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Adam Kaufman

What Does Jared Sullinger's Unexpected Return Mean for Celtics?

Jared Sullinger 5.jpg


COMMENTARY

In a world where reporters and players increasingly break team news on social media, the Celtics broke some of their own Friday afternoon announcing the return of Jared Sullinger. The 6'9" forward was expected to be lost for the season as of February 23 with a metatarsal stress fracture in his left foot. He returned with the Green battling for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

“We are excited that Jared’s recovery progressed quicker than initially expected,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge in a release issued by the team. “Jared was extremely diligent in his rehab, repeatedly expressing his eagerness to help our team reach the postseason. He will be available in a limited role this weekend as he works his way back to 100% game shape."

So, what does this mean for the playoff-hopeful C’s?

-- If the Celtics were not fully committed to chasing a postseason berth, there’s no way Sullinger would be in line to play, however sparingly to start. If Ainge and company were pushing or wishing for ping pong balls, Sullinger would ride the pine the rest of the way. It’s fair to debate how much better the oversized power forward makes the Celts, but he improves their interior post presence and adds a dimension they’re currently lacking with his ability to also step outside. Any team would be happy to add a Sullinger-caliber player this time of the year, no matter the capacity they elected to use him. By that same token, the C’s wouldn’t risk putting on the floor without the certainty he’s medically prepared for the rigors of playing an NBA game, particularly those with playoff intensity.

-- Perhaps Ainge’s recent comments and questions over Sullinger’s commitment to staying in a shape other than round intensified his workouts. He is obviously ahead of schedule in returning from injury, considering he’d previously been counted out for the year. If he could play as if he were still upset about being drafted late in the first-round, he could provide a big spark for the club over its final few games of the regular season.

“From everything I’ve watched, he’s working at a great level and is in much better condition that he’s been," Coach Brad Stevens joined 98.5 The Sports Hub moments after the news broke. "Here is a guy who wants to be part of this team and help this team. He came into my office yesterday and said he wanted to help in any way he can. That’s a great thing for an accomplished young player to say.”

If that’s true, and he doesn’t get caught up in who’s getting what minutes or starting where, it’s incredibly refreshing and he’ll be a welcomed addition.

“Right now, the majority of his help will probably be from the bench cheering, because he won’t be getting a ton of time,” Satch Sullinger, Jared’s dad, told the Boston Globe. “But he knows what to do. He knows Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

-- Sullinger last played on February 11, nearly two full months ago. In 51 games, he’s averaged 14.4 points and 8.1 rebounds over 28.7 minutes, though he’d come on in the final games before suffering his injury:

The Celtics also won four of those last five games before the All-Star break. It’s unclear what to expect from Sullinger, especially since he’ll probably have his minutes monitored in the early going and, per Stevens, he hasn’t yet done any five-on-five work in limited practice time. Stevens, who’s guided his team to a 17-11 mark since early-February, may also be hesitant to rush to disturbing an effective, defensively-minded second unit with a player working his way back from injury. As it is, Kelly Olynyk, fan-favorite Jonas Jerebko, and Jae Crowder, who can all play the four, are already coming off the bench, and Sullinger isn’t an ideal five.

-- It’s worth noting Ainge rarely does anything without an ulterior motive or some level of future planning, and that’s a compliment. It’s how the Celtics have accelerated their rebuild, as well laid out by Zach Lowe recently on Grantland. In this case, it’s entirely possible Ainge wants to give Sullinger an opportunity to prove he’s healthy and even a decent contributor in late, important games in order to increase his trade value for the summer. No one on Boston’s roster is untouchable, few are necessarily building blocks. Sullinger is young and talented enough to be an attractive centerpiece to a larger deal if the 23-year-old can ever get control over his weight issue. There’s little doubt that’s contributed to his previous back and foot injuries. Either way, there's no negative to this news, only the curiosity of how it will all unfold.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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