Some players hate losing more than they love winning, and that appears to be the case with Jared Sullinger, who has grown increasingly frustrated after each tough loss the Boston Celtics have suffered this season. While Sullinger's intensity is an admirable trait, it becomes undesirable if it begins to negatively affect his performance on the court.
More on Sully
More on Sully
Unfortunately, that appears to be happening with the third-year big man this season, especially since trade rumors about Rajon Rondo began to swirl.
In Boston's last ten games, Sullinger is averaging 24.2 minutes, 8.5 points, and 6.1 rebounds per game, as opposed to 30, 15.9, and 8.8, respectively, in his first 18 games. All of Sullinger's efficiency stats have dropped in each set of games, including his eFG percentage (52.7 percent to 45.1 percent), true shooting percentage (54.5 percent to 45.2 percent), and assist-to-turnover ratio plummet (2.35 to 1.06).
"I've always seen him respond to [adversity]. We're all going to have times in games and multiple games in a row where we don't play as well. That happens," coach Brad Stevens said before Friday's game when asked about Sullinger's recent struggles. "The way we should look at it as a staff is how can we help? And how can we do a better job? That's the way we're looking at it and hopefully he'll play great today. I assume that he will every time he takes the floor."
In Boston's 109-107 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Sullinger got the start and bounced back with 19 points in 32 minutes. As Stevens hinted, the coaching staff called a number of sets specifically to get Sullinger going. Whether it was a low post touch, or a pick-and-pop that put him into a favorable situation to drive the closeout, the big man was rolling.
But Friday's terrific performance was followed by another disappearing act on Saturday with only 12 points and 5 rebounds, continuing his season-long trend of inconsistency.
There's no doubt that Sullinger is a gamer, but one of his weaknesses appears to be that he can't swallow losing. After losses he sulks and mumbles to the media, but after wins he's always smiling and joking in the locker room. Everyone reacts differently to situations life may throw their way, but professional athletes can't let it hurt their in-game performance -- that's part of the job description.
Before entering the NBA, Sullinger had never really experienced being on a struggling team. In high school, he was named Naismith Player of the Year after leading his team to an undefeated season, and at Ohio State he made appearances in the Sweet 16 as a freshman and the Final Four as a sophomore. He even sniffed success, reaching the playoffs as a rookie with the Celtics -- that feels so long ago now, doesn't it?
But Boston has lost 75 of their last 110 games, which is a strenuous experience for anyone, but especially for someone that has never went through anything like it before. Jared's father, Satch Sullinger, even flew out to Boston to support him before on Friday. Satch told Celtics.com's Emily Austen that he came to assure that his son was playing well, and no surprise, Jared responded.
Sullinger was asked after the game if he felt like he hadn't been playing aggressive in his prior lackluster performances. "No, I have," responded Sullinger. "But I was just playing with a clear mind."
But the losing continues to snowball with 4 losses in a row and a schedule that won't be letting up anytime soon. Will a talented athlete like Sullinger be the type of player that lets losing destroy him from the inside out or will he work through the pain, play with a "clear mind," and come out better than ever?
The most extreme example that I can think of comes from another sport: Corey Dillon, a star NFL running back for the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots. Dillon played 7 seasons in Cincinnati, where he never reached the playoffs, and the team had a dismal 34-78 record. Dillon was notorious for whining after games, and some even referred to him as a "locker room cancer." But despite the fact he played for an awful team, Dillon came out and played every Sunday and consistently proved that he was one of the best players in the NFL.
Dillon at least gave his team a chance to win because of his effort on the field, even when things weren't all sunshine and rainbows in the win-loss column. Sullinger can hate losing as much as he wants, but nothing will change if he lets his unhappiness manifest on the court with downright disinterested performances, like we have seen from him this season. If he does play with a "clear mind," maybe it'll lead to success down the road, like it did for Dillon and his Super Bowl with the Patriots.
Discussing Sullinger's usage
Though Sullinger's production has regressed recently, he's still a far more efficient overall player than he was last season. He's shooting 36.3 percent from three, which has opened up new possibilities for him offensively; he's able to drive closeouts and get to the paint, where he finishes with a soft floater, hook, or layup. This production has led to a career-high Offensive Box Plus/Minus of 1.0, up from 0.3 last season, according to Basketball-Reference.
Yet, for some odd reason, Sullinger's usage has dropped from 23.7 percent to 21.7 percent. You'd think that an improved player on a team desperate for scoring would funnel the ball towards one of their most productive offensive players, but that just hasn't happened.
Understandably, Brad Stevens' read-and-react offense doesn't always have "set plays" called specifically for players, but there have been a handful of games where it felt like Sullinger was making a large impact any chance he received, but the volume just wasn't there.
For example, in Boston's heartbreaking 109-105 loss against Atlanta on December 2, Sullinger had 19 points on just 13 shots through 3 periods. Sullinger was giving the Hawks major problems, especially from behind the arc, where he splashed 3 of his 5 attempts and was easily driving closeouts versus his defenders. Yet, despite the stress he put on Atlanta's defense throughout the entire game, Sullinger saw only 3 shots in the final frame, hitting just a triple, ending his tally at 22 points for the game.
Feeding the hot hand
The advantage of an equal opportunity system is that the open man will usually be found, but when you have a player who is clearly superior, feeding him could be beneficial. While I don't exactly subscribe to the "hot hand" theory, I do think a player should be tested when they clearly display the ability to dominate a particular game.
When Sullinger is having "that kind of night," I want the Celtics to make it a priority to get him the ball, and that also goes for any other player who might be on fire. Even in Saturday's loss to Washington Sullinger showed signs of success with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, but despite the fact the screen game was effective, Boston didn't go to it often enough.
Sullinger told ESPN.com on November 15 that he is a close friend with Patriots running back Jonas Gray, who one day later ran for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns, and was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated. New England kept forcing the ball to Gray because it was working and the opponent couldn't stop it. That night, without realizing the Sullinger-Gray connection, I tweeted this:
The Celtics can learn from the Patriots: If something is working (Jonas Gray run-game), don't go away from it. Force the opponent to adjust.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 17, 2014
Weeks later, that hasn't happened for the Celtics, despite having a player as talented and as versatile as Sullinger. With his ability to drain three-pointers at a high rate or put the ball on the floor and drive if he's covered, I believe the pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, and the high-low should be used like clockwork. If an opponent can't stop it, Brad Stevens should continue calling those plays for the team, and if they do eventually adjust, then do something else.
The Boston Celtics are at a crossroads as we ease towards the New Year and Jared Sullinger let the losing get to his head, which hurt his on-court performance, but in the last two games he has shown signs of life. If the Celtics are to turn their season around, they should begin utilizing their budding stars like Sullinger as often as actual All-Stars.