WALTHAM, Mass. — Only three days removed from a solid professional starting debut, Jared Sullinger might have been feeling pretty good about himself. The rookie
out of Ohio State had been impressive in the Celtics' preseason victory over AC
Emporio Armani in Milan on Sunday, and by Wednesday there was talk of him
cracking the starting lineup more often, if not permanently.
Rajon Rondo has watched more seasoned teammates like Kevin Garnett praise and then demur on the skills of young players — including Rondo himself — in the past. The Celtics point guard interrupted the tributes to Sullinger after practice when
it was mentioned that Sullinger, in addition to having an instinctive knack for
getting in good position for rebounds and understanding the team's offensive
concepts, seemed to have "good hands."
"Seems like it," Rondo said, as though he was unconvinced. "It's preseason,
Still, Rondo could not hide how impressed he was with the rookie's play during the
Celtics' week abroad. He called Sullinger the smartest rookie the Celtics have
had since — well, since himself, to be honest. And Rondo lauded Sullinger's
basketball IQ, a term that coach Doc Rivers also described as the Sullinger's
most impressive quality.
"He doesn't think like a rookie," Rivers said. "He thinks like a veteran."
College players, even the stars, often have to go through a maturation phase before they are accepted on veteran teams. The rare rookie who makes an impact on such teams is often the one people least expect, like Kawhi Leonard starting 39
games last season for the Spurs. Sullinger, at only 20 years old and with only
two seasons of college basketball to his credit, might not seem like the most
likely candidate to crack the Celtics' rotation — or possibly the starting
lineup — in his first year.
Yet while running through offensive sets with the Celtics' "green" team of
potential first-unit players on Wednesday, Sullinger meshed easily with Rondo,
Garnett and Paul Pierce. The most noticeable blunder made by that group during
the portion of practice reporters were allowed to watch was when Sullinger
screened off the ball for Rondo, who swung underneath the screen as
Pierce's pass to the unoccupied wing sailed out of bounds. It was obvious the
mix-up was between the two veterans. The rookie had done exactly what he was
supposed to do.
Knowing what is going on is paramount, of course, especially on the Celtics. Garnett has never been mistaken for an easygoing teammate, but he has said he feels
comfortable with many of the newer players on this year's team because they
seldom screw up, and when they do, they know why.
"It feels good to have more guys that are not just talented, but have high
IQs," Garnett said. "They know how to play basketball. You don't have
to point-blank tell them things, 'This is white, this is black.' They know how
to play the gray areas and respond to it and just play basketball."
Two preseason games were not enough for Sullinger's veteran teammates to anoint
him, but they did notice him, and they are curious to see what else he has to