Camp questions: What is Jared Sullinger's ceiling?

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
"Camp questions" continues with the 11th installment..and we finally get into the legitimate building blocks the Celtics currently have in house. First up — Jared Sullinger.

About Jared Sullinger:

Sullinger was one of the best high school basketball players in his class, ranking 2nd in the ESPNU 100 for the 2009-10 season and winning the Naismith award which goes to the best player in the country. He attended Ohio State for two seasons, dominating the Big Ten on his way to making two All-American teams.

However, back issues scared away some teams from taking him in the 2012 draft, and he slid to the 21st pick before the Celtics drafted him.

During the first half of the 2012-13 season, Sullinger appeared to be a steal. He averaged 6 PPG and 5.9 RPG in only 19.8 MPG over 45 games, upping those averages to 8.2 PPG and 7.4 RPG over his last 18 games. Unfortunately the concerns teams had about his back ended up being warranted as Sullinger left a January 30th game against the Kings with back soreness, and soon after underwent surgery.

Things were complicated further on September 3rd as Sullinger was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. While his girlfriend now wants the charges dropped, the state is proceeding with the case and Sullinger's next court case is just two days before the Celtics opener against Toronto.

Sullinger will make $1.37 million this season, and the Celtics have until October 31st to pick up their $1.42 million team option for 2014-15. They also have a team option for 2015-16.


1. How much of a distraction will the court situation be?

Besides Sullinger and his girlfriend, no one knows exactly what went down between the two earlier this month. Although it does seem as though both of them are trying to make the relationship work despite court restrictions that limit their contact.

But no matter what happened, this just seems like something that has the ability to take his mind off basketball, doesn't it? Sullinger is now trying to divide his attention between rehabbing a back injury, salvaging a relationship, defending himself in court and preparing for the rigors of an NBA season. Not exactly a relaxing way to try and build upon his rookie season.

Making things even more difficult is the timing of it all. The next court case is scheduled for October 28th, just 48 hours before the Celtics take the court on opening night. Depending on the speed in which things get done, there is a chance that Sullinger will be attending court dates all season.

Of course, he's not the first player to do this. Kobe Bryant spent much of the 2003-04 season flying back-and-forth to Colorado as he faced rape charges. And locally we've seen Pats cornerback Alfonzo Dennard tangled up in two court cases (assaulting a cop last season, DUI/probation violation this year). In both cases the players were able to maintain their level of play, although there is no doubt that the cases provided a distraction (especially with Kobe).

2. Will Sullinger be healthy enough to improve upon his rookie season?

While Sullinger's per-game numbers weren't eye popping last season, his rate stats were damn impressive. He averaged 10.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per-36 minutes, this despite a 14.9% usage rate (% of plays that a team runs through a player while he's on the floor) that suggests that he was not getting the ball very much.

The question is: Will Sullinger's back be healthy enough for him to take the next step (i.e. play more minutes while maintaining his scoring/rebounding rates)?

While the Celtics have not commented much on Sully's surgery, Doctor Sean Rockett of Orthopedics New England had this to say back in February.

"If it's a straightforward disc, which is what it sounds like from the reports, then yeah, it could make him feel much more comfortable out there and he may have no further issues in the future," Rockett told Gary Tanguay on 'Sports Sunday'.

Now it's important to note that this doctor did not work with Sullinger. But it's also good to hear an expert opinion that says that the surgery could actually be good for Sullinger's future. Remember, this back injury did not pop up last season. Several NBA teams "red flagged" Sully before the draft because the disc did not look like it would hold up. Danny Ainge also said that it was basically a given that the surgery was going to happen at some point, and that the Cs and Sullinger just opted to get it out of the way once it started giving him some trouble.

Back injuries are tricky, but if this surgery needed to happen, it's probably best that it happened right off the bat. Now we just need to see if Sully can round into shape in time for the opener.

3. What's Sullinger's ceiling?

If healthy, Sullinger has already proven that he is a valuable NBA player. He put up 6 and 6 in less than 20 minutes a night with solid shooting percentages as a 20-year-old rookie..all while dealing with a troublesome back.

But what we don't know is what his ceiling is.

Personally I think that there are some extremely positive signs that he can be a legitimate starting power forward that averages very close to a double-double. Here are some reasons why.

A. He dominated the Big Ten as an 18/19 year old - I know that college stats don't always translate, but I also know that very few Freshmen/Sophomore's have dominated the Big Ten the way Sullinger did. He averaged 17 PPG and 10 RPG over two seasons while shooting 53% from the field, making two All-American teams in two seasons. He was a force in the paint and was considered a top ten pick before the back issues cropped up. An issue that (hopefully) is in the past.

B. He's a phenomenal rebounder - Had Sullinger qualified, his 22.1% defensive rebounding % would have ranked 7th in the NBA, and his 12.6% offensive rebounding % would have ranked 9th. He's not very big (6'8") but he has a nose for rebounding. If he's healthy enough to play 30 minutes a night he should average 8-10 boards per game.

C. He converts his offensive opportunities - Last season, as a rookie, Sullinger shot 49% from the field and 74% from the line. Good, solid efficiency numbers from a 20-year-old PF. Looking a little deeper, Sullinger was fantastic when getting the ball in the post. According to Synergy Sports, Sullinger averaged 0.94 points per play (ppp) last season while posting up, a number good enough to rank 22nd in the entire NBA. He also did an amazing job converting offensive rebounds into points, averaging 1.22 ppp on attempts off misses, 33rd in the NBA. Sullinger really struggled with his jump shot, shooting just 36% in spot-up opportunities, but if he can start sticking the 12-16 footer with any regularity he'll be a really good offensive weapon.

D. His defense is underrated - Sully always posted good defensive numbers in college, but because of his size and body type was pegged as a weak defender coming into the draft. Well, last year he once again put up good numbers, this time in the NBA. He allowed only 0.74 ppp to his opponents, and was even more dominant while going one-on-one (he allowed 0.64 ppp in isolation). Despite playing a post position he held his man to 34.1% shooting for the season (56-164)..a ridiculous number for a big man. Sure, some of the Celtics numbers will regress defensively with KG no longer around to erase mistakes. But Sullinger has now shown an above average ability to defend both in the Big Ten and the NBA..maybe it's time we give him the benefit of the doubt.

At the end of the day this all comes down to his back (and to a lesser degree how he blocks out the court issue). If that back holds up, Sullinger was a monster steal at #21 last year. If it doesn't, the Celtics "Future Five" may be more of a "Core Four". Big season for Sully's development in 2013-14.

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