There is a lot on the line for Jared Sullinger as he enters his fourth season with the Boston Celtics. Assuming he isn't offered an extension before the end of October, the 23-year old will be in the final year of his rookie contract before hitting restricted free agency next summer.
Thus far the Celtics have given little notion that they intend to extend Sullinger, which isn't surprising considering the big man still has a lot to prove. The 6'-9'' forward has shown flashes of star potential in his career, but he's never been able to put it together consistently.
Part of what has held Sullinger back has been his health. He missed nearly half of his rookie season after getting shut down with a back injury, which had been a concern flagged by many teams heading into the 2012 draft, resulting in Sullinger falling out of the lottery and into the laps of the Celtics at the 21st overall pick. He also missed significant time last season with a stress fracture in his foot. Sullinger made successful returns to the court following both injuries, but all those missed games have stunted his development.
Even when Sullinger has been healthy, his conditioning has always been a problem. He has never averaged 28 minutes per game in a season, in part because his body hasn't had the stamina to consistently stay active for much longer than that. If he wants to be a starter and core piece of this franchise, he should be expected to carry a heavier workload. Sullinger has made his conditioning a point of emphasis this offseason and hasn't been shy about posting pictures of his slimmer frame on social media. Showing up to camp in great shape is a promising sign, but he still needs to prove he can stay healthy and keep the weight off throughout the season if he wants to earn that next contract.
This will also be the season that Sullinger needs to figure out what type of role he will fill in the offense. Is he a stretch-four that can be a threat from beyond the arc or is he better off using his wide body to bang in the paint? That's what teams will want to find out before offering him a contract next summer - the Celtics included.
Sullinger's three-point attempts have increased in each season of his career. While his efficiency has also increased, he still falls short of what you would consider being an effective shooter. He shot 28.3 percent from long range last season, which is too low for someone hoisting over 3.0 three's per game. If he wants to make that shot a part of his game he needs to prove he can make it often enough to become a threat.
It remains to be seen where Sullinger fits into Boston's future plans. Danny Ainge has set the team up to make a splash in a variety of ways, but each of them requires him to stay flexible. If Sullinger fails to have the breakout season we have long expected from him then Ainge may feel compelled to move on if he has the chance to reel in a bigger fish.
On the other hand, Sullinger could make the decision easy by having a career year that convinces the Celtics that they need to keep him in green beyond this season. He's capable of it, he just needs to prove it.