We’ve talked about Jared Sullinger quite a bit this week, but he has been playing intriguingly well, so forgive us for continuing the trend.
The “Should Sullinger be taking 3-pointers?” argument continues to rage, but last night presented compelling arguments for proponents of the strategy. I wrote about these shots specifically during the preseason, and although Sully started off slow, his accuracy has improved since. The biggest reason Sullinger has continued launching? Brad Stevens has been urging him to do so.
From ESPN Boston yesterday afternoon:
“I don’t think he shoots enough of them. And I’ve said that all year,” said Stevens. “He passed up a couple [against Memphis], he passed up the one where he traveled at the top of the key; he was wide open. And the more games he gets under his belt, the more he plays, that shot’s going to go in more often than not. From a percentage standpoint, he’s a really good shooter, just him and the rim. And he had that opportunity. We were running things for him at the end of that game, to see if we couldn’t get him a look.”
“The first question you ask when you’ve got a guy who can make 3s is, ‘Can you switch him?’ And you can’t switch [Sullinger],” said Stevens. “There’s no plausible way to do that because he’s so good in the post. A lot of 3-point shooters aren’t very good post players. So if he can continue to develop that part of his game, that could really help us.
The first quote is essentially a retread of what we’ve been discussing all season and reads like a logical syllogism. A: Sully can make the shot from that distance if he’s open. B: Sully frequently finds himself open at that distance. Therefore, Sully should take the shot frequently when he finds himself open at that distance.
The second quote is a little more interesting. Spacing has always been the best argument proponents tend to present in response to the “Why is Sullinger taking 3-pointers?!” question, but it’s not the only reason, nor is it the best. The best reason is the mismatches these plays create. If you are the Cavs, do you switch on a pick? Because if you do, Kyrie Irving is going to get isolated against Sully in the post unless you can send help, which confuses your rotations even more. Do you try to hedge? Fine, but you better be able to recover in a hurry, and there aren’t many centers in the league able to do so at that range (also: Andrew Bynum CERTAINLY isn’t one of them…more on this later). Do you send a different help defender after the initial screen? Go for it, but be ready to rotate like crazy because Sully is a good passer.
Sullinger is already a problem, thanks to his work on the offensive boards, but he hasn’t been a game-changing problem. Sullinger with a 3-point shot AND an improving post game, however? That’s inching closer to “you better plan for me” territory. After a 2-for-3 performance on Wednesday in the Celtics’ loss to Memphis, Sullinger was 4-for-5 against Cleveland and improved to 7-for-14 in his last four games. Four games is by no means a sample size by which one can judge an entire body of work, but it’s enough to indicate a trend.
And there is definitely a trend here: Sullinger looks considerably more comfortable pulling the trigger from long range nearly a quarter of the way into the season than he did in the first couple games, and any shooting coach would tell you that being comfortable taking a shot is half the battle. It sounds like Stevens’ urgings are getting through to him, and his comfort level from downtown is rising.
“I just took the open shot,” Sullinger said after the Cleveland game. “I overheard Brad talking about I don’t take enough of them…It’s just going to help my teammates out more. With driving lanes, not always being on the block, forcing people to step up and kind of guard me out there.”
The Cavaliers, in the third and fourth quarters, found recovering on Sullinger out of the pick-and-pop to be more of a challenge than they were prepared to deal with. Here are his 3-pointers from last night’s game:
In the first clip, Sullinger’s screen is so solid, it bumps Irving off course. Meanwhile, Andrew Bynum is playing so far out of position, he seems to be waiting for Sullinger to roll toward the basket and join him on the block after the screen (note: I may be giving Bynum too much credit. He may have just lost track of Sullinger). Sully, aware of this, does no such thing.
Varejao shows to the 3-point line, but he doesn’t appear ready to actually contest the shot until Sullinger is already into his motion. This was Sullinger’s second made 3-pointer of the game (his first wasn’t a pick-and-pop play). It was clear he was getting more comfortable, and as the Celtics continued to run pick-and-pops for him at the top of the key, the Cavaliers continued to fail to recover from the pick-and-pop in time, and he continued to deliver.
Five of Sullinger’s nine shot attempts were 3-pointers, which isn’t a good ratio on a night-to-night basis (although on nights where he is 4-for-5, we will — of course — be perfectly happy with that ratio). He should still be doing the bulk of his work around the rim, using the long ball just to supplement his easier baskets. It’s unlikely Sully will ever be as effective a long-range shooter as someone like Kevin Love, so his 3-point attempts can’t become the focal point of his offense.
But having a pick-and-pop game from behind the 3-point line creates such an intriguing batch of mismatches, it has to be hard even for those who still doubt Sullinger’s long-term 3-point shooting to be displeased with the progress he has made this season.
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