It’s Time for the Celtics and Jared Sullinger to Figure Out Just Who He Is

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A season-high, three-game winning streak this past week propelled the Celtics into a virtual tie for 10th with Detroit in the wretched Eastern Conference, just two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot (and three games out of the 7-seed). Saturday night’s loss to Milwaukee notwithstanding, they’re still almost inconceivably in playoff position at 19-31 and are 7-10 since Jeff Green was shipped to Memphis as part of a whirlwind of deals that added plenty more surface area to their mountain of assets.

The All-Star break and the trading deadline loom large over the next couple of weeks, meaning Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and company have plenty of thinking to do regarding whether to keep riding this wave toward a possible postseason berth or further tinker with the roster.

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The last thing the Celtics need as they navigate the remainder of this season is an internal issue, which is why Jared Sullinger warrants a little extra attention.

Sullinger was removed from the starting lineup for last Sunday’s loss to the Miami Heat and Wednesday night’s win over the Denver Nuggets for being late to the team’s pregame walkthrough. Stevens brought him off the bench for both games and mostly pooh-poohed the situation — which Sullinger described both times as getting caught in traffic – saying on Wednesday, “I said it the other day, I don’t think it’s an issue. But he’s just gotta be here. Our precedent is set.”

Sullinger arrived on time for Friday night’s win over the 76ers and played one of his best overall games of the season, with 22 points, eight rebounds and a career-high seven assists in 30 minutes. He put up decent numbers in the Denver game too (not so much in the Miami game) in limited minutes.

Maybe that was the last of the lateness. Maybe Sullinger, still just 22, will be the first one to show up and the last one to leave for the rest of the year. But if you weren’t surprised to hear he was late and subsequently disciplined last weekend, or that he went and did the exact same thing again just three days later, you’re not alone. There has been a solid sample size of head-scratching moments involving Sullinger this season and it’s OK to wonder when the next one’s coming.

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With the exception of his recent late arrivals, the majority of these moments have come on the court (there have been some curious sound bites from the locker room after a game here and there, including Wednesday following the Denver game). And it all starts with his continued volume of three-point shots.

Headed into the 96-93 defeat at the hands of the Bucks, Sullinger averaged 3.4 three-point attempts per game against just 2.3 free throw attempts. He’s only making those threes at a 29 percent clip. On a team so dependent on jump shooting with so few players who can consistently get to the rim or to the line, the fact that the best post player on the roster is taking more 3s than foul shots remains inexplicable. That he didn’t even get to the line until the 3:04 mark of the fourth quarter against the Bucks in such a tight game (while still managing to fire away from deep three times and miss them all) warranted a giant facepalm.

The Celtics are next to last in the NBA in free throw attempts despite a 260-pound load who possesses the kind of touch and footwork around the basket like Sullinger playing roughly 30 minutes per game. What makes even less sense than that is that Stevens seems to have signed off on it. You’d think that if there was a mandate on Sullinger to remain within, say, 12 feet from the basket (where he’s shooting 54.3 percent, per NBA.com) at all times, he wouldn’t be second on the team in three-point attempts.

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The amount of time Sullinger spends drifting around the perimeter on offense and his middling advanced stats on defense make for a somewhat distressing combination. His defensive rating, an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, is 105, good (or not good) for 288th in the league, per basketball-reference.com. He’s a little better in defensive win shares at 1.6 (66th in the NBA) but dig deeper and take a look at his box score plus/minus (another estimate of defensive points per possession submitted by a league average player) and we’re way back down into the 100s, 162nd to be exact.

These numbers are fairly esoteric but it’s still tough to deny that they could be better. No one is asking Sullinger, six-foot-nine on a good day, to be Andrew Bogut or Dwight Howard in his prime on defense. But defense, like rebounding, is about effort and hustle more often than not and the best way to describe Sullinger there is “inconsistent.” You can tell stuff like that via the eye test without any complicated equations or formulas.

The Celtics are indeed getting better, slowly but surely, and it’s easy to see that Stevens wants them to play a certain way on both ends of the floor — constantly in motion and moving the ball on offense and swarming the midrange and perimeter on defense. As the roster continues to churn, he has more control over how to mold it and someone like Sullinger, given his talent, skills. youth and remaining upside, should be a major piece of the puzzle. Marcus Smart, James Young, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and Sullinger constitute the core of this team going forward for now.

It would be foolish to bet against Ainge potentially trading any of them (except Smart). And there’s also the issue of Sullinger’s contract. He’s a restricted free agent at the end of next season unless he signs an extension prior to its start, making his performance, behavior, attitude and all the trimmings that much more important to keep an eye on in the coming weeks and months.

Maybe it’s all as simple as him just needing to grow up (his father told The Boston Herald’s Steve Bullpett as much this weekend). But as this team continues to grow, Sullinger has the opportunity to spearhead that process. Whether he chooses to seize it is up to him.

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