Recovering Sullinger's goal now is to get better

Recovering Sullinger's goal now is to get better
July 18, 2013, 12:00 am
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WALTHAM, Mass. — As Jared Sullinger grew in size, stature and dominance, it was evident to most that a future in the NBA was on the horizon even as his stock slid on draft night in 2012.

But a back injury that has since been surgically repaired, ended what had been a promising rookie season for the  Celtics.

Months later, Sullinger is gradually regaining the strength that made him one of the few bright spots for the Celtics last season.

Under the watchful eyes of Boston's strength and conditioning coaches, Sullinger is on track to return in time for training camp, which will go far in him achieving his primary goal - to be better than he was as a rookie.

"I knew from the get-go that this [surgery] was going to happen," Sullinger told Comcast SportsNet in the middle of a workout this summer at the Celtics' practice facility. "I was hurt, and I knew I was going to have surgery. If it wasn't this following year it would be next following year. So I kind of expected it, I wasn't disappointed. I knew it was coming around the corner."

While the injury certainly sapped a lot of his strength, it had no effect on his fundamentally sound game, which in some respects is akin to San Antonio Spurs great Tim Duncan - minus the ridiculously efficient back shot of course.

"Watching him [Sullinger] play, there wasn't any question that he would pick up on the nuances of the NBA game pretty quickly wherever he went in the draft," said an Eastern Conference scout who said he had seen Sullinger play "at least a dozens times" in AAU games and later at Ohio State.  "Really smart kid with a high basketball I.Q. There was only one real knock against him, and it cost him on draft night."

That would be the lower back issue  that NBA doctors red-flagged shortly before the 2012 NBA draft. It led to this shoo-in lottery pick (top 14) dropping all the way to the Celtics at No. 21.

Sullinger had back surgery on Feb. 1 that he hopes will prevent any back-related issues in the future.

Now comes the really tough part: getting himself back to form.

After weeks of not being allowed to do much of anything following surgery, Sullinger's workouts increased in their frequency and intensity in May and June with all signs pointing towards him being healthy and ready to go once training camp starts.

"I'm running a little bit, shooting a little bit, so I'm slowly getting back my form," Sullinger said.

That form saw him go from being a regular rotation player, into a starter prior to his season-ending surgery, which came about after he experienced some back spasms against Sacramento on Jan. 30.

In 45 games (five starts), Sullinger averaged six points and 5.9 rebounds while playing 19.8 minutes a game.

But more than that, Sullinger gained the trust of former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, which is a rarity for the rookies he coaches.

Still, for Sullinger's rookie season to be limited because of back surgery  gave some teams that passed on him a sense of vindication for their decision.

 "Our doctors told us at some point he was going to need surgery," Rivers said prior to leaving to become the Los Angeles Clippers coach and vice president of basketball operations. "But it's not a career-ending surgery or anything like that. It's just surgery. We were hoping it would happen in the summer time, to be quite honest, that he could get through the year. But he just didn't. He'll be fine next year.''

And that more than anything else is why the Celtics were happy to have a shot at drafting him at No. 21, and are perfectly comfortable with his progress during workouts.

"We've had a few guys up here in the gym already," Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations, told as he watched a recent workout by Sullinger. "But Jared has been in here a lot, working hard. It's great to see. We're looking forward to him getting back out there, healthy, helping us win."

Said Sullinger: "That's the most amazing part about all of this, having this surgery early in my rookie year and being able to have a long career after that. The doctor did what he was supposed to do, and he took care of me."

And now it's on Sullinger to do his part, which involves regaining the strength he had prior to surgery.

He has been doing this under the scrutiny of Celtics assistant coaches Jay Larranaga and Jamie Young, as well as strength and conditioning coaches Bryan Doo and Armand Lavallee.

Aside from hanging with the C's summer league team in Orlando and a couple trips back to Ohio to see family and friends, Sullinger said he plans to be in Boston all summer.

 "This is where I need to be, getting my body right, getting stronger everyday," Sullinger said. "I'm not just coming back to be the player I was; I'm coming back to be better."