BOSTON — If basketball somehow doesn’t pan out for Jared Sullinger, he could have a nice career as a campaign manager in his future.
Sullinger and Boston Celtics teammate Kelly Olynyk will head to New Orleans together for Friday night’s BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, which is just a complicated corporate way of saying “rookie-sophomore game.” They are the only set of teammates in the showcase, and while Sullinger isn’t confident he’ll have much chance to show his stuff, he is stumping for his fellow Celtic.
“Kelly for MVP,” Sullinger said. “I think so, the way he’s been playing the last two games.”
Sullinger shot a glance at Olynyk across the locker room as he said that Wednesday, shortly after the Celtics finished up the unofficial first half of their season with a 104-92 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He was joking, although Olynyk’s back-to-back double-doubles heading into All-Star Weekend bodes well for him. If it weren’t Olynyk going to the event, Sullinger might have said the same about undrafted rookie Phil Pressey.
Sullinger is endlessly supportive of his teammates, after all. He reserves his ire for everybody else.
It’s hard to imagine that beneath Sullinger’s smiling exterior is a prideful fighter who still feels the sting of draft day. When he muscles into the post for a contested layup or outworks an opponent for an offensive rebound, Sullinger is trying to prove a point to the first 19 teams that picked in the 2012 NBA draft.
All of them had a chance to take Sullinger. All of them passed — the New Orleans Hornets, twice. Paul Pierce famously held a chip on his shoulder after falling to 10th in 1998. Sullinger’s chip is more than twice as big, as he fell all the way to 21st over concerns about his back.
Stuff like that tends to stick with a player for a long time.
“A long time?” Sullinger said. “For the rest of my career.”
For a lot of young players, the Rising Stars game is an initiation, something they hope is a stopover to perennial All-Star selection. The game, in which defense is optional, is mostly a chance to soak in the All-Star atmosphere. For Sullinger, this trip is more personal.
The second-year pro won’t hang around for the weekend, pretending to be an All-Star just to be seen at the festivities, as some participants do. He’ll hightail it out of New Orleans almost as soon as Friday’s game is finished, to visit his family in Columbus, Ohio. The game itself is more about Sullinger showing those other teams — at least nine of which have to wonder what they were thinking — what they missed out on.
After playing 45 games last season “on one leg,” in his words, Sullinger finally succumbed to the pain in late January. He underwent season-ending back surgery and was laid up for most of the summer, although he was back in time for the Celtics’ home opener. He has credited the team’s doctors and training staff for guiding his “pre-hab” and rehab to accelerate his recovery. He’s not sure he can jump higher now than he could before the surgery, but he does think he moves better with two operational legs.
“As good as new? Yeah,” Sullinger said. “It shows out there. I’m fine. I can do everything I could do when it hurt and even more as I get healthy.”
His work isn’t over. As a good campaign manager knows, a strong showing in a few straw polls doesn’t mean the race has been won. Sullinger is looking forward to his inclusion in the Rising Stars game as a benchmark, for teams that snubbed him to keep tabs on his progress. They’ll see where he happens to be as a player right now. Within a few years, they might see him at the big game on Sunday night, as Sullinger makes another stop on his campaign tour to prove his doubters wrong.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Sullinger said. “This is something that I don’t want to get satisfied with. I never will get satisfied. I have a lot more work to do.”