Jared Sullinger wrapped up a productive week of Las Vegas summer league play with steady averages of 11.2 points and 8.6 rebounds, as he solidified himself as a candidate for Celtics head coach Doc Rivers' rotation next season.
Sullinger consistently displayed several attributes of his game that validated Boston's decision to select him with the 22nd overall pick in last month's NBA draft, most notably a dedication to rebounding, and an ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line. Sullinger hauled in double-digit rebounds in three of his five games in Vegas, including a week-high 14 in a win over the Chicago Bulls. Even more encouraging was Sullinger's willingness to crash the offensive glass, as nearly a third of his total rebounds (13) came on that side of the ball -- an area in which the Celtics would like to drastically improve after they finished dead last in offensive rebounding percentage last season.
"That's part of my game, rebounding," Sullinger said after the Celtics' final summer league game on Sunday. "As long as you rebound, you're always going to have a job around here. That's my whole goal, is to keep my job, my occupation, so rebounding is going to be the mainstay around here."
Sullinger's hustle on the offensive glass undoubtedly contributed to his many trips to the free-throw line. In three of the Celtics' five games in Vegas, Sullinger attempted at least six free throws, and he shot a week-high of 12 (making 10 of them) as part of a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double in a one-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last Saturday.
"Free throws, they're free for a reason, so I've just got to keep battling down there," Sullinger said. "As long as I keep battling, I think I can get to the free-throw line."
Battling is a key word for Sullinger, as he'll have to fight taller opponents for his entire career -- an area Rivers has admitted he might struggle in. Standing at 6-foot-9, Sullinger might lack the natural height to consistently go up against the 7-footers of the NBA, which might partly explain why he shot just 30.2 percent during his week in Vegas. But despite criticisms on that front, Sullinger showed flashes of two other aspects of his game that will help him combat that lack of height: his knowledge of the game, and his versatility.
On numerous occasions, Sullinger found himself up against taller opponents in Vegas, but time and again he showed an ability to make crucial adjustments on the offensive end that allowed him to either get a quality shot off or earn a trip to the free-throw line. Consider when the Celtics played the Bulls, and Sullinger learned early in the first half that he wouldn't be able to back down old friend Leon Powe the way he had been able to use his bulk to back down other players. As the game progressed, Sullinger veered away from an aggressive post game and opted for moves that got him a shot at the rim before even making serious contact with Powe, namely floaters and hook shots. While not all of his shots fell, Sullinger proved his ability to adapt to the defensive surroundings -- a sign of a high basketball I.Q. -- and that will aid his quest to be productive playing against taller players.
Additionally, on several occasions, Sullinger showcased an ability to stretch the defense and pull his taller defender away from the hoop. Not only does this open up the paint for his perimeter teammates to attack the basket, but it gives the versatile Sullinger an advantage, as he was able to take his man off the dribble and routinely earn trips to the free-throw line. Despite his size, Sullinger is quick. By sliding his feet, he was quicker at attacking the rim off the dribble than the 7-footer guarding him was at retreating. This might not prove to be a viable tactic once the regular season starts and Sullinger finds himself up against more proven NBA-caliber defenses, but it's nonetheless a part of a very diverse offensive repertoire.
As for the lingering concerns over Sullinger's back issues -- the main reason so many teams passed on him in the draft -- he showed no signs of being hampered by any type of injury. He maintained during his introductory press conference that he doesn't suffer from back problems, and the physical nature of his game in Vegas supported that notion. Sullinger's many trips to the free-throw line didn't come without some physical abuse under the rim, and while he said Sunday he's been icing his body to help the general soreness that comes after any NBA game, he maintained that "everything was fine" physically.
"Ice. Who was that by, Vanilla Ice? Ice, ice, baby," Sullinger joked on Sunday. "That's all it's about. Ice, ice. And get your rest and eat right."
Sullinger is hoping those basic remedies, along with his still-blossoming game, will give him a shot in Rivers' rotation next season.