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Jared Sullinger’s Battle With the Man in the Mirror

Big is a word that’s been associated with Jared Sullinger for too much of his life. Standing 6’9”, weighing more than 250 pounds and a top recruit before heading into college, certain aspects of Sullinger’s private life have been put in view of the public.

Now preparing for his fourth season — one where he’s eligible for a contract extension — with the Boston Celtics, Sullinger has worked to become disassociated with the word “big.”

After sustaining a stress fracture in his foot last season, Sullinger decided it was time to make a change that others had called for him to do in the past.

“I’m tired of looking on camera and just seeing how I look and seeing how I play during extended minutes. Conditioning’s going to be a big factor,” Sullinger told reporters at the time. But he didn’t just stop there:

“I’m always the type of person that a light switch has to happen,” he said. “I developed my grades through a mistake I made with my father. By not doing my work, he sat me out. Next thing you know I was on honor roll. So I’ve always been that type of person. And sometimes I’m a little late with things, but as long as it happens, it happens.”

That last part is important. Boston didn’t wait for Sullinger’s light to turn on, instead reshuffling the roster this offseason along the front line. Now competing for minutes with David Lee, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk, Sullinger may still have to wait for his opportunity despite finally being ready to finally show his real potential.

Sullinger’s production remained in line with what he showed during his sophomore season, but he didn’t show much to believe he was prepared to take the next step forward. He averaged the same amount of points (13.3) as he did in 2013-14, his rebounds went down from 8.1 to 7.6, and although both his field goal percentage (43.9) and three-point percentage (28.3) were improvements, neither was good enough to point to now as an immediate, tangible asset.

Celtics president Danny Ainge revealed that Sullinger was the sole member of last season’s roster who failed to pass his conditioning test, and Ainge didn’t just stop there when it came to Sullinger’s big problem, revealing that the two had spoken “many, many times” about the issue (via Brian Robb of CelticsHub).

“Well, Jared and I have talked a lot about [his conditioning] over the past year. It’s something we take great pride in with our players. Our players have really bought in to our program and a lot of guys—I think every guy has met the goals that they have set in regards to strength and conditioning, and body-fat, and weight, and all the different things our strength coaches do on a regular basis. Jared just hasn’t met his goals.”

This isn’t something that developed overnight. This was a pattern for Sullinger, someone who’d struggled with his weight for much longer than most could imagine. Although “losing some weight” sounds simple in practice, it’s a grueling process that challenges someone on a mental and physical level in a way they (usually) haven’t experienced before. You have to learn how to create a new routine, which is a difficult ask for anyone to master despite change being the sole constant in the world we live.

Sullinger explained his battle to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan:

“Do you think I want to be like this? I don’t,” Sullinger said. “My genetics aren’t the same as your genetics. Some people can drop 10 pounds in a week. Some can drop 10 pounds in three weeks. My body doesn’t work like that. What people don’t understand is after a game, you get hungry. I stay up late, I’m not falling asleep and I want to eat. The hardest calories to burn off are those late-night calories.”

On a personal level, I can understand Sullinger’s battle. As an adult, I’ve weighed as little as 185 pounds and as much as 270 pounds, with fluctuating weights in between. It’s a constant grind, a 1-on-1 game with a never-ending score. The opposition? Your reflection in the mirror. For most lacing up the sneakers to take the court, that’s an uncomfortable scenario.

But once that light clicked on, Sullinger started dominating the opponent.

Sullinger has shared visual evidence of his transformation on Twitter, and he’s prepared to finally conquer this mountain. And Brad Stevens, one of Sullinger’s most important endorsers, seemed optimistic that things were beginning to move in the right direction in a radio interview (via ESPN Boston):

“He’s been working out in a couple different locations. But everything that I have heard, every time I’ve spoken with him, every time I have spoken to people around him, it sounds like he’s doing great. Hey, he wants to be in the best shape of his life, he wants to be in great condition, and he’s working towards that, and I think he’s excited for a new season to show that’s been his focus and to show off the work that he’s put in to get there.”

Sullinger is prepared to go 12 rounds in order to win this fight.

But will he get the chance to step into the ring? Just like his weight, that’ll be up to Jared Sullinger.

I’d bet on him to win.

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