Sullinger Shines in Professional Debut

ORLANDO, Fla. – Jared Sullinger made a conscious decision to ease his way into his first professional basketball game, but that didn’t prevent him from being the star of the afternoon as his Celtics defeated the Thunder 73-65 Monday afternoon.

As many rookies and veterans can attest, a professional debut is not a moment in which the nerves are settled. It’s also not a moment in which any player wants to come off as a me-first type of player.

Sullinger handled both of those obstacles with grace in his first professional basketball game. Although it wasn’t evident while watching the big man work his way to a game-high 20 points and six boards, Sullinger admitted that there were some knots in both his stomach and his mind in the early moments of the contest.

Jared Sullinger

Jared Sullinger scored a game-high 20 points during his professional debut.
Fernando Medina/Boston Celtics

“I didn’t want to come into the game thinking, ‘It’s all about me, it’s all about me,’ ” he said. “Playing all my life, where everything goes through you, I didn’t want to be like that today because I’ve got some teammates that can really play. So I was just trying to feel it out in the first half.”

Boston’s coaching staff allowed Sullinger to take his time in feeling the game out, because he began the game on the bench. The Celtics’ starting frontcourt consisted of Dionte Christmas, JaJuan Johnson and Sean Williams. So while his teammates began the game on a strong push, including an 18-0 first-quarter run, Sullinger was able to get some of the jitters out by watching the flow of the game from the sideline.

When he finally did come into the game, he was calm, cool and collected. In less than 10 minutes of first-half action, Sullinger scored six points, grabbed three rebounds and dished out one assist. He did not commit a turnover and was solid at both ends.

Still, though, this was clearly a player who was adjusting on the fly to a type of basketball he had never played before. The NBA game is far different than collegiate basketball, and Sullinger admitted as much Monday afternoon.

“It’s wide open,” Sullinger said while speaking of the differences he noticed in his first pro outing. “Everything’s a quick-hitter. If you don’t have anything from your first play, from your first initial action, you get straight to the pick-and-roll. It’s just a lot of pick-and-rolls.”

If Monday’s contest was any indication, Sullinger is a player who could percolate in the pick-and-roll. Once he shook himself loose of any cobwebs, the big man took over in the second half. Tyronn Lue, Boston’s summer league head coach, inserted Sullinger into the starting lineup in the third quarter and the rookie took over the game from that point on.

While Perry Jones was good, he was relatively inconsistent. The same could be said for E’Twaun Moore, Lazar Hayward and Reggie Jackson, who were the other players in the game who racked up big numbers. Sullinger? He was a different story. The name of his game was consistency.

He put the ball through the basket in a variety of ways during the second half. Sullinger showed off his range by drilling a 3-pointer and several other jumpers. He also made a couple of impressive plays while driving to the basket and scoring in traffic. And let’s not forget his deft touch at the free-throw line, where he shot a perfect 7-for-7.

After watching a performance like that, Sullinger’s temporary head coach couldn’t sing enough praises about him after the game was over.

“He’s just a gamer. He knows how to play the game,” said Lue. “Guys can be taller, more athletic, but he just knows how to play. He’s very skilled and he knows how to play the game. We wouldn’t have won the game without him today.”

Sullinger may have entered this game with a slight level of anxiety, but when it came down it, this was just another basketball game for him. He wanted to play great, and he did. He wanted to win, and he did.

That’s a pretty good first day as a pro, and if he can do those two things with consistency for the remainder of his career, the Celtics will have found themselves a gem.