NEW YORK — It seems Jared Sullinger has been trying so hard to enhance his game and prove he can be a threat from every spot on the floor that the big man with a shooting guard’s game has lost himself and his roots.
Sullinger, in his third season, is a month shy of his 23d birthday, and his evolution as a power forward continues with the typical inconsistencies expected from a player trying to cement his role and prove he belongs in the NBA.
It’s understandable that Sullinger, who sees fellow power forwards get lauded for stretching the floor and exposing holes in defenses with long-range shooting, would try to up his game. But it has been a fruitless effort this season, as Sullinger had begun to rely on the 3-point shot.
Entering Tuesday’s matchup with the Knicks, 26.7 percent of Sullinger’s shots had come from beyond the arc. Of his 157 attempts, he converted 46 for 29.3 percent. Sullinger was 74th in the league in 3-point attempts and of the 73 ahead of him, only seven — Marcus Morris, Channing Frye, Kevin Love, Mirza Teletovic, Serge Ibaka, Dirk Nowitzki, and Patrick Patterson — are power forwards or centers.
And all of those seven are shooting at least 32 percent, with Patterson making 41.5 percent of his attempts. While Sullinger’s ability to drain the occasional 3-pointer can be considered a bonus, it shouldn’t be his primary weapon.
He is a space-eating, bulky big man and the majority of his work should be done in the paint. In the Celtics’ 108-97 win over the Knicks, Sullinger returned to his roots, scoring 22 points on 19 field goals and only three 3-point attempts. Two of those attempts were to beat the shot clock or buzzer.
Sullinger scored on an array of turnaround jumpers, fadeaways, and bank shots. He was a matchup nightmare for a Knicks team lacking big men.
It was a refreshing sight. A power forward doing what power forwards do. The NBA has become inundated with big men trying to display shooting guard skills. That has changed the game. But what happens when you don’t shoot the 3-ball so well? You go back to your bread and butter.
Sullinger needs to remain dedicated to what made him the national player of the year as a freshman at Ohio State, and it wasn’t stretching the floor.
“I realized that I need to get on the block more,” he said. “I took a couple of jump shots. Some of them were forced but being on the block, I was back at home. I was just surprised they didn’t [push me out] the way they normally do. Usually when I catch the ball in the post, they dig really, really hard. I was just shocked by that. It gave me a lot of room to go left or right and I was able to get my shot off.”
The reason Sullinger has been left alone at the 3-point line this season is teams are daring him to shoot. The Celtics wanted Sullinger to pattern his game after Love, who turned himself into a standout 3-point shooter — 37.6 percent last season — as well as a punishing player in the paint.
Sullinger needs to use the summer time to work on that 3-pointer, not the regular season. That line, 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket, has become as tempting for big men as mama’s Thanksgiving dinner. The shot doesn’t look that far, and big men are dogged with the perception that they can’t consistently drain outside shots. So why not?
Skills require time and dedication to evolve. Thousands of jump shots in empty gyms in July and August when your teammates are vacationing. Hundreds of hours of work shooting from the same spots. Great 3-point shooters — perhaps the exception being Stephen Curry — are not born, they are made.
Sullinger needs more development is that department. And until then, he needs to be more diligent about scoring in the paint and using the many skills he has already refined. He has great hands, a soft shooting touch, and solid ball-handling skills for a big man.
All of those qualities were on display Tuesday.
“The only thing we said offensively, all day, was do what you do well and stay with that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He made his jump shots. He had open shots. He had the open 3. He needs to take all those because he does all of them [well]. But he also has to get on the block and was able to find a matchup and do well against it.”
What will make Sullinger a standout power forward is his mid-range ability. He was built for the paint, using his posterior to back down defenders and go to work. What separates him and other rugged big men is his ability to score with grace. Sullinger is not a blue collar player, more a white collar player with blue collar skills.
“I think he’s got touch. That’s what makes him tough,” Stevens said. “Even when he kind of tripped and went through the middle of the lane and the ball went in. The best thing you can say from a natural standpoint is how beautiful his touch is. When the ball hits the net, it looks like it’s supposed to.”