Sullinger growing into bigger role

BOSTON -- Every team needs a leader. And on a roster filled with youth, the Boston Celtics are putting a lot on the shoulders of third-year forward Jared Sullinger to grow into that role.

Does that create any added pressure? Sullinger doesn’t seem to think so.

“I grew up with pressure,” Sullinger said. “I’ve got an older brother named James that puts a lot of pressure on me. My older brother Julian, he puts the most pressure on me. I’m used to pressure. Pressure either is going to make you or break you. Just got to go with it.”

Still just 22, Sullinger is looking forward to his first season-long opportunity at a starting role. And after Wednesday night’s preseason finale in which he scored 15 points and recorded 17 rebounds in the team’s 100-86 win over the Brooklyn Nets, Sullinger’s focus largely was spent looking forward to next Wednesday’s season opener.

It’s worth taking a look back at Sullinger’s preseason body of work as a whole, though. As he showed Wednesday night, Sullinger has emerged as a consistent threat both offensively and defensively. In his eight preseason contests, Sullinger surpassed the 20-point mark three times and registered double-digit totals in rebounds four times. Such is just a hint toward major improvements on his averages from last year (13.3 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game).

“I think he’s gotten better,” coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s worked hard to improve his skill. He’s worked hard to do a lot of things, especially on the defensive end of the floor that he’s just improved from a technique standpoint.”

For that, Sullinger credits the critique of his play alongside his father during last year. And while he feels in better position to succeed this season, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“He’s got to continue to improve his ability to guard multiple positions,” Stevens said. “And then offensively, I think you’ve always got to tone your game up as far as being able to score on the interior off drives and post and also just continuing to knock the shot down with regularity. He’s done it all the way through the preseason, I just hope it continues.”

Prior to Wednesday’s game, Stevens described Sullinger as the one of the team’s best scorers, if not its best. However, Sullinger isn’t ready to say that it’s his team moving forward.

“No, not really,” Sullinger said. “But, at the same time, there’s going to be times where I’m going to have to show leadership.

“It’s nobody’s team. We’ve just got to play hard and play together.”

Smart decisions: His final preseason game being his best so far, rookie point guard Marcus Smart said after Wednesday’s game that his confidence is much higher than it was at the start of the preseason.

“I didn't shoot the ball very well [in the preseason opener],” Smart said. “I didn't really feel like I belonged out there. Kept playing and my teammates kept me up.”

In that first game, Smart missed all eight of his shot attempts. Wednesday night was a positive turnaround, with Smart hitting five of his eight attempts, including all three of his two-point shots. He went 2-for-5 from behind the arc.

“Coach has been telling me to be more aggressive, attack the rim, and then take the three ball once you get warm and take what the defense gives you,” Smart said. “They gave me driving lanes and forced the 3-point line tonight.”

Stevens was impressed with what he saw in Smart’s shot selection.

“He’s always aggressive, so you can live with a bad shot here or there,” Stevens said. “He was good.”

And while Stevens said the two have discussed Smart’s decision making on a daily basis, he added that he’s much more focused on making Smart a leader on the court first and foremost.

“The thing that I’d err on the side of is talking less about shot selection, and talking more about running offense and understanding that you’re out there directing,” Stevens said. “Because the last thing you need somebody to do is be unconfident. And I want our guys to be confident when they raise up and shoot, not second-guessing whether it’s a good or bad shot.”

For his part, Smart seems ready to handle the role.

“So far it’s been very comfortable,” he said. “Staying in college those three years, and running the team, and running the point guard position helped me a lot to prepare to run the team in the NBA. So far, so good.”

Young returns: Playing in his first game since straining his hamstring while warming up in the team’s first preseason contest, rookie James Young returned to the court Wednesday night.

“I thought he was pretty good,” Stevens said. “He did a pretty good job at times and there were other times where he can improve. All in all, I’d say it was a positive game for him. And he’s only played in two games, but I think both of them were positive.”

Young scored five points and collected four defensive rebounds. His 25:42 played led the team.