Ten years ago, Jared Sullinger would have been a very good player. In the 80s and 90s, Sully would have been a solid rotation player for 10-12 years. His rough-and-tumble style would have been perfect in an era when big men roamed the paint and battled only inside. But the game has changed dramatically, and unfortunately, Sullinger hasn't evolved enough to it and won't be a Celtic next season after the team renounced his qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.
When he was drafted in 2012, he was considered a steal at #21 after sliding down the draft board due to concerns over his health. Before his rookie season was shortened by inevitable back surgery, he delivered on his potential as an energy player off the bench alongside veterans Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, cleaning the glass, scoring on putbacks, and doing the dirty work. Despite Doc's history of not playing young players, he was an old-school big that could bang with bigger players and was instantly a good fit in Boston's Big Three era style. His timing and instincts seemed to always put his soft hands in the right place at the right time. Since then, the team has been going through some growing pains, and perhaps no member of the Cs has had more growing pains than Sully.
Unlike the progression that Evan Turner benefited from under Brad Stevens (and that helped land his lucrative contract with the Blazers), Sullinger has not seen that kind of improvement. Stevens is great at recognizing a player's strengths and framing the team's system around him, and to some extent, Sullinger excelled at what he was asked to do. In his 81 games last season, he was one of the league's best defensive rebounders and the Celtics' best passing big. However, when Stevens turned to Jonas Jerebko against the Hawks in the playoffs, the writing was on the wall.
His departure signals Ainge's commitment to find players that best fit the way the Celtics want to play. In training camp back in October, Sullinger was adamant that he was going to return to playing closer to the rim ("getting my big butt back on the block"). That attitude may have cost him his starting spot to start the season, and ultimately his play late this season sealed his fate. Sullinger tried expanding his game behind the arc and improving his conditioning, but in the end, he didn't fit Stevens' pace-and-space philosophy.
The post-mortem of Sullinger's career with the Celtics will be marred by fans' frustration with his questionable shot selection and inconsistent health, but it shouldn't be forgotten how his four years in Boston helped shape where this franchise is going. He may no longer be a building block for the rebuild, but he's played a key role in the team's quick resurgence over the last two years. He started 49 games in 2014-2015, and when he lost his spot in training camp last season to David Lee, he kept on grinding and eventually regained it. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder (and to some degree, Sullinger's replacement, Al Horford) have become the face of the franchise, but the guy in the trenches that's been here since the beginning (along with Avery Bradley) has been Jared Sullinger. He may not have put up big numbers, but he was emblematic of a team that has hustled and overachieved despite its circumstances. Sullinger is a young, talented player, but fit has always been an obstacle, and those circumstances have finally caught up with him as his rookie contract comes to a close.
Here's Terry Rozier from Las Vegas chiming in on Sullinger not returning:
Rozier on Sullinger: "He’s a great person to have in the locker room with the jokes. He’s definitely a guy you’d notice if he’s not around."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) July 10, 2016
Ainge described Sully to the Boston Globe as "a smart player and he's a very good rebounder and he's unafraid of big moments." He'll certainly be missed, and everybody here at CelticsBlog wishes him the best in his future endeavors. There are many mixtapes out there, but this one has got to be one of my favorite.
Good luck, big fella.