Sullinger becoming a leader right before our eyes

Sullinger becoming a leader right before our eyes
February 14, 2014, 5:00 pm
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BOSTON — For as long as Jared Sullinger has played basketball, it seemed he was always the biggest kid on the court.

And in time he proved more often than not that he was the best player, too.

His play this season has been good enough to earn him an invite to tonight's Rising Stars challenge game which features a mixture of the NBA's top rookies and second-year players.

It is yet another acknowledgement of how far he has come as a player.

But with his size and skill, there have always been big expectations; not only in terms of production but also in terms of being a leader.

Sullinger finds himself being thrusted more and more into that role with the rebuilding Boston Celtics, a team that's still searching for an identity to rally behind.

While Rajon Rondo's return to the team and being named a Captain certainly addresses the leadership issue to some extent, there are many who wonder if the four-time All-Star is the player this team needs to build around.

Sullinger wisely won't touch the topic, in part out of respect for Rondo but also because much like his game, his leadership isn't anywhere close to where he wants it to be.

"It was like that growing up," Sullinger told CSNNE.com. "I didn't always know how to handle it. Now, I feel like I'm back in that same stage where I don't know how to handle it. I'm trying to figure it out; I'm doing my best."

But improved leadership is something head coach Brad Stevens acknowledges he is asking more of from players like Sullinger who will be 22 years young next month.

“We are in a unique situation in that we’re asking some of our young guys to be almost leaders," Stevens said. "Almost more vocal in their approach.”

Stevens added, "my talking point with him was, ‘I know you’re (21), but you’re a mature basketball player, you know the game, and, for our team to grow, we need for you to maybe play and be a few years ahead of where you are.’ It’s not fair to him, but it’s a great opportunity for him."

And to his credit, Sullinger has embraced that opportunity by gaining the respect and trust of his teammates.

Because Sullinger underwent season-ending surgery last season and only played 45 games, he spent the first 37 games of this season finishing out his "rookie duties" with the Celtic's first-year players Kelly Olynyk, Phil Pressey and Vitor Faverani.

In addition to being close in age, Sullinger being there in that capacity only strengthened the bond between him and the rookies.

And his willingness to listen to words of advice from older veterans and take those teachings to heart, isn't always how things work with 21-year-old NBA players.

"He's pretty mature for his age," said Boston's Brandon Bass.

While Rondo is indeed the team's clear-cut leader, there's no question that the Celtics and Sullinger recognize that there has to be another voice, another presence of significance inside that locker room who is not only respected for his words but also his play.

That's why Paul Pierce's role as the team Captain for so many years only benefited from the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen who didn't have the Captain label that Pierce had, but in many ways functioned as leaders for this team.

And when you look at this Celtics roster, it's clear that Sullinger's emergence as more of a leader will be important as this franchise continues to reshape itself.

"He's been a great leader for us," Celtics rookie Phil Pressey told CSNNE.com. "He's always giving tips, helping out the young guys with stuff. But the big thing is he backs it up with his play. When he says we all need to step up, he steps his game up so it's not just talk. He's putting in work to make it happen, showing us how it should be done."

Sullinger attributes that 'do-as-I-do' approach to watching his brothers James and Julian Sullinger play, and how they instilled those values in him.

"I got to see them all through the years," Sullinger said. "It was a blessing to see those guys do what they did. They taught me. When they started to see me grow up as a basketball player, they started to tell me things at a college level that I needed to do, and I was in the seventh and eighth grade."

One of the often ignored aspects of Sullinger's game as a youth and one of the reasons he was regarded in most prep circles as the No. 1 player in the country, was his understanding of defensive principles such as being talkative defensively.

"That's what they had taught me," he said of his brothers. "And offensively, how to score, the need for different moves, footwork, who to watch in college basketball, guys to model your game after."

And so many of Sullinger's weekends were spent watching Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer who both starred at Duke before being solid NBA players.

And like Sullinger, they too came into the league as undersized power forwards.

He also paid close attention to Channing Frye, a former standout at Arizona who has been a solid NBA player best known for his ability to stretch defenses with his long range shooting - yet another skill of Sullinger's that is a work in progress.

Being able to impact the game in multiple ways is not only important in terms of helping win games but just as vital in winning over players inside the locker room.

Chris Johnson has known Sullinger for years, dating back to their days in high school and later, as AAU teammates.

Although Sullinger was younger than most of the AAU players, Johnson remembers him as being very mature for his age.

"He came ready to play, doing whatever he could to help us win games," Johnson told CSNNE.com. "It's a lot like he is right now with the Celtics."

And the success on the court, the expanding of his game, it's all making him a more complete player, a better leader and ultimately the Celtics a better team.

But he admits that the losing this season has been difficult for him to deal with. This too he believes will eventually help him grow into being a better player and leader for this team.

"It's tough; really tough. A lot tougher than most folks realize," Sullinger said of the losing. "But at the same time, you learn how to push through that and know that if you dig yourself a hole, you can climb your way out of it. That's what leaders do, right? I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there; I'm getting there."