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All Aboard the Pork-Chop Express

Jared Sullinger's 36 minute, 18 shot performance last night comes as no surprise to those who believe in per-36 minute statistics. His usage rate and productivity in limited minutes has held the promise of better things to come. If his conditioning will allow, it may be time to ride the "Pork Chop Express" as far as he can carry this Celtics team.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The concept of "go-to" guys is familiar to most basketball fans. Most team's have a hierarchy of options for their half-court sets that are easily identifiable. For this young Celtics team, the early season has been a veritable audition for these lead roles. Jeff Green has been the de facto "first option" due to his veteran stature, talent, and recent track history. Many believe that Green isn't suited for the first option role and would be better served playing off of another primary scorer. Common consensus is that the team does not have this ideal first option and that may be true.

However, in the absence of such a singular talent someone must fill the void. Until last night, that had been more of a "committee" effort by various teammates. While it is beneficial to give multiple young players the opportunity to step up and make a case for themselves, there are clear benefits to teammates knowing their roles as well.

Coach Brad Stevens made a very simple, but poignant observation last night when he stated that the Blazers "knew where to find their offense" and the Celtics were often left "searching for where to find theirs".

When it comes to executing in the half court, it is tremendously beneficial to have a general sense of where you want to go with the ball. Having focal point players allows for a faster, more streamlined offense that can improvise much easier off of the way in which the defense commits to stopping said players.

The issue with Boston's squad is that they do not have a set of proven player's who are established for these roles. As such, it's been an organic process of discovering roles on-the-fly. This process was further complicated by two significant early season factors:

1. Rajon Rondo's absence

2. Jared Sullinger's conditioning

There has been quite some argument as to what Sullinger's true potential is. A consensus lottery pick leading up to his draft season, Sullinger suffered due to a myriad of physical related questions. While some of those questions were valid, there was certainly a level of devaluation associated with the review process. Somehow, Sullinger became perceived as a lesser talent than he actually was. The early returns on his performance have begun to restore that value to its natural order.

Though Sullinger isn't the most physically gifted, his skill set and physical attributes are on par with a number of players who have realized great success in this league. Boris Diaw and Luis Scola are players that come to mind on the low end, while Carlos Boozer and Kevin Love comparisons have been tossed around on the high end. None of these players are explosive athletes or enjoy tremendous size advantages against their matchups. Yet, each has displayed the ability to perform at a high level due to a combination of tangible, and intangible,  factors.

Jared Sullinger has these same qualities.


The graphic above is a basic snapshot of how much responsibility both Sullinger and Green have had when on the court. They are being compared against the "King James" standard, in order to lend perspective to their role responsibility on this team.  Shooting "spacials", (with a nod to Kirk G) represent a look at both the distribution of shots and the effectiveness of the shot selection. Usage represents an aproximation of the player's role within the offense.The Hustle/Error rate is an aggregate of non-points related statistics. "Hustle" is the percentage of total team rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and fouls drawn a player accounts for when on the court. "Errors" is the percentage of total team fouls against and turnovers.

Hustle/Error percentages are based solely on basic stats, but they do represent a level of involvement when it comes to the role one is playing for his team. As you can see, "King James" is accounting for over 20% of his team's non-scoring related "Hustle" stats when he's on the floor. He also accounts for 21% of the errors, (TOV's/Fouls) which is understandable since he is such a high usage player. The importance is on how productive you are with the chances you get - Sullinger has shown that, so far.

Overall, you can see that Sullinger has already emulated the level of impact of a "go-to" player. His usage rate is the highest of anyone on the team and is above the 25% threshold that is typically reserved for star-level players. Sullinger's "error" percentage is a bit higher than optimal, but considering the percentage of "Hustle" plays he's accounting for and the level of offensive responsibility he's had, one can certainly live with the mistakes.

Most importantly, Sullinger's spacial splits are trending in the right direction. James has a 2.7 paint/mid-range ratio, which is outstanding. Sullinger has a ridiculous 3.9 paint/mid-range ratio, while Green's is 2.5. Sullinger's conversion rate is still below the 65% threshold for conversion efficency, but it has elevated 10% since the first 5 games of the season. Nobody is expecting either Green or Sullinger to match James when it comes to his league-leading finish rate, but both Sullinger(28%) and Green(31%) are accounting for nearly the same percentage of fouls drawn that James(30%) does.The more these two operate inside, the better the results should become.

Studying film, one can quickly see that Sullinger is already adjusting his interior moves to account for the matchups he's facing. He's using far more footwork and getting more comfortable using his body to create separation for a hook or fade-away as opposed to trying to power through his defender. With his touch and technique, it's not unreasonable to expect an above-average finish rate on the interior for Sullinger.

Sullinger's long-range efficiency isn't where it needs to be, yet. But he has aptly been judicious about taking these shots. The mechanics of his shot do suggest a more consistent, reliable 3-point shot to come. A more consistent long ball at his position will help the "Pork Chop Express" to use that hefty frame and excellent body control when defenders run him off the line. Sullinger has shown tremendous potential to pull up from mid-range or motor deep into the paint for a basket, foul, or passing opportunity.

All signs point to Jared Sullinger eventually assuming the mantel of "go-to" scorer for this young Celtics team, and rightfully so. He may or may not have the ability to be a true #1 option, but he is clearly making his case for that role with this team. His attitude, demeanor, and pedigree are ideally suited for this type of responsibility. Taking that level of command with this unit should allow his teammates to more easily define their own roles in turn, Jeff Green likely being the biggest beneficiary.

Hopefully, last nights performance is a sign of more to come. This team will benefit greatly from a leader emerging from the pack who can calm and clarify the purpose of the others on the court. If he can do so, the options for this team going forward will increase exponentially.

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