CLEVELAND: Leading up to the 2012 NBA Draft, Jared Sullinger might have felt like he was playing Kansas every night.
Detractors of Sullinger, the Ohio State All-American, knocked him at every turn. He was too chubby. Too short. A tweener who lacked athleticism. Red-flagged by some teams because of back issues.
He’d been used to wearing a scarlet letter, but this had to seem ridiculous. By the time scouts and analysts were done with him, being coached by his father Satch at Northland High School in Columbus could have been twisted into a negative.
He wasn’t invited to the NBA Draft in New York because the league decided he wouldn’t be selected in the top 15, saving him a Brady Quinn moment. As it turned out, 16 teams passed on Sullinger in the first round. Once considered a top-five talent, Sullinger, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound power forward, fell to the 21st pick.
It was almost as if an oversized bowling ball rolled into the Boston Celtics’ laps. And for the Celtics, it was a strike.
On Tuesday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers chuckled that some of that negativity might have been by design.
He wondered if Danny Ainge, Celtics president of basketball operations, was among those disparaging Sullinger.
“I actually think Danny may have been part of it,” Rivers said before the team’s morning shootaround.
As he returned to Ohio on Tuesday night to face the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, Sullinger is well on his way to proving he belongs in the league. At least for now, rebounding will be his calling card.
Against the Cavs, Sullinger finished with 10 rebounds and 12 points in 27 minutes. In 11 games in January, the rookie has averaged 8.6 rebounds and 8.3 points. In the NBA category of rebounds per 48 minutes, which projects a player’s average over an entire game, his 14.5 entering the night was higher than Al Jefferson of the Utah Jazz, Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers and David Lee of the Golden State Warriors. In plus-minus, which measures how a team scores against its opponents when a player is on the court, Sullinger (plus 57) was second among rookies and led the Celtics.
Rivers believes Sullinger’s shooting touch will come as well. In his previous 12 games before Tuesday, he was connecting on 53.1 percent from the field. Sullinger has hit his career-high of 16 points twice, at the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 18 and at the Brooklyn Nets on Dec. 25.
“He’s probably been one of our more consistent players,” Rivers said. “I didn’t expect Jared to have a long learning curve. I think he’s suited for our league. Plays the right way, plays with heart, great rebounder every night. He still has his rookie moments where guys are smarter, craftier, he’s figuring that out, but overall he’s been terrific.”
There are also those moments when Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo forgets who he’s dealing with.
“The other night, Rondo threw an alley-oop to him and Jared didn’t get it and Rondo was [ticked] and I was like, ‘Why would you be [ticked] at that? That’s never going to happen,’ ” Rivers said. “If you throw an alley-oop below the net, maybe he’ll get it. He’s not ever going to be an athlete.”
To that, Sullinger said, “Every now and then [Rondo] might sneak one up there, but I’m not really an alley-oop type of guy.”
He is a guy who has already earned the respect of his mentor, 17-year veteran Kevin Garnett. On the team’s website in November, Garnett compared Sullinger to ex-Celtic Kendrick Perkins because of his basketball IQ, unselfishness and being “a great teammate.”
Sullinger obviously was stung by the pre-draft comments, but put them to good use.
“I always knew I could play here,” he said before Tuesday’s shootaround. “Everybody has their own opinion. I don’t mind it. Everybody’s trying to do their job and sell papers and news feeds and all that. So thank you, guys.”
But he doesn’t take offense to the knock — even from his coach — that he’s not an athlete.
“I’m definitely not an athlete,” he said. “I play below the rim. That’s been me for years. Why change now? I just have to adapt.”
He’s doing that, teammates say.
“He’s been proving a lot of doubters wrong,” Celtics forward Jeff Green said. “He listens, that’s the most important thing. We have some great vets on this team. He’s been willing to do whatever the vets say and do whatever’s asked.”
What continues to amaze Rivers is what happens to players the minute they step off the college hardwood, as Sullinger did with a loss to Kansas in last year’s Final Four. It happened to Rivers’ son Austin before he was taken 10th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in June.
“That’s the thing I’ve always laughed about the draft, you were a great player until the last game. Then right after that game, there’s a six-week period where you forget how to play and then you fall in the draft,” Rivers said. “It happens to all kinds of guys, all kinds of stuff.
“I personally went through it with my son, just listening to all of a sudden he’s a bad kid. This is why teams [stink] at drafting. They need to listen to their eyes.”
Even when your eyes say the man you want falls a little short in the alley-oop department.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.