AP Photo/Brian Kersey
Jared Sullinger commits a foul vs. the Bulls earlier this season.Even though he's played well beyond his years at times this season, NBA officials have constantly reminded Jared Sullinger that he's still only a rookie.
Sullinger has been whistled for 74 personal fouls this season, more than any other member of the Celtics (Brandon Bass checks in at No. 2 with 67), and is currently averaging six fouls per 36 minutes. He fouled out for the first time in his career during last Friday's loss to the Bucks, and has finished with three or more fouls in 16 of 26 games this season.
Among NBA rookies, Sullinger ranks fourth in total fouls, behind Kyle Singler of the Pistons, Jonas Valanciunas of the Raptors, and Tyler Zeller of the Cavaliers -- all of whom average more minutes than Sullinger.
While Sullinger has certainly been deserving of his fair share of whistles, it doesn't seem like a stretch to point out that he's also been on the receiving end of a number of questionable calls on straightforward defensive plays, charge/block scenarios, and even as he's battled for rebounds. Consider Friday's loss in which, during the second quarter, Sullinger secured a rebound, brought the ball just below with his chin with his elbows out, and was immediately whistled for a foul for trying to clear space to make an outlet pass.
Plays like those are fairly routine in the NBA, which is why Sullinger, head coach Doc Rivers, and even Kevin Garnett, who was mere feet away from Sullinger at the time, couldn't help but express their disbelief over the call.
The unfortunate reality is that Sullinger is simply enduring rookie calls. Refs aren't overly familiar with Sullinger's game, and because he's still unproven, if he finds himself in a situation where there is questionable contact with another player, officials are more likely to crack down on him because of his first-year status.
To his credit, Sullinger hasn't lashed out at officials after questionable calls this season, nor has he willingly voiced his displeasure to the media. He's realistic about the calls he's been getting, and he understands that, sometimes, it's just a part of the rookie package.
"It is what it is. It's fouls. I can't go over to the ref and yell at him and make him change the call," Sullinger said. "Once he makes a call, he makes a call, so it goes in one ear and out the other.
"I'm a rookie. There's no way I can handle a ref. They're not going to listen to me. So, being a rookie, sometimes you always get the short end of the stick. But you've got to pay your dues around here in this league."
One thing Sullinger has had a habit of doing, though, is extending his arms out in an incredulous fashion after a suspect whistle. As a look of disbelief crosses his face, the arms shoot out, the palms go up, and Sullinger can only be left wondering what he did (or didn't do) to earn the call. Consider it the mild-mannered cousin of Kendrick Perkins' patented scowl after a whistle.
Sullinger did concede after Sunday's practice that he does resort to the arms-out reaction pretty frequently.
"I probably do lead the league in arms out after fouls, but it is what it is," Sullinger said.
Things are unlikely to change for Sullinger on this front moving forward. It's a part of his current NBA reality that he needs to begrudgingly accept. Assuming Sullinger can continue to make strides and contribute this season and in future seasons, officials should eventually learn his game and be a little more lenient with their whistles. But for now, all Sullinger can do is continue to play through the calls and hope that he'll eventually earn the benefit of the doubt from the referees further down the road.