BOSTON Kevin Garnett reached out and patted Jared Sullinger on the head. Amid thousands of people at the TD Garden for the Boston Celtics preseason home opener, the interaction -- as brief as it was -- between the two stood out.
A rookies relationship with Garnett can set the tone for his career. Those who choose not to listen dont usually last long. The veteran leader commands respect, and if first-year players listen, ask questions, and express a genuine desire to learn, he is more than willing to open his anthology of basketball knowledge and share.
Less than a month into training camp, the youngest player on the Celtics has made a positive impression on the teams elder statesman.
I feel like sometimes young guys come in and have the whole entitlement displayed across their chest, said Garnett. This kid is coming in, working his butt off, and he's trying to be better. I'm giving him the book, teaching him everything I know.
Sullinger could have come to Boston with an ego. At only 20 years old, the former Ohio State University standout had garnered lottery buzz before slipping to the 21st pick in this years draft due to concerns by many teams over a back issue. The Celtics were thrilled to land Sullinger, who averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in his sophomore (and final) college season. Sullinger was excited to go to a veteran team.
The youngest of three talented brothers, he has spent his entire life going up against older, bigger, stronger competition. He thrived on the intensity of the hoops battles and eventually became the victor. Coming into his first season in the NBA, Sullinger knew learning from and respecting Garnett was imperative, but he also didnt want to back down. Being aggressive got him to the pros and he wasnt about to change his approach now that he had made it there.
I understood that I cant be afraid because hes Kevin Garnett, Sullinger told CSNNE.com. Hes my teammate and Ive got to attack him every day in practice. Thats what I did and earned his respect like that . . . It was day one since practice. If I got the ball, Id attack it. Most people would say, Oh my god, Kevin Garnetts guarding me. Get it out of my hands. No, not me. I just always try to attack and play my game.
Behind this attack-mode attitude on the court is a young player who simply wants to learn from the veterans around him. Sullinger's teammates describe him as humble. Garnett even called him gullible -- "And I mean that in a good way," he clarified. There is a difference between ego and eagerness, and Sullinger possesses the latter.
It wasn't far into training camp before Garnett and Sullinger began talking more frequently.
When Sullinger missteps in practice, Garnett pulls him aside to go over the play. The rookie pays close attention and retains every ounce of advice, which has included developing a consistent pregame routine.
If there is an empty seat next to Garnett on the Celtics bench, Sullinger grabs it. He carefully listens to Garnett's analysis of the game being played in front of them, discovering how to watch the action from the future Hall of Famer's point of view.
"Hes not really worried about offense," Sullinger explained. "Hes all about defense."
And when they are both done playing for the night, Garnett and Sullinger sport similar sideline attire -- a towel wrapped around their heads tucked into their warm up shirts.
"I always did that," Sullinger said. "I was doing that at Ohio State. The only thing different is I didnt have a shirt, so I tucked it into my jersey."
Sullinger has started in three of the Celtics first five preseason games, averaging 10.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in 24.6 minutes. He has received more praise than rookies in past years, yet he's not letting it go to his head.
With a shortage of seats on the bench during Tuesday's game, Sullinger directed Micah Downs and Kris Joseph to the chairs, volunteering to take a spot on the floor during the second quarter. If Sullinger, who started that night, were to pull rank, he could have claimed a chair ahead of 51st overall pick Joseph and the undrafted Downs. But he didn't.
Sullinger said his former nickname, "Smokey the Swag Bear," was given to him by summer league teammate Craig Brackins, went overseas with its creator. Now he goes by "Youngin" or -- an upgrade from Garnett's usual rookie nickname -- "Sully."
Besides, it is nearly impossible for him to forget his place among the veterans.
"Hell yeah I feel 20," he said with a laugh. "The stories you hear - KG goes to talk about Terry Porter and all those guys and its like, 'Whoa. I was like eight or nine when that happened.' When he (Garnett) came into the league, I was four in 1996. So yeah, I feel young."
With every passing game and practice with his older teammates, Sullinger will continue to become wiser beyond his years. Garnett sees Sullinger's potential, and the rookie sees it in himself, too.
"I always say, young guys come off sometimes as entitled," Garnett said, continuing, "But he works very hard. He's very attentive, he wants to be better."