Saturday, February 1, 2014

Jared Sullinger: Ready to step up

This season, Jared Sullinger became the first Celtic to record a 20-20 game since Kevin Garnett did it in 2007 (his first and only time as a Celtic). Celtics have high hopes for the promising power forward and believe he can flourish into one of the game's elite.

He scored 25 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in an 88-83 win over the Raptors at TD Garden. It was one of his defiant moments in his young career that up to that point was only game 82 out a possible 121. We almost forget that like Rondo, Sullinger was also out for half a season last year.

It was exactly a year ago today when the rookie power forward underwent back surgery to repair a lumbar disk. He left a game versus the Kings at the Garden two days earlier after playing only four minutes when his back began to flare up. After undergoing further tests, the decision was made to shut Sullinger down for the rest of the season to fix the problem rather than attempt to play through pain.

Just seven months earlier, the Ohio State standout was red-flagged before the draft because of his back issues. Weeks leading up to the game against Sacramento, Jared had been experiencing soreness and spasms in his lower back.

“I don’t think it’s out of the blue. He had been having some soreness,” Ainge explained in 2013. “I guess the fact that he had season-ending surgery was out of the blue. I don’t think anybody thought that a few days ago, but I think it’s the best thing for him. The doctors feel like this is a great thing long term. In the long run, this is the best thing for Jared in his career.” [ESPN Boston]

Sullinger, who was selected the 21st overall pick, was enjoying a great rookie season. He was averaging six points and six rebounds while shooting 49.3 percent from the field. Once he became a starter he averaged seven points and 7.2 rebounds while playing 23.2 minutes per game for the month of January.

But just as Rajon went down just days earlier, the Celtics had to find a way to move on without two important pieces in their starting lineup.Ten months later, Sully was ready for training camp and ready for a new start.

In 47 games so far this season he has more than doubled his scoring average while grabbing eight rebounds per game. His shooting percentage has gone down a little bit but only because he has added a 3-point shot as one of his weapons.

The young forward is a regular starter as he has become a better defender going up against 4 or 5’s that are generally bigger than he is on a regular basis. Being more vocal has also become the norm and the consistency of playing on both ends of the floor, has Brad Stevens and Danny very pleased with their second year forward.

“He’s a player who is well liked by his teammates and they believe in Jared,” says Ainge. "For a 21-year-old kid, his rebounding has been pretty special and it’s been one of our weaknesses, so he’s been a sight for sore eyes for our offensive rebounding.” [ESPN Boston]

This season Sullinger has grabbed at least 10 rebounds or more in 15 games, while recording 13 double-doubles so far and has registered a 20 rebound game as well (grabbed 17 rebounds twice). It’s fair to say Jared is the team’s best rebounder. Offensively he has improved as well, where he has reached the 20 point or more mark nine times, his ability to grab offensive boards have helped tremendously to boost his scoring average. In Rondo’s absence Sully was undoubtedly been the Celtics’ MVP through the first 41 games.

“It’s a lot less about the numbers or how you play or how many shots you make or how many rebounds you get and more about, hey, a lot of young guys accept going through ups and downs because they think it’s part of the process, and you can miss opportunities if you do that,” Stevens said. “Our guys have great opportunities and I don’t want them to miss it.” [ESPN Boston]

Before Sullinger’s most recent game this past Wednesday against the 76ers at home, the NBA announced that he and Kelly Olynyk were chosen to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge during All Star Weekend in New Orleans that will take place in two weeks.

It’s a well-deserved honor as Sully was unable to play in last’s game as a first year player.

Brad Stevens issued his own challenge to the second year forward,“I just challenged him on his not having to accept being a 22-year-old in the league,” said the Celtics coach. “We are in a unique situation in that we’re asking some of our young guys to be almost leaders, and almost more vocal in their approach…I know you’re 22, but you’re a mature basketball player, you know the game, and for our team to grow we need for you to play and be a few years ahead of where you are. It’s not fair to him, but it’s a great opportunity for him, so that was my challenge to him.” [ESPN Boston]

Sullinger’s response 35 minutes later; 24 points and 17 rebounds. For the record, Jared doesn’t turn 22 for another month (March 4th), but he got the message loud and clear. Kevin Garnett knew to a certain extent in training camp last year how special of a player Sully was, considering his age and what many view as a lack of ‘experience’, but he sure does not play like it. He’s been the silver lining to this frustrating season for Celtics fans. Since his return he has been a breath of fresh air and he will continue to grow as a player. With the trading deadline weeks away, he's a player to build around.

Sullinger has all the makings of the go-to power forward of the future we been all waiting for.

Challenge accepted.

Joel Pavón

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