WALTHAM, Mass. -- Hey, Jared, how's your back?
"I thought people forgot about my surgery; hardly anybody ever talks about it anymore," replied Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger, who underwent season-ending lumbar disk surgery back in February and worked hard to get back on the court for the start of his sophomore campaign.
The reason his surgery has become a mere footnote is because Sullinger is playing so effectively. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds over 19.7 minutes per game in seven appearances.
Even as he works to ramp up his conditioning after a surgery that left him inactive for much of the summer, Sullinger has surprised even himself with how well he's started the year. He's a team-best plus-30 in plus/minus (Boston is minus-38 when he's off the court). It's just one of many numbers that reflect glowingly on his performance thus far.
"Honestly, I'm shocked the way I'm playing now," said Sullinger. "Coming off of surgery, to be able to do the things I'm doing. I feel pretty good about myself, as far as the movements."
Sullinger missed Wednesday's game against the Charlotte Bobcats with a bone bruise on his right knee, but hopes to be back in the lineup on Friday night when the Portland Trail Blazers visit. After what he's been through, the knee is really the least of his worries.
Go back and watch film of Sullinger last season and you'll see a man in pain. His back bothered him so much that he walked with a hitch and said he had virtually no elevation while leaping. The back problems started when he was a freshman at Ohio State and were ultimately enough of a worry for him to slide to the Celtics at No. 21 in the 2012 draft despite being considered a lottery talent.
As much as the idea of surgery pained him, cutting short his rookie season after 45 games, Sullinger had no choice once the back flared in late January, right after he had ascended to the starting lineup. The procedure has unlocked him.
"It's definitely more than I've ever been able to do," said Sullinger. "The back problem [is] from 2½ years ago, from my freshman year in college. From there, it just kind of messed up the beginning of my walk, as y'all seen last year, where I had the hitch in my walk with my right leg and the sciatic nerve in my right leg. It was a whole bunch of things going on with me at once."
Sullinger smiles and talks about some of the spin moves he pulled off in Monday's win over the Magic, suggesting none of those would have been possible before surgery. His footwork is quicker, and he's able to get more than a couple inches off the floor when he jumps. And, truth be told, he expects even more benefits as his conditioning catches up.
"There's a lot of things that back surgery really helped me out with," he said. "I'm just slowly progressing every day."
The idea that Sullinger can improve even more is music to coach Brad Stevens' ears. It might not be a stretch to suggest that Sullinger, maybe more than any other player on the team, is the most entrenched building block for the team's future. He's on a rookie pact and has potential to be an All-Star player if he continues to develop.
His impact on the team this season is undeniable, even in limited floor time. In the 138 minutes he's played this season, Boston owns glossy ratings (points per 100 possessions) on both offense (107.4) and defense (98.9). In the 294 minutes that Sullinger has been off the floor, Boston's ratings sputter on offense (94.4) and defense (100.8).
Put it this way: Boston is winless when Sullinger doesn't play this season. It's hard not to wonder if the Celtics might have won on opening night in Toronto or on Wednesday against the Bobcats had Sullinger been available.
Sullinger wonders that as well. He wonders how things would have played out if he could have jousted with Al Jefferson on the blocks Wednesday, if he had been there to add an offensive jolt to the second unit, or just brought a bit of hustle as the Celtics limped through an uninspired performance.
That Sullinger could do any of those things is still surprising. Watch him at times this season and he's got hands on hips, trying to catch his breath. It's clear he's still finding his wind after the summer of inactivity. But that hasn't prevented him from being one of Boston's best and most consistent players. Eventually, his role will stretch out as his lungs do.
"He can still get better and better and better," said Stevens. "But that's in terms of how many minutes he can play. He's already a productive, very good player. But hopefully those minutes can just go up and up and up. I think he's done a really good job. The two games we didn't have him, we missed him. You go back and look at the film and clearly we just didn't have as much of a post presence with him out as we do with him in."
When it was suggested to him that he's a post presence for this team, Sullinger again responded with surprise. "Am I? That's shocking," he said.
According to Synergy Sports data, Sullinger leads the team in post-up chances and production. Over 26 plays in post-up situations, he has averaged 1.077 points per play (that ranks him in the 83rd percentile among all league players). For comparison's sake, Brandon Bass has 24 post-up plays (second highest on the team), but that's in nearly twice as many minutes of playing time as Sullinger (Bass is averaging 1 point per play, ranking in the 78th percentile).
Sullinger is trying to give the Celtics a little bit of everything. He has extended his range beyond the 3-point arc with a green light from Stevens to fire away. He's only 2-for-10 thus far from downtown, having air-balled a shot or two, but he won't shy away from an open look. His total rebound percentage (15) is below last season's mark (17.5) but that should rise with more minutes and better conditioning.
His player efficiency rating tells the early story: Sullinger is a team-best 22.6 this season (he was at 13.5 last season; league average is 15). The only one close to him is Jordan Crawford (21.6).
What can Sullinger improve on? His defense has been OK and he's still developing at that end of the floor. But it's hard to nitpick. His blocks are up, his defensive rating is down. On the other side of the ball, his interior passing has been key for Boston's second unit (he has thrived playing alongside Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Wallace).
It all comes back to conditioning. And reflecting on his game shape, something he worried might slow him heading into the season, Sullinger notes, "I have a long way to go just to get in the shape I want to be in."
Soon that'll be an afterthought as well. Just like his back.