Before his first NBA season was cut short by a back injury—the very same issue that made 16 weary general managers say “thanks, but no thanks” on draft night—Jared Sullinger was one of the most productive rookies in the league.
Playing in a complicated defensive system, surrounded by near-mythical beings like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and playing under Doc Rivers, a head coach noted for holding little patience with inexperienced players, Sullinger not only earned a spot in Boston’s rotation, but had an undeniably positive impact.
According to NBA.com/Stats, the Celtics were 3.7 points per 100 possessions better with Sullinger on the floor. Out of every player on Boston’s roster who saw the court for at least 100 minutes last season, nobody posted a higher net rating.
Sullinger didn’t even average 20 minutes per game, so his basic averages of 6.0 points—on 49.3 percent shooting—and 6.9 rebounds weren’t anything special. But extrapolated on a per 36 minute basis, Sullinger averaged a solid double-double—something he managed to do four times, each in well under 36 minutes of playing time—of 10.9 points and 10.7 rebounds.
A true barbarian on both the offensive and defensive glass, Sullinger grabbed 17.5 percent of all available missed shots when he was on the court (the most by any Celtic who played at least 500 minutes). This is the singular part of his game that could potentially drift into elite territory as early as this season.
As a 20-year-old, Sullinger hauled in 12.6 percent of all available offensive rebounds while on the court, a number that would’ve placed him ahead of Joakim Noah, Nikola Vucevic, Larry Sanders, Amir Johnson and Serge Ibaka, had he logged enough minutes to qualify.
Sullinger’s instinctual ability on the glass should only get better while playing for a coach who may place greater value on offensive rebounds than Rivers. Giving Sullinger the green light to go after the ball once a teammate shoots it should only increase his percentage here; it wouldn’t be surprising to see him venture into a Zach Randolph, Kenneth Faried territory.
In his rookie season, about a fifth of Sullinger’s scoring opportunities came after he grabbed an offensive rebound, according to SynergySports. He averaged 1.22 points per possession in these situations, which was good for 33rd in the league. It’s wonderful that he can be energetic and useful here, under circumstances where Boston doesn’t need to draw up a play to get him going.
Now that he’s a major contributor in an offense that could be among the league’s least threatening, Sullinger will be granted the opportunity to be a factor in other areas. Given his girth and nimble feet and smooth touch in open space, Sullinger is primed to thrive in pick-and-rolls, either popping out to the perimeter or crashing into the paint. He has fantastic hands, and first-class touch around the rim.
Courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, here’s his heat map.
Sullinger primarily scored around the basket, but also showed glimpses of promise as a jump shooter. (On shots between 10 and 23 feet from the basket, he shot 40 percent. Not the best number, but an encouraging one that could signal improvement if Sullinger amplified his attempts—which he'll likely do this season.)
But similar to a middle linebacker who’s free to make plays in the middle because he has a dominant nose tackle diverting the attention of several offensive linemen, there’s a question about whether Sullinger will be able to maintain his forceful play now that Garnett’s snarling ferocity is wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey.
Last year Sullinger played 513 of his 892 minutes with Garnett on the bench, where he averaged 10.8 rebounds and 11.0 points per 36 minutes. With Garnett beside him those numbers basically stayed the same, sloping to 10.4 rebounds and 10.7 points.
The numbers here are promising, but it’ll be interesting to see how Sullinger will adapt to playing a vast majority of his minutes beside another power forward, and someone one who certainly isn’t in the league because of his defense—be it Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries or Kelly Olynyk.
As admirable as he was ripping the ball away from the opposition and retaining possession for his team, Sullinger was equally lamentable at going back up and scoring in traffic. He can hardly jump—partly why his rebounding is so marvelous—which sets him apart from nearly every one of his defenders, leaving him susceptible to getting the ball smacked back in his face.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Sullinger was blocked roughly 20 percent of the time while attempting a shot in the paint. This isn’t as devastating as it sounds, though, as he was still able to make 59.2 percent of his shots within five feet of the hoop, and a well-above-league-average 68.8 percent at the rim.
But after extrapolating things to a per 40 minute basis, it gets ugly; Sullinger had 1.48 of his shots blocked, according to Hoopdata. Among power forwards who averaged at least 15 minutes a game last season, only Tyler Hansbrough, Tristan Thompson and James Johnson had their shot blocked more often.
(Going from the percentage of his shots that were blocked, Sullinger’s 14.7 percent more than doubles the league average, and is only bested by Reggie Evans, who stands at a shameful 18.7 percent.)
Sullinger rushed the ball up on a lot of these attempts. As his career progresses he needs to gather himself and be more patient going up with the ball, pushing his wide frame into the body of shot blockers to knock them off balance and draw more fouls.
He averaged only 2.5 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes last season. That number should increase as Sullinger gets more opportunities in the post, and learns to embrace contact instead of utilizing his inefficient fade away jumper.
As someone who’s prime NBA real estate resides in the paint, Sullinger absolutely has to improve this area of his game. It’s vital.
Conversely, on the defensive end he’s already ahead of the curve, especially as a post defender. According to Synergy, Sullinger held opponents to 0.66 points per possession in the post last year, which ranked 22nd in the league. He’s undersized, but makes up for it with unexpected quickness and an intuition for his opponent’s movement that’s rarely, if ever, exhibited by players his age.
Now that he’s completely healthy, Garnett and Pierce are gone and Rivers has been replaced by Brad Stevens, Sullinger is expected to be Boston’s best frontcourt weapon this season. As his usage percentage (which was 14.9 percent in his rookie year) likely increases, Sullinger could make massive strides on the offensive side of the ball, an area where he possesses the most potential.
Despite averaging 3.4 fouls per game—those who witnessed a majority of those calls know Sullinger fell victim more than once to referees giving his veteran opponents the benefit of the doubt; all rookies go through it—his defensive work was solid last season, too.
From day one up until game 45, Sullinger's rookie season was a pleasant surprise. He showed poise well beyond his years, and battled on the glass like an eight-year veteran. This season more responsibility will be thrown on his plate, and there's no reason to think he won't be able to handle most of it.