On Monday, the NBA named Jared Sullinger Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his services from February 3 through February 9. In that span Boston played three games, and Sullinger notched a double-double in all of them, with averages of 20.3 points and 12.7 rebounds. The Celtics were 8.5 points per 100 possessions better than the Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, and Dallas Mavericks (their three opponents) with Sullinger on the floor, and a whopping 22.3 points per 100 possessions worse when he caught a breather beside Brad Stevens.
It’s a three game sample size against three horrific defenses, but the numbers are still striking. They also shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched Sullinger play basketball this season.About 12 hours before the NBA made its announcement, I’d coincidentally written a few questions in my notebook: How much better can Jared Sullinger be? An All-Star? Are his stats hollow?
None of these questions are simple. Sullinger is 21 years old and has yet to play a complete regular season. He starts for one of the league’s worst teams and plays alongside teammates who may never see the light of an NBA rotation again once this season ends. He’s also out of position: according to Basketball-Reference, 75% of Sullinger’s minutes have come at center. He’s a 6’9” power forward guarding the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Roy Hibbert, and Dwight Howard.
But Sullinger is good enough to start on just about any team in the league. His skill-set is valuable and independent of everybody else (nearly half his made field goals are unassisted). He’s a respectable mid-range shooter, but if for whatever reason those aren’t falling, it’s fine. He’ll gladly get physical below the rim, as his offensive rebound rate (seventh highest in basketball) can attest to.
Sullinger has incredible touch and brilliant foresight. What do I mean by “foresight?” Look at this play from a recent game against the Mavericks.
Let’s unpack the possession, shall we? It begins with Sullinger being fronted by the taller Brandan Wright, and calling for a lob pass over the top. Quickly realizing this is impossible without having the ball stolen, he barks at Kris Humphries to flash towards the foul line, dragging a Dallas defender with him. It takes too long though, letting Jose Calderon pressure Rondo, forcing a pass to Humphries instead. Rondo quickly gets it back and rolls the ball to Sullinger. He retrieves the ball with those spongy catcher mitt hands and pivots towards the hoop. Vince Carter immediately runs over to double the ball, and it takes Sullinger less than a second to recognize what’s coming before he hits Jeff Green with a confident cross-court pass.
Green shuffles it along to Avery Bradley, who puts just a little too much mustard on his long two. No worries. Sullinger gobbles up the misfire, goes right back up and is fouled. Pretty much everything done here is beyond your typical 21-year-old power forward. Sullinger understands spacing and how the defense is moving to make life difficult for him and his teammates. He never stops fighting for position or gives up on the opportunity to grab Bradley’s missed shot. I re-wound this possession four or five times on my DVR before moving on to the rest of the game.
On the defensive end—last night’s FAIL in Professor Duncan’s Post-Play 101 aside—Sullinger has been quite good. He’s physical yet disciplined in the post, with surprisingly nimble feet that allow him to stay in front of just about every player in the league at either frontcourt position.
According to mySynergySports, Sullinger allows 0.58 points per possession when covering the roll man on a pick-and-roll. That’s second best in the NBA. Thriving in Stevens’ system, Sullinger sags back to contain the ball-handler, which usually forces a pass back to the screener. What happens then is either a missed jumper or a relatively wild drive through Sullinger towards the rim. Those don’t usually end well.
More surprising: opposing players are shooting 49.9% at the rim when Sullinger is the closest defender, per SportVU. The sample is 7.3 field goal attempts per game. For comparison, opponents are shooting 52% on 7.1 attempts per game against Chris Bosh, 51% on 6.9 attempts per game against (reigning Defensive Player of the Year) Marc Gasol, and 50.9% on 6.5 attempts per game against Tyson Chandler. Those last two have battled injuries, but they’re also well-reputed all-world defenders who stand over seven-feet tall.
Sullinger impacts the game in so many positive ways. Boston is 2.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense and 4.0 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him on the court. Without argument he’s Boston’s best player not named Rajon Rondo.
The idea that his stats are empty is a tough point to prove considering how much better he makes his team. Yes, the Celtics are bad. But Sullinger’s PER increased by 3.8 from his rookie season to now, as his usage rate went from 14.9% to 24.3%, which currently leads the team. Sullinger has earned the attention of several coaches around the league, including Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich; his life as an above-average scorer in the post isn’t easy, yet he’s still above average (45.6%) with his back to the basket. (The buttery fallaway jumper is a personal favorite.)
Is Sullinger perfect? No sir. But as an evolving big who’s made several noticeable strides on both ends since returning from back surgery, he’s more than a prospect; already an elite rebounder who can finish in a variety of ways around the basket. Remember when “he can’t jump therefore all the layups will perpetually get smashed back into his face” was a thing? Not so much anymore. Sullinger has already learned how to use his wide frame to clear space instead of relying on ball fakes, a la the aforementioned Big Baby. One of his shots is blocked per 36 minutes, which is lower than Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and dozens of other guys throughout the league.
Many compared Sullinger to Glen Davis when he was drafted, but with each passing day the similarities between those two further deteriorate, if they aren’t already nonexistent. So instead, I’ll posit a more optimistic role model Sullinger should aspire to be: Elton Brand. Here are their year two statistics matched side by side. Both rebound, shoot, set screens, and play solid defense.
The biggest difference between the two lies at the three-point line. Even though his three-point rate is 13th on the team (ahead of only Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, Avery Bradley, and Joel Anthony), there’s a misconception that Sullinger shoots too many threes. He’s making just 26.2% of them, but for now who cares? Shoot away, Jared! The mere thought that he can someday stretch a defense out to the corner is enough to make Danny Ainge lightheaded.
This photo was taken moments before Rondo hit Sullinger in the corner for an open three, which he missed. In transition, Sullinger veered towards the corner instead of straight to the rim (which also isn’t a bad option).
What Rondo wants to do is throw a lob over the top to Gerald Wallace, who for whatever reason is being fronted by Carter. Sullinger’s man DeJuan Blair recognizes this and shifts into the paint to either take a charge or, better yet, break up any pass headed Wallace’s way. The thinking goes, then, that if Sullinger were able to sink corner threes regularly, Blair would be scared to leave him out there alone, and Boston would have themselves a quick two points in transition.
It’s difficult to peg just how good Sullinger will eventually become, mostly because I can’t see into the future. But don’t be surprised if he cracks an All-Star game or two. More importantly, there’s little reason to think he can’t be a heavy contributor (no pun intended) on a legitimate contender. Brand’s career would be nice. Could we also have the making of David West 2.0 on our hands? Is he the next Al Horford?
Those are lofty heights, but if Sullinger continues to improve at the same rate he’s on, a sizable (and worthy) pay day will be headed his way in 2017.
Michael Pina’s writing can be found at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.