It’s been three games, but it’s already obvious: Jared Sullinger can ball. Undersized and at times a step slow, Sullinger is going to be a useful NBA player. He takes charges, uses his backside to carve out space, and has a nose for the ball under the rim. On the occasions when his shot gets blocked by a taller opponent, Sullinger sticks with the play and often puts in his own miss. He makes up for any physical deficiencies with an extraordinary amount of skill. Sullinger is challenging for a starting job, and his stellar play may be the most exciting development for the Celtics in the early season.
The substance is all there. But there’s something bothersome about the style of Sullinger’s early NBA play. By the eye test, Sullinger plays much like a former Celtics draft pick whose stock fell on draft night, a great college player who projected lower as a pro. In fact, plug in the name “Glen Davis” for “Sullinger” in the first paragraph above and it still rings true. The comparison is bothersome not because Davis isn’t a good NBA player, but because Sullinger can be so much more.
It’s prudent to start by looking back at the good things Davis did, because a solid beginning in Boston was muddied by a less-than-gracious ending. Davis played sparingly in his rookie season, the season in which the Celtics won the title. But in his second season Davis averaged 21.5 minutes and 7.0 points per game. Starting in place of the injured Kevin Garnett, Davis exploded in the playoffs, averaging 15.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 14 games as the team’s starting power forward. He won a game against Orlando with a buzzer-beater. He was exceeding all of the expectations attached to being the 35th-pick in the NBA Draft.
Of course, Davis didn’t earn the nickname “Big Baby” for nothing. He followed up his spectacular playoff performance by breaking his hand in the offseason in an altercation with his friend. The team’s confidence in Davis dropped along with his minutes. Davis lost his spot in Doc Rivers’s rotation.
Rivers let Davis back in the next season, awarding him a career-high 29.5 minutes per game. The results were mixed as Davis shot 44 percent from the floor and took more jump shots than Rivers thought prudent. Attitude and chemistry issues hastened a trade that sent Davis to Orlando for Brandon Bass.
It’s much too early to say whether or not Sullinger will reach any of Davis’s highs or sink to his lows, but the Celtics are using Sullinger in many of the same ways they used Davis. Start with rebounding; Davis was often the only Celtic crashing the offensive glass, a role Sullinger has assumed on this team. It’s no secret Rivers isn’t big on sending players to the offensive glass, but Sullinger obviously has a knack for it. He’s providing a skill the team desperately needs.
Another similarity is the role Rivers gives to both players on defense. The image that prompted this whole comparison in my mind was of Sullinger hitting the floor and taking charges during the league’s opening week. Davis excelled at the same skill, and both players have a knack for getting to the right spot despite less-than-fleet foot speed. With low centers of gravity, both players seem built to take the pounding that comes with taking charges.
While both Sullinger and Davis have a knack for being in the right place, Sullinger’s basketball IQ extends further and has already led to praise from Garnett and Rajon Rondo. On Tuesday Garnett said Sullinger reminds him of former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. Garnett is talking about the ability to play defense on a string and get to the right spot even when his own man is somewhere else. On a larger scale, he’s talking about Sullinger’s grasp of schemes on the other end of the floor. In both areas, Sullinger has proven to be a quick learner.
“Jared understands what we’re doing,” said Garnett. “He’s a no-nonsense guy. … He’s a great rebounder, his IQ is unbelievable. He can pass the ball and he reminds me a lot of Perk. Obviously, he’s not the defensive player that Perk was, but as far as IQ, moving the ball and being unselfish, he’s a great teammate.”
You haven’t seen them yet, but Sullinger has an array of offensive moves that rival those of any power forward in the game. In addition to put-backs, Sullinger has an ambidextrous junk game of hook shots, floaters, and turnaround jumpers that he perfected in college against constant double-teams. I had the chance to watch him from courtside when Ohio State played in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional in March and was blown away by how creative he can be and how little room he needs to get his shot off. In that way, Sullinger has much more offensive talent than Davis.
We haven’t seen many of these garbage moves yet from Sullinger in the NBA, even though he’s been practicing them before games. Instead, the Celtics rookie is trying to learn the system. That’s a good thing. Eventually he’ll get more involved in the offense, and just how well he picks his spots will go a long way in determining how successful he becomes. Contrast that to Davis, who spent his final season in Boston bulling his way to the basket without purpose or pulling up for too many jumpers, and you can see why Rivers quickly tired of the Big Baby act.
In terms of IQ off the court, neither Davis nor Sullinger lacks for confidence, but at this early stage Sullinger seems to “get it” more. He carries himself with the air of someone who’s been the best player among his peers for his entire life, but he’s shown a deference to his veteran teammates. He has reasons to stay humble. At the press conference introducing the Celtics rookies, Sullinger said, “When I was younger, everybody said I was too big. Going into high school, they said I wouldn’t be able to play that fast. Going into college, they said I wouldn’t be able to keep up. It’s just the way I live my life.”
He played limited minutes in the season opener, but Sullinger had 14 rebounds (4 offensive) in Boston’s two games over the weekend, more than any other Celtic. With that kind of production, he’ll get more opportunities to prove himself.
Comparing Sullinger to Davis was inevitable. Comparing him to Perkins should inspire confidence in both Sullinger and in Celtics fans looking for the next lunch-pail-toting big man to latch onto. But Sullinger has the chance to be better than both players, especially on offense. With the right attitude and a little patience, Sullinger can show his doubters that, once again, he’ll have no trouble keeping up.