Jared Sullinger's 2015-2016 season didn't exactly start out as planned. He failed the eye test on Media Day as many felt that he hadn't done the work in the off season to come into a contract year in the best shape of his life. That seemingly proved to be the case in the preseason when Sully not only fell out of the starting lineup and practically out of the rotation as the fifth big on the roster.
But then the opener happened. Tyler Zeller couldn't handle Jahlil Okafor in the first quarter and Brad Stevens inserted Sullinger into the lineup for his defense. That bears repeating: Brad Stevens used Jared Sullinger for defense. And it worked. Since then, Sullinger has proved to be an invaluable member of this team and while he doesn't look it, Sully's off season work has absolutely paid off. He's not exactly playing 30+ minutes a night, but he's consistently playing with a higher motor in shorter spurts and has found himself back in the starting five. Here's a little highlight from the beginning of the game where Sully never even touches the ball:
The opening play of the game starts off simple enough with a Isaiah Thomas dribble hand off to Avery Bradley above the break. AB should be able to establish a little distance from his defender, Bradley Beal, with Thomas setting a brush screen.
Here's where read-and-react kicks in. If you've been watching Bradley's development over the years, two seasons ago, that DHB would have turned into a mid range jumper. This year, he's concentrating on shooting less long 2's and more three-pointers. Amir Johnson sets another pick on the trailing Beal and now, Bradley has a few looks.
He should be clear to take an open three, but that's the longest three pointer on the court and a low percentage shot. He can also throw the ball down into Jared Sullinger or swing it to Jae Crowder on the weak side.
Here's where I want to highlight Sullinger's basketball IQ. Let's just back track a little bit. Friday night was a bit of a homecoming for Sully. For the first four games, he had been knocking on the door for more playing time after showing small bursts of production off the bench and on Wednesday, he was thrust into the starting lineup in Indiana. Against the Wizards, he might have played his best game as a Celtic. He finished with 21 points and 8 rebounds in an efficient 21:39. He worked predominantly as a stretch-4 and hit 3-of-4 three pointers in the process.
But let's get back to that first play. On Media Day, he had talked about "getting his big butt on the block" and that's exactly what he does here to Marcin Gortat. You can see above that he's reading Bradley's look. AB isn't looking to shoot so Sullinger isn't preparing for a rebound; he's fighting for position, not for an entry lob from Avery, but the next pass that might be coming from Crowder.
Crowder's got a read to make, too. For the entire possession, Sully's been wrestling Gortat on the block and Crowder can throw a difficult bounce pass as Gortat fronts Sullinger, but with Otto Porter out of position, Crowder drives the lane that's been paved by Sully's work.
Crowder misses the lay up and Johnson cleans it up, but that entire play should be credited to Sullinger. He doesn't touch the ball the entire possession, but it's his ability to use his size and read his teammates that has now earned Sully a spot not only in the rotation, but in the starting five.