If the best-case scenario for Jared Sullinger's career is turning out like Kevin Love, then it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that tonight, as Sullinger's Celtics played host to Love's Minnesota Timberwolves at the TD Garden, was a glimpse into the future.
Love was awesome, to be sure. At this point, he pretty much is every night. And tonight looked like a pretty typical Love night judging by the box score - with 27 points and 14 rebounds, the superstar forward played just a hair above his season averages. There was nothing sensational or YouTube-worthy about it, but he remained solid and productive all night long, racking up nice plays.
Sullinger, though, was right there with him.
In just the 69th game of his pro career, the second-year power forward stepped up and went toe to toe with Love, cranking out 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. He took a close game in the fourth quarter and turned it into his own private clinic down the stretch - first powering into the paint for a short running jumper to give the Celtics the lead with 4:07 left, 90-89, then drilling a 3 with 2:21 left to put them up again, 95-92. The second time, they never looked back. A few free throws later, it was a done deal - a 101-97 Boston win, its eighth in 12 games.
"He did take it up a notch at the end," Brad Stevens said of Sullinger. "The two biggest shots he hit were when he popped off the 2-pointer, and then he pick-and-popped at the top of the key and made that top-of-the-key 3. Those were huge, huge, huge shots. Then he sealed it with the free throws. But he's a scorer. He's always been a scorer. He's been a scorer for as long as I've known him. It doesn't surprise me when scorers make plays."
The thing about Sullinger is he's always had this talent, but it's taken him time to fully realize it at the pro level. You could argue that there's still a discrepancy there - he may still have more natural ability than he knows. But he's slowly learning when the game calls for a selfish Sully. When he needs to shoot, he shoots. That game-deciding 3 was a prime example.
"I was wide open," Sullinger said. "I had passed a lot of shots up in the third quarter where I was wide open, trying to get better shots for my teammates. Brad talked to me on the bench and he said, 'Shoot the ball.' He said that's what players do when they're wide open - they shoot the ball. He said 'We have confidence in you to shoot the ball, now you have to have confidence in yourself to shoot it.' I heard that."
The Celtics need Sullinger to develop that confidence. Not just because it will win them close games in December 2013, but down the road, there's an opening for a franchise-defining talent in Boston, and Sullinger has the potential to be that player. The physical tools are there, for the most part, but there's still more development that needs to happen mentally.
What's the difference between Sullinger and Kevin Love? It's decision-making - when to pass, when to shoot, when to put it on the floor. It's instinct - reading where the ball will go and darting for that rebound or loose ball. It's a lot of things, really - it's clear that Sullinger isn't at that Love level quite yet. But there's no reason he can't get there.
The Timberwolves are being talked about as a serious threat in the West this season because they finally have a (healthy) franchise player and a decent supporting cast around them. For the Celtics, who find themselves in rebuilding mode now for the first time in seven years, that's the model to follow.
It starts with Sullinger - he's the one guy on this roster with the potential to grow into that starring role. And for him to reach that next level, he needs to learn from guys like Love.
He began that process tonight.
"How to pump fake," Sullinger joked when asked about what lessons he learned. "That pump fake really draws a lot of fouls, huh?
"He's a guy who can score the basketball both inside and out," Sullinger elaborated. "But I really think that pump fake is crucial. When he goes up with it, you don't know if he's going to shoot, or you don't know if he's going to drive. I think that's one thing that makes him a really great player."
Picking up little lessons like that, one at a time, will eventually turn Sullinger into the All-Star he's capable of being. He's certainly willing to learn, and that's as good a sign as any. His coach is also excited to watch his development.
"Kevin is considered an elite NBA player, and Jared is a rising NBA player," Stevens said. "You look up to those guys. You compete against those guys, and you give them your best shot, but you look up to those guys, you study them and you figure out what they do that makes them elite. I'd really like to see him spend time on that."
That's what the next few years are for. Jared Sullinger's not Kevin Love yet, but he's taking baby steps there. It'll be quite a journey.