Jared Sullinger was given the ultimate compliment Saturday night in Milwaukee, something he didn’t expect in the NBA so soon, especially since he’s been hearing for years that he’s too small and too stumpy to score in the post.
After a 15-point first half against the Bucks when he scored at will in stretches with a variety of jump hooks, leaners, and short jumpers, Sullinger received the ball in the third quarter and saw two defenders converging. For the first time in his NBA career, he was facing double teams, and he knew it immediately.
Spinning to make his first post move and seeing a guard running at him was a familiar sight from his days at Ohio State, where Sullinger constantly faced two defenders each time he gathered the ball down low.
Sullinger remembers all the criticisms of him before he fell to 21st overall in the draft: He was too chunky, too slow, not tall enough to play power forward, and his bad back would prevent him from making an immediate impact. But Sullinger has proven to be more than a capable scorer and rebounder at the highest level, and the fact he was doubled in the second half Saturday was a sign of respect.
In seven games as a starter, Sullinger is averaging 15.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and is shooting 48 percent from the field. And he is just rounding into playing shape after back surgery caused him to miss the last three months of last season and most of the summer.
Sullinger doesn’t turn 22 until March, but he is already turning into the type of cornerstone the Celtics wanted to eventually replace Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And what helps Sullinger is that he did not enter the league as a perceived underdog. He was projected as the first overall pick had he come out after his freshman season and he was the primary focus of opposing defenses.
While his confidence may be viewed as arrogance, Sullinger fully understands the feeling of being the focal point and is comfortable in that role. With Jeff Green being so wildly inconsistent as the Celtics’ primary offensive option, Sullinger is accepting more responsibility.
He scored just 6 points in the second half against the Bucks and realizes the proverbial ball is in his court to adjust to double teams, making quick passes to open teammates.
“That’s something I got to get used to again if it’s going to keep happening,” he said. “It was a good adjustment by Larry Drew honestly.”
Sullinger’s belief that he will emerge as a cornerstone, a standout power forward, is constant. He played with a gimpy back all of last season and officials were unrelenting toward him with foul calls, limiting his minutes and impact. This season, Sullinger has reduced his fouls (2.9 per game compared with 3.4 last season) and become a more effective scorer and rebounder by using his girth.
“Since I’ve been in the NBA? The numbers show it,” he said, when asked if this was the best stretch of his 62-game NBA career. “But I’m just trying to get better. You can’t be satisfied with numbers. The only numbers I’m satisfied with is wins. We’re working toward that.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he is trying to manage Sullinger’s minutes since he is not yet in premium shape, but his young forward is beginning to show he’s prepared for no limits.
“I took him out when I normally take him out, which is to get him that breather so he can be fresh and come back in,” Stevens said. “But I probably should have left him in because he was feeling it early. We’ve got to keep going to him and he’s got to keep playing on both ends of the floor as well as he can, and hopefully we can continue to give him more minutes.”
The next move from Sullinger is significant. How will he respond to double teams? How will he produce when opposing teams realize his scoring is no fluke?
“Now I’ve got to make another adjustment to the NBA,” he said. “Got to make the adjustment for the adjustment. So, it’s part of everyday work of the NBA. No, it’s not flattering because I remember how much I hated [double teams] at Ohio State. You can never flourish the way you want to. So I’ve just got to keep making that adjustment.”