Commentary

Big-brother program pays off

Extra nudge from KG hits home, sparks rookie Sullinger's inner beast

Updated: January 10, 2013, 9:23 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger attributes much of his basketball development to his three older brothers: James and Julian Sullinger, and Kevin Garnett.

OK, so there's no blood relation between Jared Sullinger and Garnett, and the "Big Ticket" initially bristled Thursday at the suggestion of being the "Big Brother," but he ultimately acknowledged the supporting role he has played in nurturing Sullinger this season.

Spearheaded by blossoming play at both ends of the floor, Sullinger finds himself the team leader in plus/minus through 35 games, having surged past the "Big Plus/Minus" himself. Coming off a plus-24 effort in Wednesday's win over the Phoenix Suns -- one in which he registered 12 points and a career-high 16 rebounds -- Sullinger now is plus-66 for the season (Garnett, the perennial leader in that category, is second on the team at plus-44).

That tells only part of the story. Sullinger endeared himself immediately with a relentlessness on the glass, but his defense has improved, he's quietly finding ways to chip in offensively without needing plays designed specifically for him and he's simply making good things happen on the court (as evidenced by his glossy plus/minus stats).

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger, Kevin Garnett
Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe/Getty Images"I can always hear him in the back of my head," Sullinger said of Garnett. "He's always trying to mentor me, tell me what I can do, what he sees. Trying to make me see what he sees."

But a quiet toughness -- a venerable mean streak -- has emerged from a player who jokes that off the court he's as cuddly as a teddy bear. Heck, even Garnett noted, "He's a guy you want your daughter to bring home." Just don't put him on the basketball court with your daughter.

During Monday's slugfest with the Knicks, Sullinger earned some stripes with teammates. After producing a fourth-quarter block on Carmelo Anthony, Sullinger won a scramble for the ball only to find himself swarmed by Tyson Chandler. The two wrestled for the ball. Sullinger was unwilling to give it up to the hulking 7-foot Chandler and earned a whistle -- and a Chandler shove -- for his trouble.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted how Chandler -- infuriated by the rookie -- proceeded to bark at him on the Boston bench throughout the final frame. Back in teddy bear mode, Sullinger simply laughed at him. It's a careful balance between playing a physical game and not letting emotions overtake him.

That's a lesson he learned on the playground with his older brothers at age 6.

"A little story of mine: One day we went to the park, and it was me and my brothers. I went for a layup, and Julian just pushed me into the pole," Sullinger said. "I started bleeding, so I went running home. I'm crying to my mom, and my mom's like, 'Go see your father.' My father told me, 'Do you want a trophy saying that you're the best player ever, or do you want to go earn that trophy that says you're the best player ever?' And, you know me, I was like, 'Just give it to me.' He was like, 'No, go back out there.' So my mom cleaned me up. She patted me on the back and said, 'Good luck, baby.' And I went back out there, and we started playing again."

That's tough love. But it made Sullinger a tougher player between the lines.

Fast-forward to this summer. Sullinger, after watching his draft stock plummet due to red flags about his back, slid to the Celtics at No. 21 in June's draft. Sullinger would deem it a blessing, in part, because of the ability to learn under Garnett's tutelage.

The first time on the floor together during informal workouts, the 36-year-old Garnett welcomed the 20-year-old Sullinger to the league in big-brother fashion.

Dobbs He's very poised. You're not going to get under his skin, not going to rush him. Just when you think he's backing down, he's in your face. Practice every day is not a cupcake practice. We push the young guys here.

-- Kevin Garnett on rookie Jared Sullinger

"[Garnett] scored the basketball, of course," Sullinger said. "Kevin caught the ball in the post, opened up, did his thing: go to the left, step-back, couldn't guard it. He shoots the ball so high, you can't guard it. After he scored, he was running down the court, and he said, 'Welcome to the league, big fella.' I was like, 'Oh, OK, thank you.'"

Still not as ruthless as his actual brothers.

"No, Kevin has not pushed me into any poles," Sullinger deadpanned.

But make no mistake, he has pushed Sullinger, teaching him all the tricks gathered over the course of a decorated 18-year NBA career. Sullinger said he can hear Garnett barking at him from the bench, trying to give him pointers during games.

"I can always hear him in the back of my head," Sullinger said. "He's always trying to mentor me, tell me what I can do, what he sees. Trying to make me see what he sees."

When the idea of being a big brother to Sullinger was broached with Garnett on Thursday, he pondered it for a second before barking, "I have sisters."

It took him a bit, but he soon warmed to the designation, suggesting he's open to mentoring any of Boston's younger players through what he has seen and accomplished in his career. Garnett tried to compare it to his relationship with Glen Davis at the start of the Big Three era, but it's clear this might already transcend that. Garnett clearly has been impressed with Sullinger's pure basketball IQ, his mental makeup and his openness to learning.

"I don't know, we have a connection and it works," Garnett said. "I haven't really sat back and analyzed it, but every situation is different, and I try not to compare people and just go with what's in front of me. I just try to be there for him. You're going to go through enough things as a young guy, as a rookie, so I try to be there for the guy.

"He's very poised. You're not going to get under his skin, not going to rush him. Just when you think he's backing down, he's in your face. Practice every day is not a cupcake practice. We push the young guys here. Our practices are hard, they are emotional, they are filled with passion. I'm not saying that they are games, with popcorn popping and fans and [reporters] sitting three seats away from us. But practices are real, and they are serious; they get intense at times. That experience and going through that, and carrying it over to games, I think that's helped."

Garnett described the mentor role Sam Mitchell played for him in Minnesota, and a reporter asked whether Garnett is Sullinger's Mitchell. Again, he bristled, but he didn't fight it.

"When I came into the league, I was just someone trying to prove something to myself and everyone who doubted me," Garnett said. "And to this day, I think I'm still driven by those same things, never been short of encouragement, never been short of inspiration, things that are going to get me going. I don't know, I've always found an edge."

Sullinger arrived with similar inspiration from those who suggested he was undersized and who worried about his health. As Rivers is quick to note, he could have been a high lottery pick after his freshman season at Ohio State. Instead, he stayed another year and developed his game, and it was those medical red flags that forced him to slide.

"He comes in with a chip," Rivers said. "If he comes out as a [freshman], he's probably [No.] 1, 2 or 3. He comes out the next year, he falls all the way down to 21. I think there's a lot of things at play with Jared. I think he's getting better, obviously, in front of our eyes, and he's going to keep getting better. And his focus is what's improved to me; he's focused on every possession."

Rivers knows exactly who to thank for that focus: It's his older brothers, but especially Garnett.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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