Sullinger deserves spot in rookie game

WALTHAM, Mass. -- It didn't take long for Jared Sullinger to prove to a host of NBA general managers that they might have made a mistake in passing on him during the 2012 NBA draft.

While first emerging from Ohio State as a surefire lottery pick, pre-draft examinations resulted in a medical red flag on Sullinger's back, which left him free-falling on draft night. But the Celtics, whose own doctors examined him and deemed him fit for duty, happily scooped Sullinger up with the 21st overall pick. Now, 39 games into the season, Sullinger's supposed back woes are non-existent, and he's emerged as one of the Celtics' most reliable players and best rebounders.

Sullinger is quick to brush aside any talk of trying to prove wrong those who weren't willing to take a chance on him last June. He has repeated a number of times that winning is his only goal, with personal stats and contributions only meaningful if they factor into a Celtics victory.

But if there is any part of Sullinger that wants to validate his production and send a statement to some of last summer's doubters, his next best opportunity might be selection to the Rising Stars Challenge (better known as the rookie-sophomore game) as part of NBA All-Star weekend on Feb. 15.

The game is designed to show off the league's upcoming talent, with two teams comprised of rookies and sophomores squaring off against one another. The players are chosen by the league's assistant coaches.

Sullinger likely finds himself on the bubble for selection. In six of the last seven years, only nine rookies have been selected, and with a handful of Sullinger's classmates posting better overall numbers -- including Damian Lillard of Portland, Anthony Davis of New Orleans and Bradley Beal of Washington -- he'll have to rely on assistant coaches understanding the value he brings to the Celtics that might not be conveyed in basic numbers.

Through 39 games, Sullinger has averaged 6.1 points and 6.0 rebounds in 19.9 minutes, but his defensive rebound rate of 23.2 is second on the team only to Kevin Garnett, and he leads the team in both offensive rebound rate (12.9) and total rebound rate (18.1). He's stepped in as one of coach Doc Rivers' most reliable frontcourt options off the bench, thanks to a natural feel for the game and a deep understanding of the Celtics' systems on both sides of the ball.

Asked before Friday's loss to the Bulls what a selection to the Rising Stars Challenge would mean to him, Sullinger gave his typical game-first answer.

"I'm not really thinking about that. Like tonight we play the Chicago Bulls," he said. "That's my main focus. If I'm able to get there and by any means, that's God blessing. But right now my focus is the Chicago Bulls."

Sullinger's teammates weren't so dismissive of the idea. Understanding how difficult it can be for a rookie to contribute on a veteran-laden team with championship aspirations, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo all endorsed Sullinger for the Rising Stars Challenge.

"Oh yeah, I think that's like a no-brainer," Pierce said earlier this week. "I mean, you look at the rookie class, I really can't even name five quality rookies that are really playing well and playing significantly for their ball clubs. So I definitely think he should be there."

"I think he should make it," echoed Rondo. "There's not a lot of rookies playing the minutes he's playing and obviously producing the way he's producing at the big position, so I think he should make it."

Meanwhile, Garnett, who's had Sullinger under his wing all season, highlighted his rebounding prowess as a reason he should be selected.

"I think so. I think so. I think he's putting his mark on this league," Garnett said. "I think he's carving out a little section of rebounding and starting to bring a presence to the league. I think he's entertaining, he shares the ball, he plays the right way, in as many ways as you want in the All-Star game. He's young. Yeah, sure. Why not?"

Two factors appear to hurt Sullinger's chances: First, he's not playing the kind of minutes some other rookies are, which has lessened his chance to post the bigger numbers that typically factor into selections for events like the Rising Stars Challenge. While the Celtics have a better record than other teams with top candidates for the game, Sullinger will have to hope that emerging as a consistent force on a veteran team counts for something.

For what it's worth, Sullinger is ahead of the likes of Davis, Tyler Zeller, and Thomas Robinson in defensive rebound rate and is second among rookie power forwards who've played at least 20 games in offensive rebound rate. Additionally, among rookie power forwards who've played at least 30 games this season, Sullinger is tops in total rebound rate. Whether assistant coaches pay attention to those kinds of stats could play a role in Sullinger earning the nod.

The second factor working against Sullinger is the Rising Stars Challenge -- much like the other events of All-Star Weekend -- is more about style than substance, with the game boiling down to a defense-free affair perfect for glossy alley-oops and deep 3-pointers. Sullinger's game is more blue-collar than Broadway, and his workmanlike attitude might not gel with the overall tone of the game -- something Rivers playfully alluded to earlier in the week.

"I definitely (think he should be selected)," Rivers said. "Only problem with that game, there will be dunks and all that -- I don’t see Jared doing all that. He doesn’t fit that mold."

Sullinger, as if braced for a humorous remark from Rivers, had his own retort lined up.

"I'm shooting straight threes if I go to that game," he joked. "Don't look for me to step inside the arc. I'm going to let Doc know that this is what you could have on the floor."

There's still time for Sullinger to make his case to the league's assistants. If it's not meant to be, expect a response from Sullinger similar to that of his reaction to his draft position: He'll keep his head down and continue to play hard, as if nothing ever happened. A selection to the game, however, would publicly validate Sullinger's ever-growing value to the Celtics this season.