Sometimes Jared Sullinger just smiles, knowing the battle is not worth fighting, at least not now, not until he earns his respect and gains a reputation.
Regardless of a stellar prep career, and his time at Ohio State, where he developed into a first-round draft pick of the Celtics, Sullinger’s NBA status is that of a lowly first-year player.
He has picked up fouls when officials didn’t want to whistle Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, he’s gotten them for merely raising his hands and standing in the same spot, he’s drawn them simply for being a 20-year-old rookie.
Sullinger started his first NBA game Saturday night against the Wizards at the Verizon Center, scoring 4 points with seven rebounds in 30 minutes and picking up four of the Celtics’ 12 personal fouls in an 89-86 win. He has eight fouls in the past two games and he lived in foul trouble during the preseason.
Sullinger is receiving the rookie treatment, but he wants to prove he is patient and unselfish enough to accept starting over with the hope that he will flourish eventually. Sullinger has made such an impression on the Celtics during his first few months in Boston that he understands he is doing something right.
Coach Doc Rivers is notoriously hard on rookies, allowing players such as J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker to sit and then depart without much resistance, but he saw something different in Sullinger, whom he has watched play since Sullinger was a freshman in high school.
“I’m just unselfish and I understand I’ve got to pay my dues early,” Sullinger said. “Kevin, Jason [Terry], Jeff [Green], and Paul are pretty much our base scorers, so when they are in the game, you’ve got to understand that you’re trying to get them open. You play off of them, and that’s where I just try to rebound.”
The most encouraging sign for any Celtics rookie is to be embraced by Garnett, who doesn’t embrace them all. There have been infamous stories during Garnett’s five years with the Celtics of him turning on a first-year player when the youngster dismissed his advice.
Garnett has spent considerable time working with rookie center Fab Melo, who is likely headed for the Development League when it begins later this month, and Sullinger, whom he chided during training camp stretching drills for not being able to completely bend his legs. If Garnett pays attention to him, a rookie had better capitalize on that opportunity.
On the court, Garnett is constantly instructing his teammates where to position themselves defensively.
“Sometimes he talks too much to the point where you know you’re in perfect position and if you mess up, it’s your fault,” Sullinger said. “Because he talks so much. But when you have him out there defensively, it’s a lot easier.”
Sullinger is a scorer by trade but the Celtics don’t expect that right now, especially because first he has to learn to stay on the court. He can’t reach while defending bigger, more experienced players because he is going to draw the foul. He is going to have to be in decent position to draw a charge, and even with that, rookies usually don’t get those calls.
Sullinger received nearly every accolade a player could during his high school and college careers, yet he has no sense of entitlement. He is very confident, though, almost scoffing at those who doubted he could produce in the NBA as an undersized power forward, and angered by those who said he couldn’t handle the rigors of the NBA because he doesn’t have a sculpted body.
Yet he has been humbled by the treatment from the officials. So he smiles. He sometimes puts his arms over his head, trying to avoid saying anything, and calmly walks to the side of the key to wait on the free throws.
“I don’t know, that’s a good question,” he said when asked how he can avoid foul issues. “I have no answer for that one. Mentally it is [tough], but at the same time you have to keep playing basketball.”
His hard work and perseverance are being noticed. His teammates have embraced him; they understand he is being treated differently only because he just got here. But his knowledge of the game and ability to contribute despite being undersized is paying dividends so far.
“I.Q.,” Garnett said when asked what Sullinger brings to the lineup. “No offense against Jeff [Green] or [Brandon Bass], but we have different mixes of people and he brings a different component, more importantly rebounding. He knows how play without the ball. He’s a great passer. He blends well with the starting group.”
Next for Sullinger is mastering the art of staying in games. It will take time for him to learn the officials, to understand their tendencies, and to gain their respect, but the young man is not impatient. He understands his role with the Celtics, and that role is ever expanding.