Jared Sullinger’s first year in the NBA wasn’t an easy one.
Expected to be a lottery pick coming out of Ohio State, he dropped after several teams reportedly flagged him over concerns about back issues. The Boston Celtics happily took him with the 21st overall pick and prepared to reap the benefits of a skilled, NBA-ready power forward.
Sullinger looked good as a rookie, averaging 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in fewer than 20 minutes on a team headed for the postseason. On Jan. 22, 2013 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the closest thing to a hometown team for the Columbus native, Sullinger registered 12 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes.
Back spasms forced him out of a win over the Sacramento Kings after just four minutes just one week later. The Celtics announced two days later that Sullinger had undergone season-ending back surgery.
“We knew this could happen. We knew it a month before the draft that this could happen and at some point it probably would happen,” then-coach Doc Rivers said at the time.
"We were hoping it would be a summer thing, rather than the middle of the season, but it happened now. He was playing great and the good news is we know he can play. We know he'll be a very good player and, in the long run, this will make him healthier."
The Celtics hope the surgery will remain a long-term fix for back issues that some teams considered chronic heading into the 2012 NBA Draft. One front office was told by their medical staff to avoid Sullinger altogether because of issues they felt might never go away.
A little more than a year since going under the knife, Sullinger is headed to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. While he acknowledges having doubts about his basketball future, Sullinger remained strong during his lengthy rehabilitation.
“At the time, there’s always doubt,” Sullinger said. “When I’m sitting there on my bed, sitting on my couch and watching movies because I’m not able to travel with the team. It’s definitely tough, but at the same time I think mentally I was strong enough to understand that I would be back.”
Sullinger’s absence in the second half of last season was compounded by the fact that the Celtics had also lost Rajon Rondo to a torn ACL. Shorthanded, Boston was eliminated in the first round by the New York Knicks.
“When you are sitting down on the bed and you really don’t do nothing, can’t workout, can’t do absolutely nothing, can’t live a normal lifestyle it’s pretty tough,” Sullinger admitted.
“Especially with your team going into the playoffs and you know there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Losing 37 games during your rookie season isn’t something anyone plans for, but Sullinger appears to be much better for having had surgery. He is averaging 13.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in 27.4 minutes for the rebuilding Celtics this season.
“Am I as good as new? Yeah, I mean it shows out there that I’m doing fine,” the forward said. “I can do everything I did when it hurt. I was basically playing on one leg [last season], I wouldn’t say I can jump higher but I can move better.”
Sullinger has started 38 of his 51 games this season, while also dealing with hand, wrist and ankle issues. His per 36 numbers (17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds) would make him a borderline All-Star in the Eastern Conference.
“I have a lot of work to do,” he added. “I don’t want to be satisfied and I never will be satisfied. I’ve got a lot more work to do.”