BOSTON – Jared Sullinger goes by many titles on the court.
Yes, the 6-foot-9 big man known for racking up points and punishing foes on the glass, has shown a much-improved game defensively in the still-young NBA season.
“I told him the other day, it’s the best defensively he’s played since I’ve been here,” said Boston’s third-year coach Brad Stevens. “It’s been really good. The key is to continue to do it and maintain consistency. But he’s had some good moments.”
Opportunities for those moments will likely increase if the Celtics’ starting frontcourt tandem of David Lee and Tyler Zeller continue to struggle.
Stevens reiterated that he’s not looking to make any lineup changes now, not with such a small sample size (three games) to work from.
But he acknowledges that Sullinger has played well, seemingly picking up where he left off in the preseason.
“He had a really good last two games of the preseason,” Stevens said. “Again, it’s still early. One of the things that we have to figure out, we have to create some separation in that depth chart, that rotation. As long as there’s a lot of evenness, it’s very difficult.”
Sullinger came into the season with visions of not just being an impact player, but doing so in the role of a starter.
It made sense considering he was one of the team’s most experienced returners having appeared in 190 games with 98 starts.
In addition, his career averages of 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game made him a shoe-in (or so we thought) to at the very least be in the regular rotation.
But throughout most of the preseason, instead of coming off the bench as a big-time sixth man he was relegated to being more of the sixth big man in what was supposed to be a four-big man rotation.
Today, he has played in all three games with starting assignments in the second half in two of them.
And while his scoring numbers this season – 9.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 19.7 minutes per game – are down a tad, he has played the part of being a more efficient scorer. But that’s not why his play time is gradually increasing.
More often than not, he’s giving the Celtics what they are looking for defensively whether it’s preventing Jahlil Okafor from setting up camp in the lane, or forcing a Tim Duncan miss.
“Just taking pride in what we need to do to win basketball games,” Sullinger said.
And in doing so, he should see a spike in playing time – something Sullinger says he’s not giving much thought to right now.
“I really don’t give a damn how many minutes I play,” Sullinger said. “I know the minutes right now (are) limited. So you go out there right now and give it your all. Just knowing that at any given second you can come out of the game. And just trying to make the most of your minutes and make an impact on the team.”
Said Stevens: “He’s gotten better (conditioning-wise), certainly. But I still think the goal will be to play as consistently as possible at both ends. I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on production; how you impact the team when you’re on the floor. He’s done a pretty good job of that, especially the last three games and the last two preseason games.”
And the improvements on many levels are subtle.
“He’s really active; really good in the pick and rolls so far,” Stevens said. “Very good defensive rebounder. He’s made a lot of good plays for us defensively. Sometimes they go in the stat sheet, sometimes they don’t.”
Being in better shape has certainly helped Sullinger defensively thus far.
But he has also benefited from playing with a deeper, more talented frontline of players with the kind of individual skills that better prepare him for what he sees on Game nights.
“You have a sense of urgency, because all these guys can score the ball really, really well,” Sullinger said. “It brings your sense of urgency up … It’s big-time help.”