In recent years, as NBA offenses evolve, the need for clearly defined positions has taken a hit.
That’s not to say players don’t have roles, nor that positions no longer exist. But the small-ball revolution — while a useful option for offenses — also allows defenses to experiment with match-ups that previously might have been considered inoperable. Brandon Bass guarding Carmelo Anthony, for example, might have been thought impossible until Carmelo Anthony’s position (small forward? Power forward?) became fluid.
The difference between power forwards and centers has also become fluid, and with a glut of power forwards and essentially one true center (Vitor Faverani) on the roster, Danny Ainge seems to be quite aware that Boston’s lineups may require some experimentation.
From Chris Forsberg’s notebook on ESPN Boston:
“I think you’ll see Kelly and Jared playing together,” said Ainge. “Who’s the 4 and who’s the 5? I’m not sure it really matters. I think depending on who we are playing, and how we are playing, you could see Jared playing some 5, defensively. That’s an interesting combination, those two guys.”
It’s interesting and telling that Ainge singled out Sullinger as a player who might see more time at center, in part because Kelly Olynyk is a true 7-footer, while Sully checks in at 6’9, if we are being a bit generous. But, in traditional roles, Olynyk and Sullinger might make a lot of sense as the 4 and 5 respectively.
We know the case for Olynyk at the 4, if Summer League was any indication of his skills (and it might not be, but that’s not the point): His range extends to the 3-point line, he can face up nicely and he can drive the hoop if necessary. His offensive game is polished. But can Sullinger play the traditional role of center? Let’s take a closer look.
Jared Sullinger was fairly consistent offensively in two areas last year: He grabbed a lot of offensive rebounds (12.6 ORB%, good for 25th among players who tallied more than 500 minutes), and he could run a solid pick-and-pop. Here’s his NBA.com shot chart from last season:
For those unfamiliar, the green areas are spots from which Sullinger averaged a field goal percentage of 10% higher than league average. All of the zones may seem like a small sample size aside from the yellow swatch around the rim, but it paints a solid picture of Sullinger’s effectiveness as a pick-and-pop player.
In this role, Sullinger could be a center in much the same way Kevin Garnett was a center in 2012-13 (which would add to Ainge’s comment about the distinction “not really mattering”). Sullinger could run the pick-and-roll with Rajon Rondo, popping more often than rolling (since, without Kevin Garnett’s height and length, many of Sullinger’s rolling shot attempts might get erased at the rim). These might be the type of sets Boston would run consistently if Stevens went with an extremely small-ball lineup: Rondo, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee (or Gerald Wallace or any of the other assorted wings), Jeff Green (or Kelly Olynyk, pushing Green to the 3) and Sullinger. Defensively, that lineup might get abused, but it also could prove to be one of Boston’s better offensive lineups, especially if Courtney Lee has a bounce-back year.
Sullinger doesn’t need to play exclusively in the pick-and-pop to be effective. Per MySynergySports.com, 11.8% of Sullinger’s offensive possessions last year were post-ups. In those attempts, he averaged 0.94 points per possession, 22nd in the league overall.
This production collaborates with the scouting reports on Sullinger entering the 2012 draft — that he was a hard-working rebounder with a traditional back-to-the-basket game. The question was always going to be whether or not he could continue to bully people close to the hoop when NBA-caliber opponents — bigger, faster and stronger than his college opposition— were on the receiving end of his massive ass-bumps.
The answer is complicated. Sullinger was a rookie, so it’s hard to read his performance, but there were certainly glimpses, especially toward the end of the season. Sullinger didn’t display a flashy back-to-the-basket game, which was partly due to what appeared to be nervousness. When he got the ball in the lane, he seemed hurried, trying to make a move as though he had already decided what he was going to do before he got the ball instead of feeling what the defense was giving him.
But he often dove hard at the hoop (which often ended in a foul and a trip to the line), and several times he got underneath his defender and sealed him off for an over-the-top lob, a pass which Rondo would complete with aplomb. What’s more, when he received those passes, he kept the ball high — important for a player with height disadvantages.
Sullinger also used his weight and strength to his advantage, moving players out of the way for easier shots. This led to a bevy of baby hooks, which are tough to block — an ideal shot for him.
Finally, he seems to have a bit of a fallaway jumper, and although it doesn’t have the same beautiful grace and arc as Kevin Garnett’s fallaway, his shot chart (the 2/4 and 3/6 green swatches) show that he hit it at a solid-if-limited rate.
So while Sullinger doesn’t appear to be a potential superstar at the center position on offense, he probably could play a consistent — perhaps even starting — role. The bigger questions lie on the other end.
