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Sullinger For Three?!?: A closer look at Sully’s 3-point attempts

When time begins winding down on the shot clock and an offense has failed to create a basket, one of the easiest ways to get an open look is to run a high pick-and-pop for a big man with range. But as increased emphasis on metrics begins to take the NBA by storm, the pick-and-pop as it was previously designed — to get a big man a mid-range jumper — is liable to become obsolete.

Sunday night, Celtics’ color commentator Dave Cowens called Kevin Love “new school and old school,” and that’s an apt description. By extending his range beyond the 3-point line (2-for-8 from behind the arc last night doesn’t do Love justice as a long distance shooter) and by launching pick-and-pop attempts, Love has created a solid option for himself that’s both metric- and schematic-friendly. It’s a shot he can get off at any time…and still make at an efficient clip.

Brad Stevens seems to want Jared Sullinger to do the same. Last season, Sullinger’s third offensive option (behind back-to-the-basket plays and putbacks from offensive rebounds) was pick-and-pop plays which gave him essentially the same looks as Kevin Garnett. Sullinger was certainly not as efficient from that range (36% from 16-23 feet), but he demonstrated something that bordered on a mid-range shot.

Stevens, by all accounts an analytics junkie, likely doesn’t approve of mid-range shots, especially mid-range shots which go in 36% of the time. As a result, Sullinger has already tripled the amount of triples he took throughout last year’s regular season in this preseason.

Presumably, however, Stevens also doesn’t approve of 3-point attempts which go in at a 13% clip — Sullinger is 2-15 so far. One could make the argument that if Sullinger was to try and expand his range, this lost season is a good time to work on it, but there has to be something more that Stevens is seeing, right? So how and why is Sullinger getting 3-point attempts? Let’s take a look, with clips from Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves:

The first thing to note is that all of these attempts came with very little time left on the shot clock. The second thing is that the Celtics didn’t get the offensive rebound in any of Sullinger’s 3-point attempts. This is hardly a surprise, since Sullinger — far away from the basket when he takes the shot — is their best offensive rebounder. We won’t come back to this, but it’s something to keep in mind.

It’s also notable that in each case, the initial play Boston is running isn’t set up for a 3-point attempt from Sullinger.

In the first set, the Celtics run an off-ball curl for Avery Bradley. Working out of a horns set (both bigs at opposite elbows), which we’ve seen several times so far in the preseason, Sullinger appears to be the passer — an aspect of the game for which he has shown solid instincts so far.

As you can see, the Celtics only have 11 seconds left on the shot clock. It’s also worth noting that Ricky Rubio is a solid defender, and his pressure throws Bradley off his stride and allows Rubio time to get back on him defensively. Sullinger gets Bradley the ball, but there isn’t a lot of time left to make a move.

This brings us back to our intro: Sullinger and Bradley run a pick-and-pop, and they are careful to run it high enough so that Sully get an open look at a 3-pointer. Notice that although Sullinger has roughly a light year to set himself and fire, his feet are cocked strangely which might help account for the brick.

In the second clip, we once again see the Celtics beginning in a horns set. This time, however, it appears Jeff Green is the focal point of the play. Sullinger may miss a screen early, which allows Derrick Williams to continue pressuring Green.

Once again, the Celtics find themselves fairly low in the shot clock, and once again Sullinger finds himself with plenty of room to try a 3-pointer. Here’s what the court looks like when Sullinger is eyeing the trey.

Not a whole lot of options for the Celtics here. The best possible play would be to move the ball along the perimeter to Bradley, but immediately after the screen shot above, Rubio rotates back to Bradley leaving Sully wide open. He is well beyond his range, but at least it’s an open shot…which turns into an open airball. Sigh.

The final play begins with a ton of off-ball motion. Players cut to the basket as the ball moves crisply around the perimeter. It looks, for all the world, like the kind of offense we hoped to see from Brad Stevens (and which we still hope to see at some point). But eventually, it ends up the same: Sullinger facing the basket without much happening around him as seconds tick off the clock.

