It took rookie Jared Sullinger a mere three games to muscle his way into the Boston Celtics' starting lineup. While he's been far from perfect on the court -- what rookie ever is? -- the Celtics own a perfect record with Sullinger as a starter, and on Saturday night he showed why the team won't be afraid to keep him in the first-unit mix this season.
Limited in floor time over his first two games while playing opponents that favored small ball, Sullinger was thrust into the starting five against the Washington Wizards on Saturday in the nation's capital and chipped in four points, seven rebounds, a block and a steal over 30 minutes, 14 seconds in Boston's 89-86 triumph at the Verizon Center.
Sullinger provided exactly what coach Doc Rivers is looking for from him as he rebounded well, played adequate defense (particularly when sharing the floor with Kevin Garnett) and made the most of his limited offensive touches while helping Boston pick up its first win of the season.
"[Sullinger] was great," Rivers said. "He came in, and he rebounded the ball. That's what he does. He's another passer on the floor for us, and he did that well, too."
Sullinger put together a brilliant first shift on Saturday, shining at both ends of the floor. He checked out after an eight-minute stint with Boston ahead by 12, the Celtics having allowed only five points in that span.
A closer look at Sullinger's first-quarter exploits:
• 9:13: After he was posted up by Washington's Emeka Okafor on the right blocks, Sullinger's defense resulted in a fadeaway that kissed too strong off the glass.
• 7:31: Forced to pick up rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal in transition, Sullinger again got a hand up to force a miss on a baseline jumper.
• 6:56: Collecting the ball on the right wing, Sullinger caught two Wizards napping and drove to the hoop for an uncontested layup.
• 5:06: Sullinger chipped in a second bucket on a 12-0 burst, this time catching a little lob in the post and splashing a rainbow fadeaway from a step in front of the free throw line.
• 4:46: Picking up Trevor Ariza on a pick-and-roll, Sullinger got beat along the baseline but stayed with the play. When Ariza missed the layup, Sullinger corralled the rebound with two white jerseys nearby.
• 3:53: Sullinger stepped in front of Trevor Booker coming hard down the paint and deserved a charge call but got a rookie whistle from veteran referee Joey Crawford. It was Sullinger's second foul of the game, forcing him to the bench; Booker made one free throw.
Sullinger was up and down for much of the rest of the night, getting exploited in the pick-and-roll at times in the middle quarters and putting up just one more shot the rest of the way.
But there was more good than bad, an encouraging sign in the early stages of his NBA development.
"I thought he got tired as the game went on," Rivers said. "I think him, and all these young guys, I think the NBA focus for the whole game -- they don't realize [how hard it is]. He had two or three [defensive lapses] where he just lost his focus and, bam, the guy scores.
"This is the NBA, this is not college, and that's the focus that I think [he needs]. It's not the play, they all know how to play. They have to learn how to have NBA focus, and I think he still has some ways to go, but it helps when Kevin's next to him."
Rivers wasn't lying. Sullinger allowed 10 points on 11 total plays on Saturday, according to Synergy Sports data. Only four of those points came when Garnett was on the floor -- one fourth-quarter bucket when Sullinger was slow to step out and defend a Jan Vesely jumper and the other when Sullinger and Courtney Lee got crossed defending a pick-and-roll and Jannero Pargo hit a final-frame jumper.
Through three games, Sullinger has allowed 24 points on 24 plays, according to Synergy data, a bit of a cringe-worthy number (one point per play ranks him in the 21st percentile). But rookie bigs always seem to struggle early while acclimatizing to the NBA. Heck, last season Greg Stiemsma had his share of woes -- particularly in the pick-and-roll -- and finished the season as one of the team's best individual defenders.
How does Sullinger get to that point?
"Age, maturity, repetition, coach yelling -- probably all of those things," Rivers said.
Expect the Celtics to continue to look to Sullinger in a starting role when the opposing team goes with bigger lineups. Sullinger can't quite match up with an athletic 4 at this point -- the reason his floor time was limited against Miami and Milwaukee -- but he can hold his own with a legit big.
And there's a definite benefit for Boston to having Brandon Bass come off the bench. With Sullinger more of a facilitator than a scorer, he doesn't need shots or plays run for him. That gives the likes of Paul Pierce and Garnett more touches and can get them going early. Meanwhile, Bass gets more shots with the second unit and adds some much-needed pop to the reserve crew.
Rivers still wants to see Sullinger compete with a better motor and sharper focus. But, at least for the moment, the Celtics' most successful starting lineup combination includes Sullinger.