Mar 28, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger (7) tries to maintain possession of the ball against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Curious Case of Jared Sullinger

If you look at the Boston Celtics roster the first thing you notice, other than the fact that Joel Anthony and Keith Bogans are on it, is the lack of easily tradable players. Outside of Rajon Rondo and the two guys the team just drafted there isn’t really anybody who would fetch anything in return. Some of the guys are overpaid, some have injury issues, and some just aren’t really that good. Obviously the Celtics seemingly endless supply of future first-rounders would be the real meat in any major trade. But even with those picks the team would have to throw in at least one valuable young player if they wanted to acquire a superstar via trade.

Selling teams want certainty. They want good young players to build around. The Celtics simply lack the young talents, outside of Marcus Smart and James Young, to make anything happen. It’s why Kevin Love is still in Minnesota. It’s why they wanted a package including Klay Thompson instead of what Boston had to offer.

One name often brought up by Celtics fans when discussing “good young players” is Jared Sullinger. He’s fun to root for because of his underdog status. A college superstar who slipped in the draft. An un-athletic and short big man who gets by solely on effort and positioning. Sullinger, when on the court, has been one of the most productive players on the team the last two years.

But he’s not a building block. He’s not a starter, or anything more than a rebounder off the bench, for a contending team. It’s been made clear that he’s not viewed around the league as positively as he is by Celtics fans.

Jared Sullinger is a marginal NBA player who will carve out a career for himself because of his one undeniable skill. He’ll never be worth much as an asset or as a cornerstone on a contending team. Numbers, and simple scouting, prove it.

With Sully, that one undeniable skill I’m referring to is offensive rebounding. He’s a menace on the offensive glass. But when you take into account what he gives you in terms of rim-protection and finishing ability inside compared to comparable offensive rebounders, it’s not pretty. Here are some rebounding percentages along with stats like true shooting, block rate, PER, and points per 36 minutes (since many of these guys are just role players). All important things to consider when assessing the overall value of a big guy.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 9.35.38 AM

There are three major takeaways from these numbers: Sullinger isn’t anything special as a defensive rebounder, he doesn’t score efficiently, and he offers almost no rim protection. If you’re a post player in the NBA who isn’t overly talented or skilled offensively, you make your bones by crashing the offensive glass and protecting the rim. People have called Sullinger a “poor man’s Kevin Love” and a “poor man’s Zach Randolph“. In reality, he’s more like a poor man’s DeJuan Blair, or something similar to Tyler Hansbrough.

Like Sully, Hansbrough and Blair were both prolific college players who brought major concerns regarding their athleticism into the NBA. There isn’t anything wrong with Sullinger, Blair, or Hansbrough. They all deserve to be in an NBA rotation. But they’re not building blocks. They’re not trade assets. They’re role players who give you some rebounding and not much else.

On to Sullinger’s defense. He’s just 6′ 9″, with a 7′ 1″ wingspan, and he can’t jump. He wasn’t a rim protector in college and he’s not in the NBA. You can get by as a power forward defensively without protecting the rim if you can guard one-on-one in the post and/or step away from the basket and guard stretch 4’s. Sully cannot do either of those things. Sullinger allowed .807 points per possession this year. That places him in the 79th percentile of all players in the league.

In other words, if you grab five random NBA players, four of them are going to be more valuable defensively than Sully. Sullinger has promised to lose 20 lbs to help him step out defensively and move easier on offense. But is that really a smart move? Sullinger isn’t going to make an impact outside the paint. If anything, he should be getting as strong as possible. Not to mention the fact that he fouls at a rate even Jason Collins can chuckle at.

The Celtics, being in semi-tanking mode, were willing to experiment with Sullinger this last year. That’s why they let him attempt 208 threes despite him hitting just 26.9% of them. They were willing to leave him on the floor despite his horrendous defense because he was one of the few somewhat reliable scorers on the team. It should be noted that Sullinger was literally the slowest player at the 2012 Combine and posted the slowest lane agility drill time in THE HISTORY OF THE COMBINE. Sully played 71% of his minutes at center, not his natural position. He scored in volume because he took a lot of bad shots for a bad team, but he isn’t efficient.