I mean…what is he supposed to do with that? Everyone is covered, and there are two defenders able to help, even if he DID somehow get around Nikola Pekovic without turning the ball over. So he passes to Green, sets a screen a pops out for his third three point attempt of the evening. Once again, it clanks harmlessly off the rim. And, once again, take a look at his feet.

So what do we make of Sullinger’s 3-point attempts as a whole? We should remember a few things. First, it’s rarely Boston’s first option on offense. This isn’t a case of Stevens wanting to implement something that isn’t working. He simply seems to want Sullinger taking statistically more efficient shots.

Second, we aren’t privy to Celtics practices. We don’t know how he is shooting behind closed doors, nor what Stevens is seeing in him daily to make this shot worthwhile. It’s possible Sully’s 3-pointers will improve throughout the season as he works on his mechanics.

Finally, he was a very acceptable 3-point shooter in college, finishing 37% for his career and 40% in his sophomore year (on admittedly limited sample sizes…40 attempts sophomore year, 52 overall). The 3-point line in college is shorter, obviously, but often players take a year or two to make the adjustment to the pros.

But there’s no denying that 36% from 2-point range, although not very productive, is still more productive than 13% from 3-point range. Sullinger could improve. This is the first time we’ve seen him consistently taking NBA 3-pointers, and we don’t even have stats that will be recorded and remembered yet. It’s just preseason.

For now, we may have to chalk his long-range attempts up to growing pains. If he can start converting them even at a 30% clip, they will be productive shots if for nothing other than the floor spacing they provide. But as long as defenders like Rubio can just show defensive help instead of actually providing it, 3-pointers are going to be a relatively unproductive part of Jared Sullinger’s game.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

  • hydrofluoric

    I'm not ready to throw in the towel on this for sure. Those were all pretty high-degree-of-difficulty 3s. He didn't get any of those nice, open, corner, spot-up 3s. That might be a bit where coach might wanna help him out, since I don't think Sully's going to be have enough chops to pick-and-pop that well for a while.

  • Ryan

    It's only the preseason but it's pretty clear that Sully's mechanics aren't where they need to be. Given that he's a fundamental player I'm going to chalk that up to being out of shape. He's just doesn't have his legs right now and that's going to affect your jumper no matter what. Once he gets in shape, his mechanics will improve and he'll start hitting these shots.

  • hax

    Not to mention beat his girlfriend/wife this offseason and came to court in a buckeyes t-shirt. Not giving up, but so far GM's around the league won't be throwing the Celtics a 2014 1st rounder for a mediocre short PF who throws up shots like jordan crawford but can't hit them.

  • High Rollers

    Just like K.Love, Sully needs to be very strategic about three point territory. Heck, all players should be, but even more so the guys who excel at rebounding and getting inside position. It’s fool’s gold if you have JS live out there.

  • CG12

    Expect to see Sullinger continue shooting 3's. He clearly has the green light from the coaching staff. He is a good jump shooter and will improve. Hitting an occasional 3 will open things up a lot for him to work off the bounce. This team is going to shoot a lot of 3's. Again, get used to it.

  • High Rollers

    Anyway, Sully’s too much a paint magnet first and foremost to become a head slap inducing three-ball chucker.

    • hax

      Agree, everyone was impressed by his 7rpg-ish average last season. Now he is a mile away from the hoop like he is ray allen.

  • hax

    Faverani hit a 3!

  • check12check

    so I just have one critique of the article which is that light years measure distance, not time.

    overall, I think having sully try to knock down treys is just a terrible idea. I understand the reason having a big who can shoot is wonderful, and I get that a go-to play for quick shot creation in the waning seconds near the end of the shot clock is a must. I don't, however, understand why Sully is the big Stevens is trying to use for this. Wouldn't it be a lot easier to teach KO to set better picks?