Sometimes, basketball cliches are true: Height and length really matter on the defensive end. That’s not to say a shorter player can’t be an excellent post defender (Chuck Hayes would like a word if you think otherwise). But generally, the best post defenders are rim-protectors like Larry Sanders who can anchor a defense.
Sullinger clearly is not Larry Sanders, nor is he Kevin Garnett. He can’t anchor a defense. But he does do some nice things on that end, in part because he has a high basketball IQ and stays alert as the play unfolds.
Let’s take a look at a few examples. Note that in all of the clips in the following video, save the last one, Sullinger’s primary defensive assignment is the center position. Also worth noting: Two of the assignments (Miami and New York) are playing small-ball lineups.
As you can see, he does some nice things, especially against smaller lineups. Even against bigger, stronger, more talented centers like Horford, he is able to make life difficult by harassing the Hawks’ all-star (although we’ll see a couple of examples of that harassment coming back to bite Sullinger in a minute).
The most complex clip above was his defense against Chris Bosh, which begins at 0:16, so let’s take a closer look at that sequence.
We begin in the high post, with Sullinger guarding a typical Miami small-ball set designed to get the ball in LeBron James’ hands. Sullinger is on the right elbow being pushed off by Bosh.
Bosh starts to set a screen for LeBron before slipping it into the lane. But by this point, Sullinger has already committed to the hedge and is forced to pick up James. It’s here that we begin to see how complex Doc Rivers’ lauded rotations really were.
As you can see, Pierce is already fading into the lane to cut off Bosh. James sees this and fires a cross-court pass to Shane Battier. Lee recognizes what Pierce is doing and, as if he was tied to a string, immediately shifts over to guard Battier. Battier swings the ball to Chalmers.
All of this action frees up Chris Bosh in the post. Sullinger recognizes that Bosh is going to be open and switches back to him. At this point, Bosh has the ball in extremely good position on the low block.
Anybody who has ever played NBA 2K as a center recognizes that this position should be a couple of body bumps and a turnaround hook away from an easy bucket. But when Bosh starts to size things up, Sully begins shuffling and bumping him further away from the basket. As a result, Bosh’s shot — which originally appeared to be an easy baby hook — becomes a turnaround fallaway jumper several feet out of his comfort zone with a hand in his face.
So Sullinger is clearly strong and his strength aids his defense, but that was never really the question. More relevant is whether he would struggle against length and speed in the post. And he does.
In this video, we see Al Horford beating Sullinger twice. The first clip is frustrating, since Sullinger does a nice job initially but can’t keep up with Horford’s speed and is forced to foul him. This is concerning for Sully on the defensive end not because he was beaten by Al Horford — one of the best and most underrated centers in the NBA — but because his greatest strength defensively (his strength, ironically) is aided by his weight, which slows him down. That’s a tough conundrum, one that probably won’t be solved this season given all of the time he needed to take off to rest and recover after his back operation. We are (understandably) unlikely to hear stories of Sullinger losing 20 pounds in the offseason and being in the best shape of his life as the Celtics near the start of training camp.
That lack of speed rears its head again on the very next clip (which, incidentally, was just one possession later). Having been beaten twice by Horford getting into the lane, Sullinger knows he has to battle him away from the basket. That kind of physicality is great, except that it will get a player — especially a rookie — in foul trouble fast. Sullinger averaged 3.4 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which actually felt like 18 fouls/36 if you watched him on a consistent basis.
Sullinger gets beat by Stoudemire on the next play as well. This time, Stoudemire is simply too long and quick. He is able to get off a shot at close range, and his reach is too high for Sullinger to contest. What’s interesting, however, is that it required a face-up for Stoudemire to get comfortable. Sullinger may struggle against mobile bigs in face-up situations, but his post-up defense seems to be solid.
What can we take away from all of this? Danny Ainge’s comments about Sullinger may not have been idle speculation. He will struggle in certain situations, but he is also aware of his surroundings on defense and enthusiastic on the boards. What’s more, his developing offensive game may be well-suited to banging around down low as opposed to hovering near the elbow.
The Celtics won’t win the opening tip very often if Sullinger starts at center, and they might give up significant amounts of points against quicker, longer bigs. But playing Sullinger at center would serve the dual purpose of putting an NBA “veteran” (at least by this team’s standards) at a pivotal spot as well as helping to slightly loosen the massive logjam at power forward. Perhaps more importantly, it would prevent a player who is likely considered a part of Boston’s core going forward from losing minutes and development time to players, like Kris Humphries and Brandon Bass, whose futures on the team are questionable at best.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.