Jared Sullinger claims that he doesn't care about how many minutes he's getting in the Boston Celtics' crowded frontcourt. That's a bit hard to believe considering he will be looking to cash in as a restricted free agent this summer after the team declined to offer him an extension prior to this week's deadline, yet you have to admire that he's saying all the right things by showcasing a team-first attitude.
The path to earning more playing time could come through stealing David Lee's spot in the starting lineup. That seemed nearly unfathomable a few weeks ago when Sullinger looked to be in the doghouse, but Lee's struggles through the first three games of the season have cracked the door open for Sullinger to take advantage. The pair of power forwards have averaged about the same amount of playing time, but Sully has nearly doubled Lee's production in points at a far more efficient rate. A starting unit starved for more scoring options could benefit from adding Sullinger if he continues to outplay Lee, but it's his work on the defensive end that may cement an increased role.
Prior to Tuesday's practice in Waltham, Brad Stevens told Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico that Sullinger is playing the "best defensively that's he's played" since the coach arrived in Boston.
"I think he's very active," explained Stevens. "I think he's very good in the pick-and-roll so far. He's obviously a very good defensive rebounder. He's made a lot of good plays for our team on defense."
It goes without saying that it's been a minuscule sample size, but it's a promising sign that Sullinger is setting career-highs on a per 36 minute basis in rebounds (11.0), blocks (1.2) and steals (1.8), while owning a vastly improved defensive rating of 94.
Sullinger attributes his improvement to his offseason conditioning. While the slimmed down physique that he boasted about all summer wasn't all that noticeable by the time the season tipped off, Sullinger insists that he feels lighter on his feet, which has allowed him to react quicker to get into position to defend.
Quickness is an important factor in his ability to defend, but his wide body remains an asset for it's ability to bully taller opponents away from their spots.
"That's the best thing to do when you're playing the 4 and the 5 and you're 6-9 and you're going against somebody 6-11, 7-foot on a daily basis," says Sullinger. "The best thing I can do is use my body and make catches as tough as possible and try to get them out of their comfort zone."
The height disadvantage Sullinger has against most of the players he is tasked with defending makes his girth essential, but it has always come with the downside of his poor conditioning holding him back from managing a heavy workload. The fourth year forward has never averaged more than 27.6 minutes per game, despite spending more than half his career as a starter.
Could we be seeing Sullinger find the perfect balance between retaining the bullying body he requires and slimming down just enough to improve his conditioning? The rise in his defensive metrics seems to support the idea, but we have yet to see if he can sustain those levels at more than the 19.7 minutes per game he's been receiving.
If he continues to impress his coach with his defense, Sullinger may get the chance to earn enough minutes to answer that question once and for all.