beat each time Sully backs his wide frame one step lower in the post.

Oct 15, 2013; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) defends against Boston Celtics power forward Jared Sullinger (7) in the quarter of pre-season NBA game at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics are set to follow suit with Sully's plan.

Stevens' meteoric rise through the coaching ranks doesn't happen without his insatiable work ethic. Brandon Bass has carved out a nine-year playing career on his willingness to do the little things that don't show up in the stat sheet. Avery Bradley has yet to take a defensive possession off in his first four seasons. Rondo, at his best, will sacrifice life and limb for his team.

But Sullinger's not just a piece of that puzzle.

He's giving this franchise a foundation to stand on.

Maybe his numbers won't keep climbing; maybe they'll get even better from here. Perhaps that back problem will flare up again in his future; maybe he's right and the problem really is fixed.

It's things like this, the intrigue that surrounds him, that keeps hope alive for a bright Boston future.

It's also made for an unexpectedly pleasant present.


*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.




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