In the midst of a nine-game losing streak, with the second-year forward still coming off the bench, Sullinger grabbed three offensive rebounds in his first 12 minutes on the floor. It was a late-March game against the Toronto Raptors, and it would be yet another of the team’s 57 losses.
But almost a month later, as the coach looked back at his first season on an NBA bench, Sullinger’s effort that night stood out.
“That’s progress,” Stevens said. “That’s something to point toward. That’s something you can rally around.”
The bar was lower for the Celtics this season, for sure. Once defined by playoff victories and statistical milestones, the Celtics were resigned to encouraging effort on the offensive glass in a meaningless regular season game. Yet the bar for Sullinger himself will not remain so low much longer.
Without qualifiers, Sullinger had a breakout sophomore season. He more than doubled his scoring average to 13.3 points, hauled in 8.1 rebounds per game and played in 74 out of 82 games despite offseason back surgery. His player efficiency rating took a nice bump to 16.4 from 13.5, while his playing load increased to 27.6 minutes per game.
The 22-year-old was hobbled by numerous bumps and bruises along the way, though, including a concussion, a dislocated finger, a bruised hip and a sprained ankle that ultimately ended his season three games early. Now, no amount of conditioning could have prevented some of those — there is no concussion-prevention exercise machine at the gym — but the Celtics have a consistent message for Sullinger going into his second NBA offseason.
They want him to be on the floor more, and for longer stretches.
“As you mature and you learn how to work harder and with more intensity, and you learn how to push yourself to max effort, I think that players can get better,” said Danny Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations. “Jared is still very young, and I don’t think he understands yet how good he can be.
“Now, he’s heard it. He’s heard it from a lot of people, from his father, from his agent, from his coaches, how good he can be, but (not) until he believes it and really puts in the time. I really do believe that Jared will this summer and will be in better shape this next year.”
Every player, whether under contract for 2014-15 or not, received an offseason development plan from Stevens’ staff. For Sullinger, the top item dealt with his weight, officially listed at 260 pounds. It goes without saying that is more than the Celtics want the 6-foot-9 big man to carry. Though their games are clearly different, similarly undersized power forwards Paul Millsap and Blake Griffin are each listed below 250 pounds.
Begrudgingly, Sullinger has accepted the team’s challenge. He is proud of his ample rear end, which he credits to his mother’s genes, but he says he understands there is a limit. The surgery last summer prevented him from taking part in a full workout conditioning regimen, which he promises to dive into this summer.
“I still have a lot of work to do,” Sullinger said. “This offseason is going to be a big time for me.”
The Celtics hope Sullinger realizes just how big it is.