Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger has often noted that he has been motivated by doubters his entire basketball career, and he is using those skeptics to fuel an offseason in which he has been challenged by team brass to improve his body shape and conditioning.
Sullinger missed most of the second half of the 2014-15 season due to a foot fracture before making a surprising late-season return. He struggled initially to find his form, but closed the season with a 21-point, 11-rebound effort in Game 4 of the first-round sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was a reminder of the impact Sullinger can have on the court, and he pledged to keep his foot on the transformation accelerator during the offseason.
During an appearance on Boston sports radio 98.5 the Sports Hub on Saturday, Sullinger said he's on the same page as Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Brad Stevens, who challenged him to get in the sort of shape that can maximize his potential and prolong his career.
"I think it’s just, they want me to go one step further," he said. "I think that’s what it is -- one step further. That's pretty much what I’m doing [this offseason], every day at Ohio State. I'm trying to push myself to be that guy, but also who I want to be. I’m slowly working on it and still pushing myself."
He remained evasive on exactly what changes he has made, but suggested it's been a sizable lifestyle overhaul, all with the hope of "being the guy that I know I can be."
Added Sullinger: "Everyone has questioned me before -- said I'm not the most athletic, not this guy, not that guy -- and every level I’ve proved them wrong. It's another chance for me to show my work."
An Ohio State assistant posted a photo to Instagram earlier this week that showed Sullinger, in a New England Patriots T-shirt, working out with fellow former Buckeyes Evan Turner and Greg Oden. Sullinger called Turner the MVP of the Celtics this season.
Based on the glimpses they've seen in his first three seasons -- a span in which Sullinger has missed 68 games, or 27.7 percent of his total possible regular-season floor time -- the Celtics believe Sullinger has the potential to be a team-MVP caliber player, but they need him to show he can do it on a consistent basis. And that starts with shaping his body to withstand the rigors of the NBA game.
Sullinger, who is set to earn a modest $2.3 million next season, is extension-eligible this summer. Both the Celtics and Sullinger's camp have hinted that contract talks are more likely to occur next summer, when Sullinger would be headed toward restricted free agency.
He has downplayed contract chatter and did so again while noting: "I’m not really focused on numbers. I think my production will speak for itself." He stressed that he's more focused on what he needs to accomplish off the court this offseason.
When asked what sort of player he hopes to be, Sullinger said he'd like to get back to the guy who was a projected lottery pick coming out of Ohio State, before back concerns allowed him to slip to Boston at No. 21 in the 2012 draft.
Sullinger said he's balancing the team's desire to stretch his range with his ability to thrive in the post. He yearns to be the sort of player who can impact the game in multiple ways.
And he hears the whispers of those who don't believe he can be that player.
"Right now, everyone is doubting me," Sullinger said. "I get everything, 'He’s not this, he’s not that. He’s not the guy that we thought he was going to be, potentially.' I’ve heard it all. I use it as motivation. Nothing is going to change [with his approach], I’m going to keep working, working as hard as possible."