That was Jared Sullinger back in 2012. After slipping in the draft from a potential lottery pick to the Celtics at #21 due to concerns over his back, Sully worked his way into Doc's rotation (a coach loath to playing rookies) before succumbing to an inflamed lumbar disc only 45 games into his rookie season. But before the surgery, he had performed as advertised. He had found a niche as a rebounder and a dirty work specialist, finishing around the rim and almost never leaving the paint. That was the resume he brought as a Buckeye and he fit in perfectly on a predominantly vet team.
Fast forward two years. Boston has been stripped down, leaving Sullinger (and Avery Bradley and possibly Brandon Bass) as the only remaining Celtics from that final Big Three team. As one of the franchise's elder statesman, his role has changed. Instead of being the roster's young pup and garbage man, he's leading the team in field goal attempts and the starters in PER this season. Despite some slumps in the road, he's expanded his game and become one of the most consistent players for Brad Stevens.
This summer, Sully will be eligible for a rookie extension as he enters the fourth year of his rookie deal, but we still don't know whether he's a building block for the rebuild or just another chip in Ainge's growing stash of assets. After a rookie year cut short to playing for a new coach and style, Sullinger has yet to become the "next (insert name here)," but for my money, the two fairest player comparisons to Jared Sullinger are Zach Randolph and Kevin Love. All three lack jump-out-the-gym athleticism at the four spot, but they've managed to bring an old school, ground-and-pound mentality to their position and in the case of Sully and Love, expanded their range to the three point line.
He's not the rebounder that Love was or as efficient as paint-confined Randolph was in Portland, but at 22, he's on pace with his contemporaries. Per 36 numbers might be the fool's gold of projected statistics (Tyler Hansbrough, DeJuan Blair, and J.J. Hickson were once in this ballpark), but Sullinger is projecting in the right direction.
Let's dig deeper into the numbers. Traditionally, a big man's offensive game was measured by how well he performed in the post. According to Synergy Sports, Sullinger ranks 25th in the league (with a minimum of 100 possessions) with 0.889 points per possession per post-up opportunity. For some perspective, Kevin Love is 2nd at 0.991 PPP, LaMarcus Aldridge is 5th at 0.975 PPP, and DeMarcus Cousins is 20th at 0.901 PPP. Another metric is how power forwards perform in pick-and-rolls. As a roll man, Sully ranks 19th at 0.936 PPP. Anthony Davis is 2nd at 1.218 PPP, teammate Tyler Zeller is 4th at 1.15 PPP (thank you, Rondo), and Blake Griffin 18th at 0.944 PPP. In Sullinger's third year, he's not exactly a rock at the block, but he's been good, not great and his career efficiency numbers are trending up and up. Teams have started to game plan specifically for Sullinger and his assist numbers continue to rise as well.
But in today's new NBA, we just can't take a traditional look at Sullinger's role as a 4. With teams inverting offenses and playing their forwards and centers farther and farther away from the rim, bigs are being relied on to create off the dribble and shoot from the perimeter and Sully has adapted quickly to Brad Stevens' read-and-react offense.
Here's that Stevens quote again after Sullinger took it to one of the league's best frontlines that includes Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, and Ryan Anderson:
"When Asik's on him he stretched it a little bit, and when Anderson was on him he posted. That's why, in my opinion, a guy like Jared has to be able to do both, if he's going to be really good." - on Jared Sullinger's versatility
Sully hit 1 of 4 three-pointers in that game and he's shooting an underwhelming 28.9% going into the second half of the season, but having that in his repertoire keeps teams honest. Now, fans and writers alike have bemoaned Sullinger's three-point shooting. There's this discussion from our forums or this Twitter tirade from CBS' Adam Kaufman:
Love how many of you guys have joined me on "Antoine Sullinger" reference. This crap needs to end. Been going on for 2 years now. #Celtics— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) January 31, 2015
Over the last 2 years (entering tonight), Jared Sullinger has attempted 360 3-pointers and 307 free throws. That's a big problem. #Celtics— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) January 31, 2015
To be clear: I like Jared Sullinger. He's got a bright future. He's just 1 guy I constantly scratch my head when comes to Stevens' coaching.— Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman) January 31, 2015
Sullinger's numbers may never reach Korverian levels behind the arc, but there is a bigger gain at stake here. This isn't Josh Smith indiscriminately chucking 3's for chucking 3's sake. There's a system at work. While Ainge works on the macro level to rebuild the roster, Stevens works on the micro level to rebuild his players. Coming out of Ohio State, Sullinger was a bruiser and that's how Doc utilized him in his rookie year, but Stevens saw more and to be truly effective in his motion offense, Sullinger would have to be able to stretch defenses and be a threat everywhere.
Jared Sullinger says that Brad Stevens has asked him to take more shots, and off of different actions, since Boston's stretch of trades.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 31, 2015
Stevens on Sully: "We're trying to put him in more spots. We're trying to get him to score it on the block, facing up and on the perimeter."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 31, 2015
And for what it's worth, Sullinger's 3's need a little bit of context. Out of the 173 triples, 75 have come where he's open with the closest defender 4-6 feet away and 88 have been wide open (hitting at a very good clip of 35.2%); 56 of them have come early in the shot clock with 15-18 seconds left and 69 of them have come with 7-15 seconds left (hitting again at a very respectable 33.3%). In fact, a bulk of his misses have come late in the clock as a shot of last resort. What does that tell me? When he's not rushed and the shot's coming in the natural flow of the offense, Sullinger is shooting well behind the line. That's a lot of pick and pops and kick outs where Sully is keeping his defender out of the paint and penetrators are finding him open as they collapse the defense.
So can an above average paint player and a below average perimeter shooter really be one of the cornerstones of this franchise's rebuild? If you ask Sully himself, he doesn't think so. He recently said:
"We can't play hero ball. We don't have heroes."
"Being a hero makes you a failure, makes you a failure. You can't play one on five at all. As a team, the system is going to spit out who's going to score, who's night it is. You just have to play basketball and do better."
That sounds like a canned response, but taken at its word, it could be real insight to what Brad Stevens is trying to mold Sullinger into and more importantly, the entire team. Coming out of college, the conventional wisdom would have been to let Jared Sullinger be the best Jared Sullinger he could be. He was a load to handle in Columbus and while his transition to the NBA would have inevitably hit a few snags while he got used to the size and speed at the professional level, Sullinger could have become one of the league's best in the paint. Parking his butt in the key would probably raise his free throw attempts, draw double teams and create more opportunities to pass, and increase his rebounding numbers. Celtics fans wouldn't be so frustrated when he ventures out of the restricted area and he could be a legit double-double machine.
That could still happen, but for now, Stevens will continue to employ his Spursian approach with his players: the more complete player you are, the more you can help this team. While Sullinger's development has its growing pains, he is developing. Maybe wondering whether or not Sullinger could be the Paul Pierce of a new Big Three is the wrong question to ask because if we've learned anything over the last 125 games that Sully has played under Stevens, it's that the system isn't catered to single players and specialists. I think that's why Rajon Rondo was expendable and why an all-around player like Goran Dragic is somebody that Stevens and by proxy, Ainge, is interested in. It's why a guy like Tayshaun Prince can come in and immediately be effective. It's why Marcus Smart has been off the ball and working on his outside shot so much. Keep this all in mind the next time you cringe at a Sully three (admittedly, this will sound really meta): it doesn't matter if it goes in right now, but it matters that he took the shot.