Jared Sullinger entered Celtics training camp as the rookie most likely to contribute this coming season, and he didn't waste any time in Boston's first preseason game reminding everyone of why.
Boston's top pick from the 2012 draft tied Jeff Green for a team-high 16 points to go along with a team-high eight rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench, helping the Celtics keep pace before they eventually fell to Fenerbahce Ulker, 97-91, on Friday.
Sullinger checked in with just under 2 minutes remaining in the opening frame, and quickly established himself with a short hook shot over the top of the defense off of a feed from Rajon Rondo. He then played the vast majority of the second quarter, putting in six more points, including a tip-in off a Darko Milicic miss, a dunk inside from Rondo, and two free throws. He made good use of his body, both in the lane and along the perimeter, such as when he freed up Jason Terry for an open 3-pointer on the left wing with a sizable screen with just under 9 minutes to play in the second quarter.
"That's a great example, when you go into games, from our standpoint, we want to look at different guys, and we got a great look at him," head coach Doc Rivers said of Sullinger afterward. "He was terrific. The point I made before the game, it was his first time playing minutes with the starters, and I thought he was good with the starters and I thought he was good with the bench, so that's a good sign. I thought he played with a great calm. For a rookie, he's never in a hurry, that was good."
His sense of calm might have been the most encouraging sign, aside from his soft touch and knack for the ball. While rookies often seem rattled and lost in the moment of their first NBA action, Sullinger stepped right in and made others react to him. He carved out space in the lane, seemed at ease with what Boston was running on both sides of the ball, and, when Kevin Garnett wasn't on the floor, stood out as the Celtics' strongest rebounding presence.
While slightly undersized (Sullinger stands at 6-foot-9), there were never any glaring moments when Fenerbahce got the better of him on the offensive end. Still, Sullinger will have his work cut out for him when he's charged with defending a skilled, bigger big man once the real games start. During summer league, he showed an ability to position himself defensively before his man made the catch, sometimes even moving his man out of the paint or off of the block and forcing him to do more work once he secured the ball.
Sullinger came back with an equally impressive second half on Friday, matching his point total over the first 24 minutes, scoring multiple times around the basket. He didn't exhibit his jump shot and the considerable range he possesses, but that's largely because the sets Boston was running didn't call for him to be a primary option outside of the paint. Playing closer to the basket worked out in multiple ways for Sullinger anyway, giving him easier chances to score and keeping him in better position to secure the five offensive rebounds he hauled in -- when was the last time you heard of a Celtic doing that?
It's important not to overreact to Sullinger's first outing, as he cannot yet be deemed a reliable option off of the bench for Rivers. He'll need a handful of performances like Friday's before he earns that reputation (a handful of strong regular season outings won't hurt, either). But if what he displayed against Fenerbahce is a sign of things to come, he shouldn't have any trouble cementing a role in the rotation and being one of the first true rookie contributors since Boston's championship window reopened five seasons ago.