At first glance it may appear that Jared Sullinger's progress has stagnated, but this is where traditional stats can be misleading on the surface. A foot injury that threatened to derail his season dragged down his numbers, but prior to that Sullinger had shown signs of steady improvement in his third year.
In 49 starts this season, Sullinger averaged 14.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists over 29 minutes per game, all of which would have set career highs. He shot 45.1 percent from the floor as a starter, which is disappointing for a player at his position, yet a vast improvement from a year ago. He remains a dreadful shooter from beyond the arc, despite his insistence on increasing his attempts from long range, but at least his 28.6 percent three-point shooting shows progress.
Sullinger suffered a foot injury just before the All-Star break that sidelined him for nearly two months. It was expected that he would miss the remainder of the season, until Sullinger made a surprise return on April 3. Despite team doctors giving him the green light, Sullinger played only 3 minutes off the bench in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Coach Brad Stevens would gradually ease Sullinger back into the rotation, keeping his minutes below the 20 minute mark until the final game of the regular season, when other players were being rested.
In those final 7 games of the regular season, Sullinger looked like a shell of his former self. He was rusty following the long lay off and needed to use those final two weeks of the season to get back into game shape. Or at least what Sullinger's version of "game shape" looks like.
Sullinger averaged just under 15 minutes per game in April, putting up a meager 5.0 points on a dismal 31.0 percent shooting from the field. It's a small sample size, but it accounted for about 12 percent of his season due to all the games that he missed, which was enough to bring his season averages down. The end result was that Sullinger's season was almost a mirror image of his previous one, with only a few subtle improvements.
*Note: Sullinger came off the bench for two games prior to the injury.
The good news is that Sullinger finished the season on a high note. As the Cleveland Cavaliers were capping off their four game sweep of the Celtics, Sully came through with his best game in months. He scored 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, which set new highs since his return. It was also the first double-double he recorded since he went down with the foot injury. Boston needs Sullinger to be a consistent double-double threat, so this performance in an elimination game serves as a reminder of what he is capable of and shows promise that he is returning to form.
The improvements that Sullinger showed pre-injury suggest that an even bigger breakout could be in store for him next year, but he needs to stay healthy in order to do it. Slimming down over the offseason would go a long way toward helping him achieve that goal. Foot injuries are always a concern for big men, but having less weight to carry around would cut down the risk of it becoming a chronic issue. It would also help improve his stamina, which could allow him to crack the 30 minute per game barrier for the first time in his career. If he wants to remain a starter, he needs to be able to handle a starter's workload.
Boston is poised with enough assets and cap space to set off those fireworks we've been eagerly waiting to see. Perhaps they will reel in one of the marquee big men on the market, which could have an effect on Sullinger's role heading into next season. As it stands now based on the current configuration of the roster, we should expect Sully to be the team's starting power forward.
Next season will be an important one for Sullinger, as it will be his last before hitting restricted free agency. His injury history and inconsistency may make the Celtics hesitant to offer him an extension in October, but a strong season would set him up to cash in next summer.