BOSTON -- Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger often thanks genetics for his rebounding prowess, not so subtly crediting his mother, Barbara, for gifting him with an oversized posterior that aids him in fending off opposing big men.
But, joke as he might, Sullinger has shown this season that he's one of the better defensive rebounders in the league, and it goes beyond his buttocks. The 6-foot-9 Sullinger uses sound positioning, an innate ability to track rebounds and soft hands to make up for the size he often gives up against opposing bigs.
Take, for example, the fourth quarter of Saturday's game against the Heat. Miami was down two with less than five minutes to play when rookie Justise Winslow took a little one-foot fadeaway in the lane. Sullinger immediately jabbed his left arm into the chest of 7-foot Hassan Whiteside on the opposite blocks and turned to track the shot.
When Whiteside noticed the ball was going to bounce off the side iron and carom his way, he tried to shuffle closer, but Sullinger stuck out that rump to keep Miami's big man at bay. With his right arm extended as he leapt, Sullinger managed to tip the ball toward the end line and, leaning that way with Whiteside on his back, Sullinger hauled in the ball while ensuring his feet stayed inbounds.
Next trip down, a long rebound nearly shot over Sullinger's head after a Heat miss, but he again managed to extend his right hand and pull the ball down in the paint as Whiteside loomed behind him.
"Sully was great on the glass," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "In the last five minutes of the game, I felt like he got every rebound that there was."
During Saturday's game, Sullinger grabbed an absurd 42.9 percent of all available defensive rebounds during his 24 minutes, 31 seconds of floor time. That's only slightly above his norm over the past seven games, a span in which Sullinger has reached double figures in rebounding six times while posting five double-doubles.
Sullinger has grabbed 35.8 percent of all available defensive boards in that seven-game span. That's a number that, if maintained, would rank Sullinger among the NBA's elite defensive rebounders. For comparison's sake, rebound magnet Andre Drummond leads the league with a defensive rebound percentage of 34.3 and only four players are north of 30 percent.
For the season, Sullinger sits at 28.2 percent, which ranks 10th among qualifiers. What's more, he's mere fractions of a point behind a trio tied at 28.3 percent, meaning that, if Sullinger keeps up his torrid defensive rebound rate, he could soon elevate toward seventh in the league.
Not bad for a player whose career defensive rebound rate is 22.7 percent.
The NBA's player tracking data reflects well on Sullinger as a rebounder in traffic too, noting that he has grabbed 29.4 percent of his contested rebounds -- when an opponent is within 3.5 feet -- this season. For comparison, Drummond, the league's leader in contested rebounds per game, grabs only 25.7 percent of those contested boards.
On an undersized team that struggles to rebound the basketball -- Boston ranks 25th in the league in defensive rebound rate -- Sullinger brings a much-needed skill set. He's also a solid defender, which is reflected in how he's holding opponents to 58.5 percent shooting within six feet of the basket, which, according to the league's tracking data, is 1.5 percentage points below those players' season averages. Boston also owns a defensive rating of 100.0 when he's on the court (in line with the team's 99.9 season mark, which ranks fourth in the league).
A year after the team flirted with converting Sullinger into more of a floor-stretching, 3-point shooting big, he seems to understand that his defensive skills are his valuable asset and that scoring opportunities will come naturally through the flow of an improved offense. Sullinger has embraced a role as a screen-setter who can help the likes of All-Star Isaiah Thomas generate better looks.
"[Sullinger is] playing at a high level. He’s getting double-doubles it seems like every game," Thomas said. "He’s playing great, offensively and defensively. That’s what this team is about. We’re all guys that nobody really looks at what we do. I think that’s what makes us play even harder, that’s what makes us continue to prove people wrong. He’s been playing at a high level and we need him to continue to do that.
"And he gets me open, so I love Sully, man. He gets me open more than anybody on this team."
Sullinger's minutes are down from last season in part because of Boston's log-jammed frontcourt, but he has been more efficient lately as the Celtics have climbed to 10 games above .500 for the first time since 2011-12, the season before Sullinger was drafted. The team would love to bottle his recent two-way production.
"It's just playing my game, honestly," Sullinger said. "There was a stretch when I really wasn't playing well and now I'm in a stretch where I know where I'm going to get my shots and know when I can create my shots. Just knowing when to pass it up too. My teammates have a lot of trust in me and that's the beautiful part about playing for the Boston Celtics."
Informed that Thomas had dubbed him the most important guy to getting him open, Sullinger smiled.
"You've got to do your role," Sullinger said. "Everyone has a role. Sometimes [my screens] are very illegal screens, but it gets him open. That's all that matters"
Asked what Sullinger has brought of late, Stevens responded, "Rebounding, size, skill, feel. There’s a lot of good things that he brings to the table for us. Hopefully he continues to play at a good level. He’s got to figure out in each game what his option is. There are times where he’s able to post and be really good down there. And then there’s guys that he can stretch because of his size and everything else."
Stevens loves versatility and players who embrace selfless roles that help the team thrive. In this recent stretch, Sullinger clearly has bought in.
Sullinger's future in Boston is a bit murkier. He'll be a restricted free agent this summer and the sort of player that the Celtics would love to bring back at the $4.4 million qualifying offer, but teams will have money to spend and skilled big men are going to be worth eight figures on the open market. Might a team bid for Sullinger -- and will the Celtics be willing to match?
Asked if he could see himself in Boston long term, Sullinger embraced the idea.
"Most definitely," he said. "My oldest brother always told me that the worst thing that happens to me sometimes is change. He says I don't handle change well. I strongly disagree, but sometimes you just don't want a change of scenery. When you play for the greatest franchise in the NBA and you see all those banners and all the fans, you don't want to leave that place because it's a special place in your heart. It's the first team I've played for in the NBA -- hopefully it'll be my last."
The question is whether the Celtics view Sullinger as a long-term piece of their puzzle. The team challenged Sullinger to get in the best shape of his career this summer and his family staged a basketball intervention that led to him working out with John Lucas in Houston.
Sullinger's body has been critiqued throughout the season -- maybe not quite to the level of a certain third baseman who also plays professionally in this city -- and ultimately he may never look how some prefer.
The Celtics wanted Sullinger to have more energy at the end of games and he's displayed that recently -- as his fourth-quarter work on the glass against Miami confirms. Sullinger has appeared in 59 of Boston's 60 games, starting 51 of them (and missing just one game due to back spasms). He's already played more games this year than he did in two of his first three NBA seasons and should challenge his career high of 74 games from his sophomore season.
The No. 21 pick in the 2012 draft will turn 24 next month. He's still maturing as a player and person. But he seems to be embracing his role and his body -- especially his backside that's helping him on both sides of the ball lately.
“That’s a blessing my mom gave me," Sullinger said. "She gave me her booty, so I can give all the credit to my mama."