A very bad week for the Celtics got worse Friday with news that power forward Jared Sullinger will miss the rest of the season with a back injury, ending his rookie campaign after 45 games and the very encouraging showing of 5.9 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes.
That development would be enough of a gut punch five days after Boston learned it would have to finish 2012-13 without All-Star Rajon Rondo because of a torn ligament in his right knee. But losing Sullinger comes with the added implication of the worst fears over his health coming true, creating the big-picture concern that Celtics are only beginning to deal with his back problems.
When the pre-existing condition was red-flagged by teams prior to the draft, the former Ohio State star dropped all the way from being projected for the top 10 early in 2011-12, and possibly the top five, to No. 21 on June 28, 2012. It wasn’t the health scare alone – Sullinger was backsliding for basketball reasons before the injury became known – but it was an obvious concern around the league.
News that he underwent lumbar disc surgery will unfortunately not be a big surprise around front offices. In an interview with Boston radio station WEEI, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge confirmed Sullinger’s current problem is related to the one detected before the draft, saying: “Well, yeah. I think that when he was drafted with the medical reports that we had on his back, I think it would be crazy to think that there would not be some days missed… (head trainer) Eddie Lacerte and (team doctor) Dr. (Brian) McKeon and (strength and conditioning coach) Bryan Doo, they spend a lot of time with Jared each day, stretching and formulating plans to strengthen his core and to strengthen the muscles around his back, because he does have management issues back there. And so I think that this is not a surprise. I guess I would say I’m a little surprised that it’s taken this long. He’s been with us since July 1 and he’s been pain-free and hasn’t missed a day of practice until the game (Wednesday) night when it was just sort of a freak thing. He got a rebound and his back spasmed up.”
That was on Thursday, when the Celtics were dismissing the problem as minor. A day later, they were having to contemplate losing one of the keys to the Rondo-less season and dealing with another major setback while trying to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff pack with a three-game lead over the 76ers for the eighth and final spot heading into Friday’s games. With what free time they had left, the front office, coaching staff, entire roster and hot-dog vendors likely fanned out to determine who suddenly got a Celtics voodoo doll and a large box of pins.
The team called the surgery “successful” and said Sullinger “is expected to be ready” for training camp. Rondo is on a similar schedule in the return from his knee injury.