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How Happy Should The Celtics Be With Jared Sullinger?

 

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.

  • hax

    He shows flashes of being Kevin Love(huge double doubles, that 31-15 pops off as a good example). His defense is wayyyyyy better than Love. The difference is Love gets a double double as consistently as Korver hits a 3 in a game. Sullinger is really young so he can get there if he keeps working at it. He’s 6’9 playing Center. We need a real center to pair with him. Plenty of options, Asik, Gortat, Embiid, etc.

  • The Cardinal

    Recurring gripe here: in every article regarding the latest wins by the Celtics, it is always…I mean ALWAYS…prefaced with a statement about the level of competition we beat. Weellll…may I remind all (I’m not just pickin’ on Michael) that the Celtics themselves are smack dab in the middle of the “caveated” bunch – so if anyone, who the heck else would you expect they might beat? Trust me when I say the bloggers, beat writers, announcers and fans of the Bucks, et al… are all bemoaning how their team lost to the lowly Celtics!

    The C’s are what they are, but when they beat teams who are at or near their own talent/expertise level – and when a player or two or three has a great game against comparable competition – why the verbal asterisk? Why not just focus on the performance and the details that matter cuz we all know the backstory, and leave out that tired ol’ caveat?

  • hax

    http://img716.imageshack.us/img716/3324/5blw.png
    This trade with the clippers 2015 1st rounder going to Cleveland.

    • hax

      Celtics get the risk-reward of Waiters. A SF to play after we trade Green for Asik.

      Bobcats get the veteran SF they want for their first playoff push in years.

      Cavs get a SG that isn’t yelling at Kyrie 24/7, veteran front court guy for their playoff push. And a 1st round pick that is junk but they can show it to their fans as ‘see we got something back’.

      Pacers get veteran backcourt help for their championship push.

    • Mark

      No way goes for that considering the Clippers pick will most likely be in the 25 range. Waiters was the #4 pick. Cleveland won’t dump him for spare parts and a horrible pick.

      • Mark

        No way *Cleveland

  • Mark

    From the day Sully was drafted I thought his ceiling was a poor mans David West. After watching him last season and a bit this season (I didn’t renew League Pass) I underestimated him. He can be better than David West ever was. In fact, I think he can be a poor mans Kevin Love with an outside chance of being better. He isn’t the shooter that Love is (obviously) but he has been showing the same improvements that Love did. He’s a damn good rebounder for his lack of athleticism. Where he is better than Love is defense. He is lightyears ahead of Love with room to improve.

    Check this out: http://www.basketball-reference.com/play-index/pcm_finder.cgi?request=1&sum=1&p1=loveke01&y1=2010&p2=sullija01&y2=2014

    He isn’t that far off of Love at the same time in their careers.

    This isn’t saying much because the draft class wasn’t that deep but Sullinger could possibly be a top 5 or even top 3 of his draft class when all is said and done. An absolute steal at 21.

    Going forward, for the team, Sully needs an athletic big (Embiid…please Danny! Please?) next to him.

  • Ping

    The “can Player X be an All-Star” is a tricky question. Going forward, with the current ASG format, Sullinger has a lot of competition for one of the five-ish slots slated for frontcourt players. The list of names in the East going forward include Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Al Jefferson, MKG, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, Josh Smith, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, LeBron, Bosh, the Greek Freak, Melo, Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, Tobias Harris, Nik Vucevic, Thad Young, DeRozan, and Valunciunas.

    Sullinger isn’t and won’t be better than a lot of these guys (LeBron/George), but Sully’s age and ceiling work to his advantage. He very well may sneak onto a team or two.

    That said, ASG appearances don’t matter. They’re nice to quote, but what I think most mean by asking “can Player X be an All-Star?” is “can Play X be one of the best at his position?” To that end, it’s still TBD with Sullinger. He’s already a bull on the offensive boards. He has some solid go-to moves in the post. He’s stretching his range to 3-point territory, and I hope he gets even more corner shots.

    But, he also has some things to work on. The PNR defensive numbers Michael cited are great, but what about in isolation? On the block? There have definitely been games where Sullinger has been lost against a premier post player. His ORB% is top-25. His DRB%, however, is 85th. His eFG% of 46 is understandable given the 3′s, but needs to come up for a guy who still spends most of his time in the paint.

    More positively, he has a well-rounded game for a guy whose usage% is in line with greats like Duncan, Howard, Horford, and The Brow. I’m being rationally optimistic about my favorite Celtic. He’s in just his second year, playing for a bad team with a rehabbing Rondo and playing out of position. Still, his numbers have made a phenomenal jump in the matter of a year.

    If he develops into David West or Elton Brand, that’s amazing. I think Love is a stretch, because Love is top 10 (if not top 5) in the whole league, but all that matters is how Sully stacks up in the East. ASGs are nice, but if Sully is a top forward in the conference, he might help carry the C’s through three rounds in the playoffs.

  • check12check

    I don’t think Sully will ever be an all-star, but man alive do I love what this guy does on the court. He is so so so valuable to this team. I think he always be a player that casual fans will dismiss while those who understand a bit more about the game will gush over. He is just exactly the kind of guy you want to have on your team if you really want to make a deep playoff run. smart, talented, physical……I hope he has a long career wearing green

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