Celtics coach Brad Stevens insisted all training camp that every one of his 15 players should be prepared to contribute, because their time would come.
It initially was perceived as a move to keep the entire roster engaged. If preseason rotations were any guide, Jared Sullinger would make most of his contributions as a cheerleader. He didn’t come into camp in premium shape, and he made just 38.9 percent of his shots from the field and missing 11 of 22 free throws during the exhibition season.
But just 5:13 into Wednesday’s season opener against the 76ers, with third overall pick Jahlil Okafor looking like the Rookie of the Year favorite, Sullinger entered the game and played as if he had ignored those detractors that had ripped his conditioning.
He finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 block in 21 minutes in the Celtics’ 112-95 win. And his performance once again offered a glimpse of Sullinger’s potential. For stretches, he was the best big man on the floor after being considered buried on the bench after an erratic preseason.
Okafor scored four field goals in a 3:03 stretch off starting Celtics center Tyler Zeller, then Stevens decided it was time to implement his philosophy of digging deep into his bench, even if that meant sitting Zeller.
Zeller played that 5:13 of the first quarter, and didn’t return until the fourth. In guidance counselor fashion, Stevens explained to Zeller that Wednesday’s game would be better with someone else playing a chunk of the minutes.
“I told Tyler at halftime, this may not be your night but there’s going to be plenty of them,” Stevens said. “So just stay the course, and I’m glad to see he finished well. He actually defended really well, I thought, at the end of the game, too.”
Relaying to proud, accomplished professional athletes that there may be games in which they are benched, don’t play at all, or are pulled during a key stretch to exploit a mismatch may not translate well. Zeller played just 10:39, the fewest minutes of any rotation player, and that couldn’t have been easy to accept.
“I think that’s something that’s really hard and will challenge and pull at you,” Stevens said. “I think ultimately, that people like Tyler, people like the guys in that locker room, character will win out. There’s emotions, there’s frustration, but he knows we believe in him and it will be his night another night.”
It was Sullinger’s night, and his behavior afterward was indicative of someone who has confidence in his skills and was not shaken by his preseason performances.
“You’ve always got to be ready, you never know,” he said. “But at the same time, we kind of prepared for something like that. Just because you don’t do it in preseason, that doesn’t make it final.”
In the exhibition finale last Friday in Manchester, N.H., Sullinger contained Okafor because of his physicality and weight advantage. On Wednesday night, Okafor showed more game. He wowed the crowd with his footwork and touch around the basket. But he converted just two field goals in the second half.
“I thought he was good one-on-one guarding [Okafor],” Stevens said of Sullinger. “Sometimes guys do a great job and a guy gets to cooking and you’ve got to change something up, and that’s what happened. [Sullinger] went in pretty early and I thought he did a good job. Everybody’s got to be ready.”
The Celtics could sign Sullinger to a contract extension by Tuesday, but that is highly unlikely. If that deadline passes, Sullinger will be a restricted free agent next summer.
Whether Sullinger is part of the Celtics’ long-term plans is largely in his hands. If he plays like he did Wednesday, taking high-percentage shots, avoiding his obsession with 3-pointers, and playing strong interior defense, he could still emerge as a cornerstone.
It appeared from Stevens’s training camp rotations that Sullinger would have to battle for quality minutes. Jonas Jerebko appeared to be the final player added to the second unit of Isaiah Thomas, Amir Johnson, Evan Turner, and Kelly Olynyk. But with Olynyk suspended for the opener, Sullinger seized his opportunity.
“I mean, are y’all shocked?” Sullinger said. “It’s preseason for a reason. Last year was the opposite, preseason I was shooting the ball hot and then got to the regular season and kind of dwindled down. Hopefully, it’s the opposite.
“I’m always comfortable, that’s never a problem. I’m just out there doing my job. [Not playing well in the preseason] doesn’t stop me from doing what I do. On the court, by myself, I’m in there late at night getting my shots up. Obviously, it paid off tonight.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.