Danny Ainge heard the rumors just like everyone else – Jared Sullinger’s back could potentially derail his NBA career, if not immediately then at some point two, maybe three years down the road. But Ainge did his own homework. And while Sullinger, a likely lotto pick before the medical reports went public, would slide down the 2012 NBA Draft board like a California hillside after five days of rain, Ainge didn’t blink when it came his time make his move.
Without hesitation, he selected Sullinger. And, after 20 games as a pro, Sullinger is rewarding Ainge for his unwavering faith. Sullinger is averaging 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, has worked his way Doc Rivers’ rotation, and has given the Celtics a much-needed boost at the center / power forward positions, especially after the C’s lost Darko Milicic almost as soon as the season started.
Sullinger has scored in double-figures three times this season, with a high of 16 coming against Detroit on November 18. He grabbed 11 boards against Toronto a night earlier. In two of his last three games he has gone 7-7 and 7-9. No, the numbers aren’t going to land him in Springfield anytime soon, but Sullinger has proven to be productive right out of the gate – a huge plus for a team that needs size and smarts, and is still trying to find its identity early in this young season.
The biggest challenge for Sullinger could be the dreaded ‘rookie wall’, but we won’t have our answer to that question until later in the season. For now, Sullinger continues to practice hard, play hard, and learn at the feet of future hall of famer Kevin Garnett. Says Sullinger:
When you’ve got Kevin Garnett in your ear, I’m learning every day. It’s like that every day. Kevin is constantly moving his hands, talking, and you just listen and you’re learning everything he sees. As you see what he sees, the game slows down tremendously.”
Sullinger’s willingness to listen and learn has translated into a solid spot in Rivers’ revolving lineup. It has translated into a solid 18.2 minutes-per-game of action, and Sullinger has scored on 48.9% of his shots. Sullinger credits KG for much of his growth as a pro to this point in the season.
“You always want somebody like that who’s been there,” Sullinger says. ”Someone who’s won a championship, to be on your tail, telling you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right.”
And while there have been mistakes made – the occasional shot, ill-advised pass, missed rotation on defense – the positives greatly outweighs the negatives. Sullinger has rewarded Ainge’s faith with the kind of production not normally associated with rookies selected so low in the first round of the draft. But then again, Sullinger shouldn’t have been drafted 21st overall. He clearly has top ten talent, even though he’s not the biggest at his position or the most athletically gifted. Credit the coaching background of his father for that, a man who makes no bones about basketball being a bottom line profession.
“You can’t get lost in how people say things, otherwise you’re going to be soft mentally,” Satch Sullinger says. ”Don’t pay attention to how it’s said, just pay attention to what is said. The bottom line is, we’re in a world where either you did or you didn’t. It’s kind of harsh. Bud, did you clean up your room? Did you get the rebound? Did you take out the trash? Did you shut the baseline down?”
In this young season, Jared Sullinger seems to have been doing all of that an more.
And Danny Ainge should be applauded for taking the chance and drafting the rookie with the suspect back.