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Sunday, 04 October 2015 15:35

Jared Sullinger’s future as a Boston Celtic

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The former first-round draft pick reportedly dedicated the offseason to improving his conditioning; has he done enough to assure his future in a Celtic uniform?

This week’s edition of CLNS Radio’s Celtics Beat features the estimable Bob Ryan making his third appearance on the show.  A central topic of the episode is Jared Sullinger’s conditioning and the impact it might have on his future in a Boston Celtics uniform.

Celtics Beat host, producer, and CLNS Radio’s resident Celtics historian, Larry H. Russell starts with the requisite complaints and apologies for having to spend time on a tired topic –does anyone do faux-reticence quite as well as LHR? – but the discussion raises some interesting questions, particularly once Ryan joins the fray.

Larry’s position is that the Celtics need to move on from Sullinger and expects a strong start to the season for the former first-round draft pick to facilitate a move.

I disagree with LHR’s conclusion – big surprise there! – simply on the principle that a priori decisions to deal a player away, are almost always a bad idea.  GM Danny Ainge places a premium on flexibility and deciding that the team HAS to deal a player inherently diminishes flexibility.

That said, I would expect Ainge to be completely open to discussing Sullinger in any deal that would improve the team in the short or long term.

While I disagree that the team HAS to move Sullinger, I do agree with the central element of LHR’s reasoning.

Sullinger possesses undeniable talents and the ability to make an impact at the NBA-level but his inability to take conditioning seriously prevents him from doing so on a consistent basis.

This offseason featured seemingly weekly stories about his efforts to remake his body and change his habits, but his appearance at Media Day this past week didn’t exactly live up to the hype.   Granted, this is a somewhat superficial assessment but the track record frankly calls for a pessimistic perspective in this case.  Training camp probably won’t provide much in the way of meaningful insight into whether Sullinger’s offseason regimen was successful.

Bob Ryan’s take added depth and historical perspective to the questions of what Sullinger needs to do and what his future might hold.

The “Scribe” framed these questions as a case of whether Sullinger wants to be great or just wants to “collect an NBA paycheck”.  He praised the power forward’s rebounding ability, footwork and low post game and stated that there was no question about “what Sullinger can do” on an NBA court but “how often and how long” he can do it.

LHR compared Sullinger to former Celtic Antoine Walker, but Ryan offered a couple of historical comparisons that illustrated the different directions that Sullinger’s career might take.

The first comparison he offered for Sullinger, the best-case scenario, is one I’ve made in the past; another former Celtic, Paul Silas.  Ryan talked about Silas facing a similar crossroads to the one facing Sully; whether to be satisfied with merely being a good rebounder or doing what he needed to do – lose 35 pounds – and become great.

The second comparison he offered was with former Seattle Supersonic Lonnie Shelton who ultimately “ate his way out of the league.”

I love the Silas comparison because, while I agree with Ryan’s characterization of Silas as a “great player”, he didn’t fit the conventional profile of an NBA superstar.  His greatness was rooted in how his strengths; rebounding, defense, basketball intelligence and leadership were all applied, unflaggingly, in the service of the team and often at the expense of individual numbers and recognition.

Looking at Sullinger’s strengths, his best-case scenario fits that same pattern.  Instead of trying to expand his game to fit the contemporary profile of a superstar player, he should be dedicating himself to maximizing his strengths and making himself an indispensible player.

Paul Silas could have easily been the best or second-best player on a mediocre team but at his best, he was the third or fourth-best player on a couple of great teams.  That should be Sullinger’s goal as well.

Ryan also talked about his distaste for Sullinger’s increasingly frequent dalliance with the three point shot.  He said that Sullinger should focus on being “a low-post a**-kicker who occasionally steps out”.

This points to what I think is the underlying issue with Sullinger, even moreso than his conditioning; his identity as an NBA player.

Does he want to be great and does he understand what great for him looks like?

Playing armchair psychologist for a moment; for most of his basketball life, Sullinger’s identity has been firmly rooted in the paradox of how his body both limits and magnifies what he can do on the court.  He’s always been the “big guy” whose ample posterior lets him bully opponents in the post and whose skills and IQ allow him to overcome his plodding, ground-bound athleticism.

Taking that next step in his career is more than just getting into better shape, it’s letting go of that identity and forging a newer, simpler one.  His toughness, basketball IQ, skills and footwork should be the basis of that new basketball identity not his body.

If he can do that, Sullinger will certainly have a future in Boston.  If he doesn’t, it’s entirely likely he will be part of the revolving roster door as Danny Ainge continues to rebuild the franchise.

Rich Conte

Rich Conte has been passionately following the Boston Celtics and the NBA for almost 40 years.  That interest began with the classic Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Final, blossomed during the original Big Three era, and persisted through the lean years of the 90s and the "Thanksdad" Gaston era.  Rich has been blogging and podcasting through CLNS Radio for the past two years  and also hosts a technology podcast; The Tech Life on the Beats and Eats network.  You can follow him on Twitter @richconte and find him as a frequent contributor to the Celtics Beat Podcast discussion group on Facebook.