Last season, Jared Sullinger was whistled for 6.2 fouls per 36 minutes.
In other words, statistically, even if the Celtics wanted to give him a starter’s minutes, he would foul out before the 36 minute mark. Some of that was on Sullinger — it takes a certain amount of time to adjust to the way fouls are called in the NBA as opposed to college. But some of that was also on the officials, who whistled the Celtics rookie for a ton of fouls, some fair and some…less so. “He’s just a rookie,” we told ourselves over and over. “He’ll be fine when the rookie calls start to fall away.”
And, as it turns out, we were right. Sullinger, averaging just 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes this season in four more minutes per game, has been considerably improved this season.
The Celtics find themselves in a difficult position. Vitor Faverani has been a pleasant surprise, but he isn’t a starting center for the future. Kelly Olynyk is a seven footer, but his wingspan is so short and his legs are so ground bound, it’s extremely difficult for him to defend NBA quality centers. So the task falls to the 6’9 Sullinger, who has risen to the task admirably, even against some of the toughest post match-ups in the NBA.
When someone tries to tell you that the center position has fallen off in the NBA, correct them. In seven consecutive games, the Celtics have faced Minnesota (Nikola Pekovic), Houston (Dwight Howard), San Antonio (Tim Duncan), Indiana (Roy Hibbert), Atlanta (Al Horford), Charlotte (Al Jefferson) and Memphis (Marc Gasol, although he will be out when the Grizzlies come to town). That stretch of opponents is murder on a team’s defending big man.
Sullinger, however, has been surprisingly good defensively against centers. He looks quicker on his feet (no doubt a result of his back surgery) and smarter with his hands, and — once again — he’s not longer a rookie. He was so good against Indiana on Friday, the media asked Brad Stevens about his performance.
“He played pretty good 1-on-1 defense, no question about it,” Stevens said. “Hibbert is a load down there, and Jared gave us 31 good minutes.”
Sullinger was also asked about defending Indiana’s big man.
“With some guys like that, you gotta make it hard for them to catch the ball,” Sullinger said. “Roy is a very good basketball player. There’s a reason he gets paid what he does…My goal was to push him, get him off the block, front him and make his catches hard. If you let a premier player like Roy Hibbert catch the ball on the block, you are dead. I was just trying to make it tough on him.”
It’s the kind of defense Glen Davis used to play against Dwight Howard, only Sullinger is better at it: Force him out of the area he’s comfortable, don’t foul, don’t let him catch the ball easily. We see Sully employing this strategy when we take a look at the video.
Like Sullinger said, if Hibbert catches the ball comfortably with his back to the basket, he’s going to chew up the Celtics inside. But Hibbert is never allowed to catch the ball comfortably near the basket. The one time in the clips above Hibbert does catch the ball near the hoop, he has been in the lane for quite a while and seems aware that the clock is ticking.
Sullinger also uses his strong base to keep Hibbert away from the rim. Hibbert, who is unused to being pushed around, fights back in frustration which leads to dumb fouls like this one.
In this case, post defense is almost completely about 1-on-1 strength. But Sullinger is also a fairly smart defender, and although he misses some rotations at times (again, a product of his youth, as well as his gradually returning athleticism), he used his basketball IQ to make life difficult for Al Jefferson in the post last night.
In the first clip, Sullinger stays down on Jefferson’s multiple pump fakes. By the time Jefferson finally takes his shot, he has tried a move, a countermove, and a counter to the counter, all of which make his shot tougher in the end. When Sullinger doesn’t stay down, naturally, Jefferson scores with ease (second clip).
As the first quarter progressed, Jefferson was finding it increasingly difficult to catch the ball inside. Sullinger was doing much of his work early, and as a result, Jefferson was finding mid-range jumpers a much more feasible offensive option. He has a solid mid-range game, but for Sullinger and the Celtics, the mid-range game was considerably preferable to his low post work.
In the past four games, the opposing starting centers (Duncan, Hibbert, Horford and Jefferson) have shot 21-for-57 from the field, good for roughly 39%. Not all of that has been Sullinger — Faverani has been relieving him defensively off the bench, and Tim Duncan (3-for-13 against the Cs) has struggled to start the year anyway. But Sully has started all four games as the de facto center, and a significant amount of the credit can be attributed to the work he has done denying the ball in the post and pushing his assignment out of position.
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