Jared Sullinger hardly seemed like a newcomer at the Toronto Raptors media day on Monday.
The gregarious 24-year-old power forward, who signed with the Raps as a free agent in July, already looked comfortable with his new teammates. He heckled Terrence Ross from across the gym and squeezed his way into a scrum of reporters interviewing DeMarre Carroll so he could razz him while capturing video on his iPhone.
Coach Dwane Casey said Sullinger has the inside track on the team's vacant starting power forward spot, and has even been given the "green light" to shoot corner threes. When asked how he'd developed into one of the NBA's elite rebounders, the stout 6-foot-9, 260-pound native of Columbus, Ohio, grinned widely and told reporters: "It's this thing behind me called my butt that my Mom gave me."
The Ohio State product is entering his fifth season in the NBA, having spent the first four in Boston, averaging 11.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Last year he started 73 games for the Celtics and averaged 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds, but he became expendable when Boston signed Al Horford to a lucrative free-agent contract.
During this past off-season the Raptors parted ways with 36-year-old Luis Scola, as well as backup centre Bismack Biyombo, creating the need for front-court help from a player capable of protecting the rim, defending the perimeter and rebounding.
Sullinger may not be the kind of athlete many hoped Toronto would sign to fill the vacancy, but he's the one most likely to start down low beside centre Jonas Valanciunas this season. Casey indicated that Patrick Patterson could compete for the starting spot and will likely see significant game time along with rookie Pascal Siakam, but that the former Celtic has impressed him so far.
"I would say Sullinger is the guy now, that it would be his job to lose, but I reserve the right to change my mind," said Casey. "It's going to be important to see how our transition defence is. If we start giving up layups after layups after layups, we may have five guards in there. I'll hold the right to see how that goes."
When asked about Sullinger, many Raptors players and coaches cited his high basketball IQ. While the forward often struggled to keep his weight in check in Boston, he has impressed his new squad thus far with the variety in his game.
"He has so much versatility," said DeMar DeRozan. "He's a guy who can play down in the post, a great passer, a guy who can pick-and-pop, step up to the three-point line and knock down threes, give us extra spacing on the floor, and he's a heck of a rebounder."
Sullinger may be playing in Canada now, but he said that won't keep him from continuing to engage actively with issues of race, police shootings and social activism back home in the U.S. on social media – Sullinger often takes to Twitter about the need for peace and tolerance against a backdrop of shootings and protests.
"I have a voice and I want it to be heard, and Twitter is a start – I do have a lot of followers," said Sullinger. "I want people to understand that things are not heading in the right direction of where we would like America to be. If we want change, we must change within ourselves. You can't just keep doing the same things. I hope we change."
Sullinger said he's not afraid of being criticized on social media. He's heard it all – everything from cracks about his weight, to racist comments, to those telling him rich athletes are too sheltered to understand.
He said he'll be watching with interest to see if NBA athletes follow the lead of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has recently taken to kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the oppression of black people and racial profiling by police in the U.S.
"A lot of people have said some ignorant things to me on Twitter, but it doesn't faze me. I believe ignorance will get rooted out if we all stick together," said Sullinger. "To me, I think what Colin Kaepernick is doing speaks volumes about himself. It shows he wants peace. The Martin Luther King 'I Have a Dream' speech is shown on his birthday or the [anniversary of the day] he delivered it, but do we really listen, follow and understand the message he's presenting?
"Look at all the things happening in America today. It's a touchy subject, but it's reality. Somehow, we as a community need to come together and bring a stop to it."