Before even beginning to address our hopes and expectations for the upcoming season for Jared Sullinger, we should all acknowledge that yes, there's an enormous elephant in the room, and we can't help but stare.
Sullinger is currently facing criminal charges of assault and battery, destruction of property over $250 and intimidation of a witness. He turned himself in and was arraigned in Waltham District Court on Sept. 3 - allegedly, he threw his girlfriend onto a bed, pinned her, and took and damaged her phone when she tried to call for help.
If the allegations are true - and local police have significant evidence that they are, including red marks visible hours later on the accuser's chest - then this story is far more important than anything Sullinger can do on a basketball court. Violence against women is a terrible thing. Awful. Awful awful awful. I'd give back all 17 banners in the TD Garden rafters if we could live in a world without domestic abuse. If you disagree, you need to get your priorities checked.
Having said all that, I don't want to drag Sullinger's name through the mud for all eternity. I don't think he's a bad guy. I don't think he's pathologically mean-spirited like this. I think he's a 21-year-old who got caught up in a passionate moment and lost his temper. I also think he's shown genuine remorse in the days since.
In short: Jared Sullinger is a kid who made a mistake.
Here's where we transition to talking about basketball, since this is a basketball blog and we're purportedly previewing the upcoming season for a group of basketball players. What's ironic is that as Celtics pundits, we don't generally spend a lot of time talking about Jared Sullinger's mistakes. He's a smart, fundamentally sound player who consistently makes the right play.
If you only watched him on the floor, you would have no idea that he was only one year removed from his sophomore year at Ohio State and barely old enough to legally drink. He plays the game with a level of maturity beyond his years.
Now, unfortunately, Sullinger won't be able to return to the NBA without being peppered by a million questions about just that - his maturity.
He's going to be asked incessantly this season about his off-court issues (well, really just one issue, singular) and how they've affected him. He's going to have to talk a lot this year about regret, repentance and personal growth. All the while, he's going to try to fight through this and have a productive second season in a Celtics uniform. And oh, by the way, he's still rehabbing from a back injury that truncated his rookie year last winter.
It's a lot to handle, but Sullinger needs to prove he can handle it. Being in the NBA comes with a lot of money and fame, but you need to earn it by handling the pressures of being a public figure.
Handling pressure was no sweat for Sullinger last year. He arrived on the scene and instantly made his presence known as a rookie, which pretty much no one does under Doc Rivers. Sullinger was an instant energy guy from the very beginning - in the opening week of his career, he gave the Celtics 15 rebounds in 56 minutes.
By November, Sullinger had his first double-double; by January, he was a starter. Then in February, he went under the knife.
It will be interesting to see if he can recover from all that he's been through, but at least as a ballplayer, he has all the tools to do so. He's blessed with size, strength and a great deal of basketball intelligence, which enables him to steal rebounds and loose balls from longer, more athletic players. He also knows his limits offensively - he's a solid post scorer, and he trusts his abilities when appropriate, but he doesn't push it too far.
As a player, Jared Sullinger is a better model of the power forward archetype the Celtics have tinkered with for years. He's Leon Powe with more muscle. He's Glen Davis without the boneheaded mistakes. He's a very good young player on a Celtics team that desperately needs good young players. As far as on-court matters go, he's one of few reasons that Celtics fans have to be optimistic - perhaps even excited.
It's a shame that that excitement is tainted. But Sullinger is still young, and he has plenty of time to atone for his mistakes. Also plenty of potential for growth, both on the court and off. Here in Boston, it will be gratifying to watch.