Can Jared Sullinger Pave The Way For The Celtics' New Era?

Jared Sullinger has big aspirations. - Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics' present is ugly. Will their future be Sully?

On a Boston Celtics roster that's littered with untested rookies and underperforming veterans with bloated contracts, Jared Sullinger is an anomaly. He sticks out because he belongs. He doesn't fit because he fits. In a locker room full of guys with checkered pasts and uncertain futures, Sullinger is one of few players with real promise. At 22, he's in prime position to make something of it.

These first two years have been a period of growth for Sullinger, but there's still a lot of work to be done. In 119 NBA games to date, the young power forward has already proven that he can muscle up against bigger players and hold his own, putting up gaudy numbers in the process. But there's only so many times the big fella can put up 22 and 12 in a losing effort. Eventually, the performances start to get stale.

That's not a judgment on Sullinger - the uneven collection of talent around him is hardly his fault. It's just to say that so far, his report card is marked I for incomplete. A lot of players are capable of fitting the "good stats, bad team" mold. Is Sullinger capable of more? That's what we'll find out in the years ahead.

From humble beginnings

To best understand what's driving Sullinger to be the player he is today, it helps to start from the beginning. Coming out of Ohio State as a sophomore in 2012, the big man landed in the NBA as the No. 21 overall pick in the draft. He was sandwiched between Evan Fournier and Fab Melo. He entered an elite group of 21st picks this decade alongside Gorgui Dieng, Nolan Smith and Craig Brackins. To say the least, this wasn't how he had drawn it up.

When Sullinger had arrived on campus two years earlier, he was considered one of the very best players in the nation in his incoming class. Numerous experts pegged him as a potential No. 1 pick in 2011, even ahead of the oft-hyped Kyrie Irving. But instead of leaving for the draft that summer, Sullinger decided to stay for a second year at OSU - a decision he made with his father, Satch, who had previously coached him at Northland High School in Columbus.

Then the concerns set in. His production dipped in year two, though only slightly - he was a 51.9 percent shooter his sophomore year, down from 54.1, with 9.2 rebounds a game instead of 10.2 - but more importantly, questions began to pop up about his health.

In June 2012, just days before the draft, ESPN's Chad Ford reported that Sullinger had been "medically flagged by NBA doctors who have expressed concern over the player's back." Sullinger had undergone multiple tests at the draft combine, and a number of teams looked at the results and concluded that back injuries could take years off of his NBA career. The message was clear: stay away.

Looking back, Sullinger recalls that he and his agent, David Falk, did everything they could to right the ship before draft day.

"Me and [Falk] kind of saw it coming," Sullinger said. "We tried to protect me before the draft. As soon as I signed with him, I took the first flight out to Delaware and went to go see a doctor. I tried to get [the back] under wraps, but it just kind of fell through there."

His stock plummeted. Suddenly, Sullinger found himself passed over by numerous teams that had previously liked him. Golden State, for instance, had expressed real interest in taking Sullinger at No. 7 overall. At the last minute, they went in another direction and took Harrison Barnes. When the dust had settled, Sullinger had fallen all the way to 21st.

Don't think he's forgotten it, either. Competitor that he is, Sullinger is prone to letting the draft debacle weigh on his mind for a while.

"A long time," he said. "For the rest of my career. That's just who I'm gonna be.

"Being picked where I was picked, it was kind of a slap in the face, even though I had the back injury. But it's a blessing."

It's not hard to see why - that scarlet number "21" is carved into Sullinger's mind, and it empowers him every day to keep working.

Getting back to full strength

It took more than a year for Sullinger to fully recover from back trouble. As a rookie with the 2012-13 Celtics, he attempted to play through the pain and become a vital cog in the C's rotation, a difficult task given Doc Rivers' reluctance to lean on rookies.

[Note by evansclinchy, 04/17/14 5:44 PM PDT ]Playing hurt worked until it didn't. Sullinger gradually gained Rivers' trust with a series of 8-point, 7-rebound efforts in limited minutes, backing up Kevin Garnett. It took him months to solidify his place, but by mid-January, he was a regular starter. Then the back flared up again.

On Feb. 1, the team announced that Sullinger needed surgery and was done for the season. The future looked even more uncertain than before.

"Once you have a back, you have a back," Rivers said at the time. "It never goes away. You just have to play through it."

Sullinger returned in the fall and slowly regained the strength to compete with NBA big men. That process was never easy. Physically, there was a lot of rehabbing to be done, and emotionally, there was a great deal of soul-searching that went along with it.

He says he spent his post-surgery days doing not much of anything productive. His days consisted of TV, video games and Twitter - not exactly atypical for a 21-year-old kid. Sullinger had plenty of time to himself to think about what the future might hold.

"At the time, there's always doubt," he recalled. "I'm sitting there on my bed, sitting on the couch, just watching movies, not able to be there and travel with the team. I definitely had doubts. But at the same time, I think mentally, I was strong enough and understood I would be back."

After the draft setback in 2012 and the surgery in '13, Sullinger has now overcome two career roadblocks and is stronger for it. This year was a different story - it was time for the second-year big man to attack the league at full strength.

A year of growth

This past season was just about as healthy and productive a sophomore year as Sullinger could have hoped for. He wasn't without his minor ailments - a knee bone bruise in November, a hand injury around New Year's, a concussion in February and a strained quad that slowed him down toward the end of the year - but through it all, he kept improving.

