Jared Sullinger spent the majority of his offseason in his hometown, but not to relax.
A reunion with his former Ohio State teammates playing overseas — Evan Ravenel, William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler — pushed him to get in top shape entering his fifth season in the NBA.
“I played a lot more basketball this summer,” Sullinger told Amico Hoops. “Just a lot more 5-on-5, open gyms. Just trying to get my game better and playing at a different speed.”
Recent Ohio University standouts Stevie Taylor and Nick Kellogg, as well as ex-NIU star Leon Rodgers and D-League swingman L.D. Williams were a part of the workouts, too.
“Columbus is a great place to play basketball,” Sullinger said. “It’s not like they come back home and they want to rest. Everybody wants to get back in it and work their way back into playing shape.”
The 24-year-old forward was poised to stay ready and fresh coming off a season where he played in a career-high 81 games in Boston — the best Sullinger says he’s felt in his four years as a pro.
Danny Ainge and the Celtics, however, had other plans for their future. On July 8, they signed All-Star free agent Al Horford to a maximum contract.
After the team extended Sullinger a $4.4 million qualifying offer in late June, it was rescinded in order to create cap space for the deal.
Sullinger told Amico Hoops he was unsure of his fate with the Celtics after the season ended, but he has no ill will toward them for moving on.
“I’m blessed to be able to play for that organization, honestly,” he said. “They took the chance on me when nobody was going to in 2012, so there’s no hard feelings there.”
It didn’t take long for Sullinger to find himself a new home, though. Less than 24 hours after becoming an unrestricted free agent, he agreed to a one-year, $6 million contract with the Raptors.
So what drew Sullinger to “The North?”
The culture and excellent track record from the top down, mentioning President and general manager Masai Ujiri, head coach Dwane Casey and a talented core featuring the likes of All Star guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
“There were more luxury contracts out there for me on one-year deals that I turned down just because of the community, the people and my teammates,” Sullinger said. “These guys, they wanted me. They said it.”
Casey has welcomed his new addition with open arms, publicly stating that the starting power forward job is his to lose.
Sullinger knows how fortunate he is to come into this kind of situation and won’t take it for granted.
“For him to say that, it’s really a blessing,” he said. “With somebody like [Patrick Patterson] — who’s been here in the organization, knows the organization, knows how the system runs — for him to kind of hand me the job, I’m lucky.”
“He’s an intelligent player, he’s an intelligent man, so he’s handled it very well, the competition,” Casey said. “He’s fit in.”
Casey plans to use Sullinger as more of a stretch four, hoping to get him at least three perimeter shots per game.
It’s a comparable role in which Patterson has been used in the past, and Toronto’s head coach notices similarities between the two already.
“Off the floor they’ve become good friends,” Casey told reporters. “They’re a lot alike personality wise — both intelligent guys, like a lot of the same things, so they’ve kind of come together. On the court, I see them going at each other and busting each other’s chops.”
“Me and Pat are real cool … even though he went to Kentucky,” Sullinger said, laughing. “But we’re real cool.”
Thus far in the preseason, Sullinger has only appeared in one game because of a nagging foot injury. Due to precautionary nature, Casey has held him out of the last two games, but aside from the past couple of days, Sullinger has been “full-go” in practice.
He doesn’t foresee this being an issue that will hamper the start of his year, especially since they’re addressing it early.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s preseason. We just wanted to make sure that nothing’s lingering, so we wanted to get it 100 percent healthy. Right now, as much as the games count, they don’t count. Health is No. 1 to be as good as you can.”
Once fully healthy, Sullinger will be ready to go, and so will Toronto.
With the Raptors falling just shy of Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, he knows the team is hungry to get back to it and go further this year.
“We’re going to make that next step,” Sullinger said. “Nothing’s guaranteed. It might seem like it’s easy to get there now, but it’s going to be hard as hell to repeat it. We’ve just got to keep going and we’ve got to keep grinding.”