Yes, it’s unlikely Sullinger ever shoots over 200 triples again in a season. So his ugly 42.7% field goal shooting last year should be taken with a grain of salt. His best spot is the area around the left elbow, where he shoots a very impressive 60.6%. But Sullinger actually struggles to finish in the paint and hit the ever-important midrange baseline shots. Here’s a shot chart for Sully in comparison the league average at various spots that I threw together real quickly.

shot chart sully

This chart is more proof that instead of trying to be Kevin Love, Sully should settle into his role as a DeJuan Blair or Tyler Hansbrough type player. As the Celtics improve, Sullinger’s shooting will become a major problem if he continues to launch threes at anywhere near his current rate. Out of every four shots Sullinger took last year, one of them was 3-point range. That is only an acceptable rate if you can at least hit them with at least 35% accuracy. The league as a whole is shooting 10% better from deep than it was a decade ago. As advanced metrics continue to be brought into the limelight, it’s unacceptable to allow Sullinger to shoot so many jumpers.

If you’re tanking though, let it fly Sully.

And finally, I had to make the final chart. Here’s how Sully stacks up in various areas of the game compared to similar players who showed similar rookie/sophomore trends (with he exception of 3pt shooting). Keep in mind that you want a low defensive rating.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 12.23.10 PM

One thing that could potentially separate Sullinger from the rest of these guys, rebounding specialists who can’t defend, is his mid-range jumper from the elbow area. He’s actually quite solid there. Floor spacing is so important in todays game and it’s pretty much a requirement that at least one of your front court players on the floor is a threat from the mid-range. Sullinger will certainly continue to develop. But he’s 22. He’s not going to get any taller, quicker, or more athletic. You see that Hansbrough and Blair have completely removed jump-shooting from their games. Sullinger is a better shooter than either of those two but he would be wise to play to his strengths more.

Despite seeing a major increase in minutes during his sophomore season, Jared Sullinger did not play any better. In fact, he played worse. Using per 36 numbers Sully saw his scoring, defensive rebounding, FG% (from inside the arc), and defense all fall off a bit. It’s way too early to write the book on Sullinger, but given his physical limitations, one must wonder how much room for improvement there really is.

Sullinger is a solid young player on a rookie contract, but not a building block or enticing trade asset. What does this mean for the Celtics? First off, Sullinger would just be filler in any major trade. You’re not basing a trade package around Sullinger unless it’s for a draft pick in the back half of the first round. He doesn’t have the upside of Kelly Olynyk. More than likely, Sully will play out the remainder of his rookie contract ($1,424,520 next season with a team option at $2,269,260 for ’15-’16) in Boston. After that the Celtics could offer him a two or three year deal somewhere in the range of $3.5 million per assuming his development goes as projected. If there’s a team out there willing to pay him starting power forward money Boston would be wise to shy away.

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Sully is a fan favorite because of his effort and throwback style of basketball. Tommy Heinsohn won’t shut up about him. His effort and rebounding were two of the only positives that Celtics fans could take from last season, and because of that, most fans have a false idea of just how good he is. Jared Sullinger is one of the best players on the Celtics. But the Celtics won just 25 games last year. Sully pretty much single-handedly made Boston a top-10 last year in terms of offensive rebounding. However, his horrendous defense and inefficient offense held the team back as well.

Jared Sullinger has a future in the NBA and that future may very well be in Boston. But expectations need to be tampered. Due to both his drastic strengths and drastic weaknesses, Sullinger is a role player. And he always will be.

So next time you hear someone call Sully a “poor man’s Kevin Love”, please correct them and say “No, Sully is an upper-middle class man Lavoy Allen“.

All stats from Basketball Reference and Shooting chart made using Vorped.

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