Nov 16, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Boston Celtics power forward Jared Sullinger (7) goes up for a shot over Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love (42) in the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Understated Growth of Jared Sullinger

While the Celtics continue to toil in mediocrity, there appears to be one player standing out from the rest; Jared Sullinger. Having fully recovered from back surgery that cut his rookie season short, Sully has truly established himself as the Celtics best player.

In the NBA, growth among big men is usually a slow process. The improvements they make to their game come gradually as they adjust to help defense, complex offensive schemes, and stiffer competition than they faced in the collegiate ranks. For Sullinger, the process was much quicker; he came into the league ready to dispel any notion that he was too slow or that he would struggle against length — Sullinger has only been blocked 37 times in 56 career games. And while he didn’t light the league on fire, he did show that in time he could really carve out a future in a league dominated by athletic behemoths like Dwight Howard and defensive savants like Roy Hibbert.

The greatest thing about Jared Sullinger this year is that most of the plays he’s making right now are some of the same ones we saw him make last year — his moves on block are steadily improving and he still gobbles up offensive boards. He’s been able to translate the play that made Celtics fans grow so attached to him in just half a season to an offense that is nearly run through him when he’s on the court. He still boxes out like a mad man, and his rebounding numbers are generally the same — His total rebounds per 36 is up slighty, by .4 rebounds, and his Total Rebound Percentage has dropped by just .2. His low post passing is even better than last year, and his efficiency has stayed the course.

According to SportVU, Sullinger is averaging .50 pts for every touch in the half court — which is identical to Kevin Love’s average. No, Jared Sullinger is not even close to being on the same level as the league‘s best power forward, but it’s nice to see just how efficient he’s been.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that with Sullinger on the court, Boston has managed a -1.5 net rating — best on the team among those who have played at least 200 minutes — and it drops to a -10.2 net rating. His importance to an already floundering team cannot be overstated. The offense has been absolutely miserable without him on the floor; the spacing, the rebounding, and just about everything else has been affected by this kid’s presence on the court. As a team defender, he hasn’t made any major strides from last year, but he’s still very solid in his rotations and every so often will step in there for a charge.

Under a new, analytic friendly coach in Brad Stevens, it was unknown whether Sullinger would change his game drastically. While he’s still a back-to-the-basket player, his confidence in taking threes has caught the attention of many fans and writers, whose divided sentiments of “STOP IT, SULLY” and “I guess that’s pretty neat” have made it clear that the jury is still out on Sully being a true threat from deep. It’s cool that he’s comfortable taking them — though not necessarily good at taking them — but it does take him away from the basket and undermine his offensive rebounding. It’s not something that is a major problem, though, as they’re generally good looks from deep. And if he can gain respect from defenders while behind the line, then that’s great. What it does show is a willingness to add more facets to his game. He doesn’t seem like the player that will settle for “just good enough”. He wants something more, and while that is veering into cliche territory, it’s probably true.

It may not be entirely sustainable for Sullinger to keep this pace up over the course of a 82 game season, but his first 11 games have been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise smog filled tankfest. Fans of a really bad team — like really really bad; Boston is tied with the Sixers for the 3rd worst net rating in the entire league(-6.7) — can take solace in watching a really fun player like Sullinger.

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