Sullinger played 74 games this past year, registering double-doubles in 21 of them. He improved by leaps and bounds in points per game (13.3, up from 6.0 last year), rebounds per game (8.1, from 5.9) and minutes per game (27.6, from 19.8). Across the board, his stats were noticeably better, exactly the kind of improvement you hope to see in a second-year NBA player.

Except, of course, where efficiency is concerned. Sullinger's percentages fell off dramatically this year, and a lot of that can be attributed to him expanding his shooting range, firing 3-pointers with reckless abandon despite his... well, inability to make them. Sullinger attempted 208 treys this season, and he made just 26.9 percent of them. Only five players in the league were over 200 attempts with under 30 percent makes in 2013-14 - Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jimmy Butler. In other words, the five worst high-volume distance shooters in the league were an untested rookie, two defensive specialists and Josh Smith. And Sullinger. It's not good company to keep.

Part of Sullinger's trigger-happiness is probably a product of the Celtics' season. When you're losing 50-plus games, there's a lot more room for experimentation, and turning Sullinger into a stretch power forward might have been one of the projects that Brad Stevens worked up in his lab this winter.

It might also be Sullinger's competitiveness - which, one could argue, borders on stubbornness - taking over.

"I believe in myself," Sullinger said when asked about the 3's. "I really don't care what the naysayers say. I could care less. I'm just trying to expand my game, and if I'm open, I'm going to shoot it."

Stevens has likewise voiced his endorsement of Sullinger's shooting, though he acknowledges the percentages leave a bit to be desired.

"Maybe this is why I'm not as much of an analytics guy as everybody portrays me as," the coach said. "I still believe in him shooting. I've seen him shoot. I believe in his form. I believe in how much he shoots. That doesn't mean that when he's not making them, he shouldn't find other options and alternatives."

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One of those alternatives, certainly, is the midrange shot. He's been a lights-out shooter from 18 feet this season, filling a clear need in Boston that opened up with the departure of Kevin Garnett last summer. It might not be wise for Sullinger to stretch the floor by taking three treys a night, but he can definitely drag defenses outside the painted area with regularity.

He's picked up other skills, too. Some of them are subtle touches that the casual observer might miss.

"One thing Sully does that doesn't show up on the stat sheet is he's probably the best outlet passer on our team," said Rajon Rondo. "When we make a run, it's not because he makes 3's - it's because he gets the ball off the rim quickly, gets it up the court and enables us to score in transition. The 3's, they come and go."

Still only 22, Sullinger has a lot of growing still to do. But the picture is starting to crystallize, and we know a lot about who he is as a player, for better and for worse.

Playing the comparison game

As Sullinger becomes a fully formed NBA player - and quite a good one, for that matter - we develop a compulsion to put his career into context. Simply evaluating a player in his own right isn't enough. What we really need is a frame of reference. A comp.

It's turned into a fun little game - what veteran NBA power forward makes the perfect model for Jared Sullinger's career arc? Is it LaMarcus Aldridge? Zach Randolph? David West? A couple of years ago, the big name being tossed around was Glen Davis, whose narrative matched Sullinger's - a young Celtic, a former college star with a chip on his shoulder because he was drafted too low. Now, with the C's big man coming into his own, he's being put in a loftier class.

Perhaps the most tantalizing name of all is that of the game's best power forward today - Kevin Love. Sullinger's coach has compared him on more than one occasion to the Timberwolves' sixth-year big man, referring to him as the ideal role model for an aspiring young big.

"I think a really good guy for him to study when we get into the offseason would be Love," Stevens said. "You talk about a guy that is an outstanding post scorer, his skill level has increased every year, his body is phenomenal. He's completely done a 180 with his body. There's so many positives."

There's definitely truth to the notion that Sullinger can emulate Love in his NBA development. There are already some similarities there - Sullinger's a strong finisher at the rim, has a couple of nice post moves and is working to expand his shooting range just as Love did. He also has a similarly uncanny knack for pulling in rebounds from near and far - a combination of physical strength and mental acuity. He's part-prizefighter, part-physicist in the low post.

Having said that, Sullinger is still no Kevin Love, and there are clear reasons why. He doesn't have anywhere near the efficiency, or the passing ability. He doesn't make his teammates better in the same way that Love does. The two players remain starkly different, and at times, the comparison looks altogether silly. But it persists.

"There are still things that he can get better at, and he will get better at them - studying Love would be a good place to start," said Stevens. "You know, I really think you can do that with all your guys. Whether it's someone in basketball, or someone in another sport, or someone who used to play basketball, someone you identify with, those are good guys to learn from and grow and expand your game."

Sullinger's certainly growing. No one can debate that. Whether he's the next Love or the next anyone else might be an unanswerable question, but before our eyes, he's blossoming into a very good Jared Sullinger.

"As you mature and you learn how to work harder and you learn how to push yourself to max effort, I think you can get better," Celtics executive Danny Ainge said. "Jared is still very young, and I don't think he understands yet how good he can be. He's heard it. He's heard it from a lot of people - from his father, from his agent, from his coaches, how good he can be. But until he believes it, he's still got to put in the time and the work. I really do believe that he will this summer."

Sullinger is already one of a select few players on this Celtics roster worth building around. Perhaps in the coming seasons, we'll have the pleasure of seeing what gets built.

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