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Jared Sullinger takes over and other observations from first day of summer league

07.09.12 at 6:48 pm ET
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Jared Sullinger scored 20 points in his first summer league game. (AP)

ORLANDO — Jared Sullinger has always been the focal point of the teams he’s played on, but this was his first taste of life in the NBA and he didn’t want to seem presumptuous.

“I didn’t want to come into the game thinking like, ‘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 got some teammates that can really play. So I was just trying to feel it out in the first half and the second half, we were falling behind, so I decided to step up and try to score the basketball.”

That’s exactly what he did as he scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half of the Celtics’ 73-65 win over Oklahoma City in their first summer league game. Sullinger worked down low and it’s clear that he’s comfortable on the block. He also stepped out and made a couple of mid-range jump shots. He even put the ball on the floor, spun into the lane and completed a three-point play.

“He’s just a gamer,” said C’s summer league coach,  Ty Lue. “He knows how to play the game. Guys can be taller and 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.”

Ever since the Celtics were able to select Sullinger in the first-round of the draft, his ability to play has been a constant theme. He’s not the most athletic player and there are obvious concerns about his back, but his basketball IQ is high and it’s evident watching him operate on the block that he has put in work over the years.

Summer league games are what they are. They can run anywhere from highly entertaining to long, drawn-out slogs and this game ranked more toward the latter end of the scale. Points were tough to come by, but the Thunder also had four first-round picks in their starting five, including center Cole Aldrich and Sullinger more than held his own.

This raises an interesting question as to whether the power forward can slide over and play some center minutes with the Celtics. Team president Danny Ainge raised the possibility during the rookies’ introductory press conference and while it wouldn’t be wise to throw him out there against the likes of Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, Sullinger said he welcomes the phsyical pounding that comes from playing with the big guys underneath.

“That’s fun. That’s always fun,” he said. “Get to bang around in the post, back to the basket. You get to guard someone taller than you, it’s a challenge. It’s always fun doing that. At the same time, it’s always fun guarding quicker basketball players. It was fun today.”

Growing up in Ohio, he was tested early by his brothers Julian and J.J. who made sure their little brother learned how take punishment, and more importantly, how to overcome it and still play your game.

“When you go through the air on concrete and they throw you to the ground and you’ve got scrapes all over your arms, you learn to concentrate on making the shots, instead of just scraping your arm,” he said. “Every time I’d cry, they’d yell at me because I’m always worried about the scab or something, instead of worrying about making the shot. When you’ve got two brothers like that, it’s not choice but to make the shots.”

All in all, it was a positive first step in Sullinger’s transition to the NBA. Here are some other observations:

E’Twaun Moore handled most of the minutes at point guard and he scored 16 points to go with four assists and just two turnovers, although he made six of his 16 attempts. This is a big summer for Moore. His contract becomes guaranteed if he isn’t waived by the end of their summer league session in Las Vegas, but there’s also opportunity with the Celtics if he makes it.

Moore deflected a question about added pressure saying, “I’m just trying to play, play hard and get better. That’s all I can control and that’s all I’m thinking about.”

“He’s growing, he looks good,” Lue said. “He plays at his own pace. You can never speed him up, you can never fluster him. He’s doing a good job.”

Lue would like to play Moore off the all as well, but fellow point guard Jonathan Gibson struggled through an 0-for-5 performance with two turnovers in just nine minutes.

Fellow first-rounder Fab Melo had his moments, including a pair of strong blocked shots. He also knocked down a 15-foot jump shot. What really stood out for Melo was his constant communication with his teammates on defense. That’s an important part of anchoring an NBA defense — and a huge part of what makes Kevin Garnett such a terrific team defender.

Melo has a long way to go, of course, but that’s a good sign for a player who is both new to the game and also learning how to play man-to-man defense after spending time in Syracuse’s 2-3 zone.

Second-round pick Kris Joseph isn’t bashful about taking his shot. Joseph got up eight attempts in 17 minutes and was on the floor for most of the fourth quarter when the Celtics finished the game.

JaJuan Johnson had a tough afternoon with his shot, making just one of five attempts, but he did grab eight rebounds. He started alongside veteran Sean Williams, who is trying to make his case for sticking with the team. Like Moore, his contract is not fully guaranteed. Williams scored six points and grabbed four rebounds and drew praise from Lue, with one caveat.

“He played great – outside of that 3 he took.”

Lue also had good first day on the job. Lue has been an assistant with the Celtics for three years, but he’s operated mostly behind the scenes. He mixed and matched his lineups, getting time for 10 of the 11 players and then went with his best group down the stretch. He also took some good-nature ribbing from assistant coach Mike Longabardi for not calling a timeout when OKC was making a run.

“Longabardi called me Phil Jackson because I wouldn’t call a timeout,” Lue said. “They went on that big run and I was thinking I’ve only got two timeouts and a 20 so I was like, just let them play through it, let them get a feel for it. You don’t want to call timeout every mistake and every run. They did a good job of playing through it.

“I just wanted the guys to play free, have fun and play their game. Take your shot when it’s your shot, if you don’t have it move the ball, but don’t be afraid to be aggressive and attack. If you’re doing too much, I’ll let you know.”

The Celtics are back in action Tuesday evening when they play the Nets at 5 p.m.

Read More: E'Twaun Moore, Fab Melo, Jared Sullinger, Ty Lue Print  |  Email  |  Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
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