Jared Sullinger passes big test

WALTHAM, Mass. -- If you remember the Boston Celtics' double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks last season, it's probably because that was the night that Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. It's also the night that might have defined Jared Sullinger's rookie season.

Sullinger was playing well in his freshman campaign and on the verge of ascending to Boston's starting lineup. But this wasn't his finest night. He battled foul trouble, struggled defensively and was held scoreless as the Celtics kicked away a big lead only to lose in the extra sessions.

In that second overtime, Kevin Garnett fouled out and Sullinger was inserted with the game hanging in the balance. Walking on to the floor, Sullinger got a glimpse of what the rest of the league thought of his defense.

"Al Horford kind of had it going and Larry Drew, who was the coach for the Hawks at the time, he pointed down and was like, 'Yo, go at him!'" said Sullinger, who had battled rookie whistles throughout his first season. "He kind of pointed at me and Al Horford came down and charged two fouls on me. And from there, it kind of clicked for me.

"I take pride in my defense. Even though some people don't think I play defense, I do. It's a challenge and I love it. I love taking that challenge and trying to stop [the opponent's] best player."

Sullinger's back balked two games later against Sacramento, ending his season as he underwent lumbar disk surgery soon after. Drew's declaration for Horford to attack Sullinger was one of the lingering memories that helped fuel him this offseason.

Even as Sullinger continues to work his way back -- he's still not satisfied with his conditioning -- the second-year big man has emerged as perhaps Boston's most consistent two-way player.

If another coach wants his center to attack him, Sullinger welcomes that challenge.

The past two weeks have featured a venerable who's who of opposing centers. In the past seven games, Sullinger has been tasked with defending Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic, Houston's Dwight Howard, San Antonio's Tim Duncan, Indiana's Roy Hibbert, Charlotte's Al Jefferson and old friend Horford in Atlanta.

If not for injury, Wednesday's visit from Memphis would match Sullinger against Marc Gasol. He's catching a bit of a break, but frankly, he's disappointed by it.

The 21-year-old Sullinger is averaging 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists over 23.8 minutes per game in 14 appearances. His player efficiency rating is a healthy 18.9, second best on the team behind Jordan Crawford at 19.1.

Not bad for the third-lowest-paid player on the team (only rookie Phil Pressey and third-year guard MarShon Brooks collect less). Sullinger, the 21st pick in the 2012 draft, is a low-cost, high-ceiling building block for Boston's future, and while he's searching for more consistency, that ceiling seems to be only rising.

Here's what we know while trying to quantify his defensive impact. With Sullinger on the court, Boston's defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is 100.1, which is 1.7 points lower than the team's season average. Opponents are shooting 35.3 percent inside the restricted area with Sullinger on the court and 39.1 percent when he's off.

Dig deeper into individual defensive data logged by Synergy Sports and Sullinger is allowing 0.805 points per play, ranking in the 63rd percentile among all NBA players. Those numbers are actually down from last season when he was among the league's top individual defenders in limited reps (0.708 points per play overall, 95th percentile). But Sullinger was often aided by having Garnett next to him last season. This year he often has shared the floor with learning-on-the-fly rookie Kelly Olynyk.

Zoom in on the past seven games and Sullinger has limited his opponents to 0.793 points per play (73 points on 92 possessions). Opponents have shot only 39.4 percent against him in that span and he hasn't allowed many shooting fouls (only 6.5 percent of those possessions, with no and-1s allowed). Not too shabby considering the talent level of the opposition.

Sullinger has been excellent rebounding the ball, collecting 22.9 percent of available defensive caroms (on the Celtics, only Kris Humphries has been better at 23.8 percent). Sullinger's total rebound percentage is down from last season, but better game shape could aid that.

Coach Brad Stevens believes Sullinger can find another level on the defensive end.

"He does a good job of using his strength to defend one-on-one in the post. There's no question about that," Stevens said. "The good news is that I think he can get a lot better. I think he can get a lot better defensively.

"I think he's getting better just from a conditioning standpoint. Every game he looks like he's moving and feeling better, even though he's battled a little bit of injuries, some minor dings, and then also being sick last week."

Sullinger downplays the idea that these have been measuring-stick games, but admits this stretch has helped his confidence, especially coming back from injury.

"I think I've done pretty well with some of the 5s I've played against so far this year. It's more like a confidence booster," Sullinger said. "It's the NBA, so you're always playing against somebody great."

Sullinger's goal appears simple: Get to the point where he can hang with any 5 in the league despite the size he gives up. And maybe then opposing coaches will direct their offense away from him.