It's time to accept Jared Sullinger for who he is, someone who is comfortable in his skin, understands he needs to improve his approach to the game, yet is a key asset to the Celtics.
Sullinger didn't sulk during the preseason when he was the last rotation player off the bench, seemingly a demotion for reporting to camp in the same shape as he ended last season. Sullinger didn't utter a negative word or complaint, he simply played well enough in the final two preseason games to improve his standing.
And on Friday night he was back in the starting lineup, scoring 21 points, all in the first three quarters, in helping the Celtics to a 118-98 win over the Wizards at TD Garden.
It was a much-needed win for a team that was doubting itself after three consecutive losses that included difficulty scoring. Believe it or not, the 23-year-old Sullinger has been a calming influence, a voice of reason with his steady play.
Sullinger is averaging 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, shooting 54.3 percent, and has made 6 of 13 3-point attempts. He made the Wizards pay for backing off and daring him to shoot jumpers. Sullinger has been accused of falling in love with the 3-pointer, and his 184 attempts in 58 games last season were too many, but he is a streaky midrange shooter.
"He's really shooting the ball well," coach Brad Stevens said. "He's always been a good face-up shooter. He's shooting it probably even better right now, at least in the last couple of weeks. But he scored in the post, he rebounded.
"The one thing that you know going in is he's probably our best defensive rebounder. So, I thought that he was pretty good. And the other thing that he did a good job of was he noticed when we were behind defensively, and so he'd jump out on [Bradley] Beal, jump out on [John] Wall, and make it a little bit more difficult. He was very aware."
Said Sullinger: "They really fell back on the jump shot, I think because of the way I shot the ball in preseason. It was horrible. Now that my shot's coming, I'm just shooting the open shot."
Sullinger is playing comfortably, so much so that he is making natural, intelligent plays, such as an off-balance baseball pass to Isaiah Thomas for a layup Friday night.
"Honestly, as I was rolling over like a bear, I just seen this little guy open around the free throw line," Sullinger explained. "And that roll kind of carried the momentum of the ball and Isaiah laid it up. Me being this big and weighing about as much as a grizzly bear, it was just natural."
Sullinger is playing with the confidence that made him one of the best college players in the nation during his two years at Ohio State. He is off to a sparkling start in his fourth NBA season, a pivotal year since he did not sign a long-term extension.
Sullinger will be a restricted free agent next summer and the Celtics will have to determine if he is worthy of matching an offer sheet. Sullinger has proven capable of a double-double on a consistent basis, but he has played more than 58 games just once in three seasons.
He has to stay healthy. He has to prove that he can play productively if he plans to stay at his current weight, which is listed at 260 pounds. He said an offseason of work with former NBA player John Lucas improved his conditioning, and he seems more energetic in the fourth quarter. But Sullinger will have to perform over the long haul.
"Conditioning, definitely conditioning," Sullinger said of the difference this season. "Do both ends. Before, Coach Stevens said you need to score the ball, and being the young guy that I was I'm like, 'OK if I score the ball, maybe I can take a break on defense.' But now I'm older, more mature, and understand that both ends really matter. And moving forward for us to make a run in the playoffs, we've got to do it at both ends. We can't take a break. If you're tired, come out of the game. It's nothing personal, just doing it on both ends and try to better myself."