As he comes back to Ohio for the first time since leaving Thad Matta and his teammates at The Ohio State University, Jared Sullinger speaks of the few wake-up calls he has had during his young career as a power forward in the NBA.
It was not much into his Sullinger’s season when teammate and future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett was digging his broad and boney left shoulder in the chest of the rookie. Attempting to gain position against a player who is more of a house than a habitant, Garnett jabbed and jabbed until Sullinger’s body gave an inch. It would be at this point when the 6-foot-11-inch veteran would take a step back and effortlessly sink a jump shot over the extended arm of his would-be defender. As the ball splashed through the net, Garnett, with his trademark scowl, barked at his first-year teammate.
“Welcome to the NBA, rookie.”
Though there has been some natural growth in Sullinger as a player and as a person, Doc Rivers — his new head coach — claims that his rookie power forward seemingly stepped on to the court and has been a consistent producer from Day One. Sure, his minutes have been sparse, but this comes with the territory of playing behind one of the best forwards to ever lace up a pair of high-tops.
“He’s just suited for this league,” Rivers says of Sullinger. He is never going to be an athlete. He will never be spoken of in the same sentence as peers like Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka given their ability to play above the rim. As Sullinger begins his early morning shootaround in anticipation of the Boston Celtics’ upcoming contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers — one which will feature numerous amounts of friends and family who will welcome the Columbus, Ohio native back home — he steadily works on his face-up jump shot. Right at this time, it was revealed that point guard Rajon Rondo had recently become frustrated with Sullinger for his inability to convert on an alley oop. It would be Sullinger, not the All-Star in Rondo, who would get the defense of Rivers for not knowing what type of player the power forward is — one where his backside is his best weapon.
“My mama blessed me with a beautiful backside,” Sullinger said. “And you can tell her that.”
Yet another welcome-to-the-NBA moment has come at the hands of NBA officials who have whistled the big-bodied forward for a league-worst 4.7 personal fouls per game over the month of January. Despite limited minutes early on, Sullinger is among the league’s top 10 in personal fouls. Rivers won’t comment on the matter for obvious reasons, but the rookie forward is not about to make excuses for the frequent whistles. “I just need to be better with my hands and stop being out of position,” he says.
Other items Sullinger would not mind shared are his unspoken, but universally understood vindictive-like gratitude for those who panned his style of play — and health — enough to have him fall into the ready and waiting arms of the Celtics. In to ready and waiting mind of Kevin Garnett, a player who has, without pause, taken Sullinger under his wing to help him grown as a player and a person. A player who went from a risky addition out of high school to a 17-year professional with career averages of 20 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and a block with stellar percentages for good measure. A player who, also without pause, made teammates weep on the sidelines in the middle of a game.
“I couldn’t ask for anybody better,” Sullinger says of Garnett. “When he yells, he’s not yelling at you — he’s just passionate and that’s the way he teaches.”
Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY