Is Jared Sullinger Emerging as Legitimate Building Block for Boston Celtics?

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Is Jared Sullinger Emerging as Legitimate Building Block for Boston Celtics?
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Jared Sullinger could be close to entering a rare group of NBA players.

Jared Sullinger has been a glaring bright spot on what has been a somewhat dismal month for the Boston Celtics.

Entering this current gauntlet of big, talented frontcourts that the Celtics would be facing, the prognosis for success wasn't good.

The results haven't been great, however, the glimmering light has been Sullinger.

Boston's 2012 first-round pick has had a career filled with promise but short on actual substance. He got a lot more praise than he probably should have as a rookie, playing the underdog card because of his draft position.

Still, when he went down with the most predictable back injury of the year, Sullinger was averaging six points and 5.9 rebounds in 19.8 minutes. Those were solid numbers for a middling first-round draft pick with limited minutes, but not worthy of some of the hype he was getting.

We've now seen him for 14 games in his sophomore campaign, and Sullinger is posting 12.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in just 23.8 minutes. Now those are numbers worthy of some hype.

As a starting member of the Boston frontcourt, Sullinger is averaging 13 points and 9.8 rebounds in 31 minutes a night. 

So, is it time to start getting truly excited about what this kid could do long-term?

There is a major difference between being a role player as a late draft pick—think Brandon Bass or Zaza Pachulia—and being a legitimate star player coming from that range. That type of leap can't necessarily be ruled out in Sullinger's case.

If you scan NBA rosters for starting big men, you'll find a bunch who were passed over in the lottery and some even the entire first round.

A large portion of those bigs have played or will play the Boston Celtics this month. If we dive deep into what Sullinger is doing on the floor—beyond the points, rebounds and various concrete numbers—maybe we can get a clearer picture of what he could be in the future.

 

Who are the hopeful comparisons

First, let's get an idea of some of the bigs we'll be stacking Sullinger up against. This season he has played against the Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves and others.

So, we can definitely look at Zach Randolph (No. 19 overall) and Marc Gasol (No. 48 overall) of the Grizzlies. Neither player was taken particularly high in their respective drafts, and neither was earmarked for NBA stardom. However, they have combined to create one of the most feared frontcourts in the league.

Randolph played just 5.8 and 16.9 minutes per game over his first two seasons, breaking out as a 20-10 force in year three. Gasol was almost an afterthought, but he played his way into a bigger role and bigger money in a short time.

Roy Hibbert (No. 17 overall) and David West (No. 18 overall), the league's other dominating interior duo, were also not lottery picks. Hibbert started 41 games as a rookie, but only managed to stay on the floor for 14.4 minutes a night. Similar to Randolph, West is listed as a 6'9" power forward and broke out in year three, after not seeing much time his first two seasons.

Moving on down the line of recent opponents, Paul Millsap of Atlanta was taken No. 47 overall and Minnesota's starting center Nikola Pekovic was taken at No. 31. Boston will also soon face the Cleveland Cavaliers and former No. 30 draft pick Anderson Varejao.

These types of players are all over the NBA right now.

Athleticism and projects with potential reign supreme at the top of draft classes, and guys like Sullinger fall because they don't make highlight-reel plays that land on SportsCenter. However, it's guys like Randolph and West who have long careers as building blocks, while Tyrus Thomas and Hasheem Thabeet struggle to maintain jobs.

 

What do you see with his offense?

The most attractive piece of the Sullinger puzzle is obviously his interior scoring game.

This was the most showcased piece of his college arsenal and why he was thought of so highly before the back problems hurt his draft stock. It has been an adjustment period so far in the NBA, with flashes of brilliance and a lot of hiccups on the way.

Over the past couple weeks, there have been specific signs that Sullinger is expediting the maturation process with his aggression, passing, outside development and creativity.

There are now multiple possessions every game where Sullinger is putting his backside on a defender and hollering for the ball. That is an especially important development for a team structured like the Celtics, given that Kevin Garnett is no longer available as a mentor.

NBA.com
Season shotchart courtesy of NBA.com

Sullinger has also started to find position earlier in the possession. He is quite good at finding space underneath the hoop and using his weight to force defenders toward the perimeter. This has helped the point guards find Sullinger on drive-and-dish plays, as well as perform his lovable one-handed rebounds.

Head coach Brad Stevens is allowing Sullinger to play more on the perimeter, something that wasn't an option with Garnett often out there. With this opportunity Sullinger's passing has improved, as well as the confidence in his own shot.

Against the Charlotte Bobcats on Nov. 25, Sullinger had a hand in three straight scores for Boston.

He found Avery Bradley on a backdoor cut from the perimeter. Then he hit Jordan Crawford with the extra pass for a three-pointer. The third time down the floor, Sullinger flicked off a quick 18-footer before Al Jefferson could close out. On the year, he is 12-of-18 from that range, per NBA.com.

There is still much to learn though.

Sullinger has taken to Stevens' coaching and even started developing a three-point shot—though he took only 40 as a college sophomore. That is an aspect Kevin Love began working on in year two, prior to becoming a dangerous threat from the area deeper into his career.

In transition, Sullinger is starting to run the floor better as his conditioning gets better. He'll never be a gazelle-like lane-filler in this style, but effort is all it takes to be effective in a fast-paced game.

Another aspect of the Celtics' preferred style that he struggles with is outlet passing. That skill takes on a whole different meaning when applied to a quick transition team and Sullinger will continue working to accurately find his guards after clearing the boards.

 

What do you see with his defense?

A big difference between Boston's sophomore and those other NBA names is their trademark skill. Randolph, Gasol, West and Hibbert all earn their paychecks as stout, physical defensive players.

Sullinger is still learning how to play on the defensive end against taller guys without getting into foul trouble each night. With no Garnett to watch over him, bad habits could have started developing but that doesn't look to be the case yet.

Sullinger has taken to Stevens' coaching and even Brandon Bass' leadership. After all, if we are talking about low picks who created long NBA careers for themselves, the former second round pick out of LSU is right up on that list.

The individual defense of a Hibbert, Gasol or Serge Ibaka will probably never be there, as Sullinger is too short at 6'9" to be a rim protecter. Instead, he has to understand spacing and use his body to force offensive bigs out of their comfort zone. He has shown dramatic improvements in that regard.

He still makes young mistakes when defending in space. Some bigs have the ability to drag Sullinger out to the perimeter where they can lose him with the dribble or shoot over the top. Sullinger's height will make it difficult to ever defend against that, but his lateral quickness can improve with hard work.

In Boston's six wins this season Sullinger's defensive rating dips to 93.1, but it skyrockets to 106.1 in the team's losses, per NBA.com. That shows the wild disparity in his defensive learning process, especially with no more Garnett.

 

What do you see in his intangibles? 

We have to look at the situation to answer this. With Garnett off the team and Coach Rivers in Los Angeles, Sullinger lost the two biggest sources of advice he knew upon his big league introduction. However, they have been replaced by Brad Stevens.

One of the things I've most appreciated about Stevens this season is that nothing is gifted to his players. Nobody gets a starting job without earning it, especially Sullinger. If Sullinger had been tossed into that role right away, we may not be seeing what we have been these past couple games.

Rivers had an odd relationship with his younger players, and an occasional reputation for dismissing them in favor of his older guys. Sullinger has worked to earn Stevens' trust, and with the insertion into a starting role you have to believe he's got it.

An important part of Sullinger's game throughout these next few years will be toughness.

That means playing through minor injuries, but it also means developing an identity as a no-nonsense type—like Randolph or West. Those undersized power forwards needed that identity to stay alive on nights where their shots didn't fall.

Sullinger was only 2-of-9 from the field against the Bobcats for five points Monday, but Stevens kept him on the floor for 28 minutes, including the final two minutes of a close game. That reasoning can be found in Sullinger's plus-five mark. Bass and Crawford combined to score 37 points, but finished with a minus-nine and minus-four on the night, respectively.

Sullinger showed a lot of poise against Jefferson, limiting him to 14 points and three rebounds. He proved a lot as well with breakout games against Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs and LaMarcus Aldridge's Portland Trail Blazers.

With upcoming contests against Randolph's Grizzlies, Varejao's Cavaliers and a home-and-home against the variety of bigs the Milwaukee Bucks can throw out there, Sullinger has more tests to pass.

For now, he is earning a high grade and racing closer and closer to building-block status.

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