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Irish Coffee: Grooming Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger

10.11.12 at 8:00 am ET

Jared Sullinger isn’t easily fazed. Not even when they called him and the other Celtics rookies in front of the entire organization during a team dinner and made him sing his favorite song: Jay-Z‘s “Public Service Announcement.”

Check out my swag’ yo, peep the way I wear it
No matter where you go, you are what you are player
And you can try to change, but that’s just the top layer
Man, you was who you was ‘fore you got here

Fitting. Sullinger isn’t intimidated by a team full of headstrong veterans whose system has produced one championship, two NBA finals appearances and three Eastern Conference finals showings in the past five years, and that’s because his basketball journey started almost from the day he was born.

“My dad’s going around Columbus, Ohio, when I was a young little kid, saying, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be the best. He’s going to be the best,'” said Sullinger, whose father Satch has coached in and around their hometown for 30 years. “So, I had no choice but to play basketball.”

Sullinger’s father constantly taught him the game — in practice, on the driveway or while watching TV — stressing footwork, fundamentals and fortitude. As this great New York Times piece noted, Jared started making regulation free throws at age 3. And if Satch was the general, older brothers J.J. (Ohio State Class of 2006) and Julian (Kent State Class of 2009) were his drill instructors, instilling the game into the 6-foot-9, 260-pound baby of the family.

“I learned the game at an early age,” said the C’s first-round pick, selected No. 21 overall. “When I was young, they used to beat it into my head — not my father, but my brothers — so you know how that goes.”

That’s why, when Sullinger arrived early in Boston the first week of September, he was already ahead of the curve.

“He doesn’€™t think like a rookie,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He thinks like a veteran. He plays a great pace. He’€™s one of our best rebounders. He can pass the ball. He does a lot of things that help our team.”

Unlike fellow 2012 NBA draft picks Fab Melo and Kris Joseph, whose Syracuse squad his Buckeyes ousted on their road to the Final Four this past spring, Sullinger started learning the game long before high school.

“He’€™s probably the smartest rookie we’€™ve had since I’€™ve been here,” said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who’s seen a dozen other rookies drafted in Boston. “He’€™s very intelligent — high basketball IQ — and he’€™s very unselfish. He doesn’€™t need a play called for him. He’€™s just been getting his points off the little dirty work.”

Perhaps it should have come as no surprise, then, that Sullinger earned a start in just the C’s second preseason game. After cramming 16 points and eight rebounds into 26 minutes off the bench in the opener of the two-game Europe trip, Sullinger started over Brandon Bass in Game 2, nearly notching a double-double in 18 minutes.

“As far as personnel, Brandon is more pick-and-pop; Sullinger is going to dive a little more, going to roll a little more, going to the basket,” said Kevin Garnett, comparing his two frontcourt mates. “Obviously, Brandon is a gutty veteran. Sully is a very intelligent player. Very, very high basketball IQ.”

First, the mere fact Garnett didn’t refer to Sullinger as Rook, Young Fella or Youngin might say more than anything.

And second, It seemed more than coincidental that Garnett kept coming back to hardwood acumen during his interview after the team’s first practice since returning from Italy. Take this, for example: “The mental part of this game is just as hard as the physical.” Or this: “It feels good to have a lot more guys who are not just talented but have high basketball IQs — that know how to play basketball. You don’€™t have to really point-blank tell them things and say, ‘This is white; this is black.’ They know how to play the gray areas and respond to just basketball.”

While Rivers wouldn’t commit to starting Sullinger or Bass, he admitted his staff has considered starting a committee that also includes Darko Milicic, depending on matchups, and that says a lot from a coach who often seems to forget rookies exist on the end of his bench. The 7-foot, 275-pound Milicic obviously offers size and Bass brings his trademark midrange jumper (5.1 FGA per game from 16-23 feet last season), but Sullinger provides rebounding and a post game forged by his father’s dogma of footwork, fundamentals and fortitude.

“That’€™s who I want to be,” said Sullinger. “Right now, you’€™ve got guys like Kevin and Paul [Pierce] and Rajon and Jason [Terry] that are going to be the guy that we’€™re going to look to for scoring — including Jeff [Green] — so … I’€™ve got to find other ways to get it done for this basketball team, and that’€™s rebounding for me.”

As we’ve discussed before, the Celtics have been a horrible rebounding team, so there’s a niche to be carved by Sullinger. If he can adjust to playing the 5 as well — a subject he’s studying but might require a learning curve — he’ll be a mainstay in the C’s frontcourt. At least we know NBA centers don’t scare Sullinger.

“Just use your power; use your IQ,” said the 20-year-old, sounding lightyears beyond his age. “Know what they like. Know what they don’€™t like. Most 5’€™s, when they catch it a little bit off the block, they’€™re not comfortable. So, you’€™ve just got to use your power, you’€™ve got to fight them and you’€™ve just got to play hard.”

So, did Sullinger expect such a rapid rise up the C’s depth chart? “Not at all,” he said. “All you have to do is come in and learn the system — and trust the system. Put your all into the system and just play hard.”

Of course, he’s the first to admit that Rondo, Pierce and Garnett make his job a whole lot simpler.

“It’€™s easy when you have greats like that playing with you,” said Sullinger. “They make the game so much easier, so I can’€™t complain. If they tell me to do something, I do it. Most of the time, they’€™re never going to put me in a position where I’€™m going to fail. So, it’€™s easy to play with those guys.”

Talk about basketball IQ. Nope, not much fazes Jared Sullinger. Not dropping in the draft. Not playing alongside three potential Hall of Famers. And not possibly supplanting an established veteran in the starting lineup.

“When you come to this level, you’€™ve got to be a pro’€™s pro, and you’€™ve got to let go of your ego,” said the Celtics rookie. “You’€™ve got to let go of who you’€™re sitting beside — who you watched growing up. You’€™ve got to understand that those guys are basketball players. They’€™re your teammates, and we’€™re all for the same goal. We’€™re trying to get banner 18, and so everybody’€™s working together as one.”

Sounds like someone who’s been preparing for this moment from Day 1. Satch, J.J. and Julian taught Jared well.

(Have a question, concern or conception for the next Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

Read More: Boston Celtics, Brandon Bass, Doc Rivers, Jared Sullinger
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