Jared Sullinger has been perpetually underrated in NBA circles ever since he declared for the draft back in 2012. Despite a track record of solid performances against top competition in college, scouts saw an undersized, short-limbed player with back problems who (they believed) would struggle in the more demanding confines of the NBA.
That’s why he fell to the 21st pick in the 2012 draft. And although he has played well in his second NBA campaign, it still feels like Sullinger’s talents go unrecognized to a certain extent, even by the most observant of Celtics fans.
I’ll admit, for example, that I raised an eyebrow or two when Avery Bradley called Sullinger "the best offensive rebounder in the NBA" on Monday. Sure, I’m aware Sullinger knows his way around the paint area, but Bradley’s comment made me wonder if I had somehow overlooked just how good Sullinger was on the offensive glass.
A simple look at his offensive rebounding percentage shows that Sullinger is indeed one of the better offensive rebounders in the league. The Ohio St. product is sixth in the NBA in ORB% at 13.2%, just behind far taller big men in Andre Drummond, Robin Lopez, and DeAndre Jordan.
According to NBA.com, Sullinger leads all Celtics big men in percentage of rebounds per chance (60.4%). The second-year forward also leads the team in total rebounds (383) and contested rebounds per game (the number of rebounds gathered where an opponent is within 3.5 feet) with 3.5 per contest.
So it’s clear Sullinger is pretty great on the boards, and while it is hard to definitively say that he is the "best" offensive rebounder in the league, it’s obvious he is among a handful of players who truly excel on the offensive glass.
But just how is Sullinger so good at grabbing rebounds? Most of the NBA’s other great rebounders are two to three inches taller and possess far longer wingspans. Sullinger, on the other hand, is just a 6-foot-9 power forward with short arms, supposed shortcomings he shares with another great rebounder in Kevin Love.
Indeed, Love excels in the rebounding department despite being shorter than many of the NBA’s best rebounders. At 6-foot-10, he stands just an inch taller than Sullinger, but uses superior strength, positioning, and anticipation to dominate the glass.
A few highlights from recent Celtics games show how Sullinger is adept at gaining superior position over his opponent, while also using his strength and tenacity to out-fight his man for the ball.
At the 2:09 mark, Sullinger simply out-hustles his man for the ball, grabbing it with one hand and showing a good nose around the basket by laying it right back in.
Later on, at 3:09 of the video, Sullinger outmuscles Spencer Hawes (who is four inches taller), grabbing the ball and then picking up another offensive rebound off his own shot (talk about padding your stats!). What really stands out is Sullinger's non-stop motor and effort. He may be shorter than Hawes, but he never gives up on the play—a recurring theme the more and more you watch him.
Against the Raptors on January 13, Sullinger was even better, grabbing eight offensive rebounds. The first (1:10) is a classic case of Sullinger trailing behind the play, taking up space, and grabbing the weakside rebound.
At the 1:51 mark, Sullinger earns himself two different offensive rebounds in one possession, grabbing an Avery Bradley missed three and then getting the loose carom off a Phil Pressey jumper. This is another pattern among Sullinger's offensive boards, as he often camps under the basket when his teammates take long jump shots, trusting in his strength and positioning to smother the rebound. We see Sullinger do this again at 3:28 and 4:50 of the video.
Ultimately, Sullinger brings in so many offensive rebounds because he frequently gets himself into ideal rebounding position just as his teammate is releasing a shot. From there, he simply uses his body to maintain that position and then goes after the ball with persistence.
The words heart and hustle are used so much in sports that their importance has become exaggerated. For Sullinger, though, they are qualities that are crucial in helping him bring in multiple offensive rebounds on a nightly basis.
Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to CelticsBlog. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.