In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Jared Sullinger was an integral cog in Brad Stevens’ well oiled machine, starting 73 games as the teams nominal center. Mostly appearing in lineups with big men and tweeners that guarded the speedier opposing big, Sullinger paired up with the likes of Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko and even Jae Crowder. It’s important to note this, as Sullinger should see time with all of Toronto’s rotational big men next year, including a stylistic change in defensive partner with franchise center, Jonas Valanciunas.
The Celtics were a relentless defensive group, notching the fourth best defense in the league. Additionally, Sullinger secured himself an incredibly stingy defensive efficiency rating of 100 points per 100 possessions. By going through film, we’ll examine if Sullinger’s defensive statistics were a product of the system, or if he was an honest contributor to the effective defensive group that saw the court every night.
When observing Sullinger defend with his 6’9 frame that has carried anywhere from 260-300 pounds, it makes sense that he wouldn’t translate into a good rim protector. For the most part, his game is ground-bound, and even though he has a 7’1 wingspan, it just doesn’t make up for the fact he is undersized when designated to protect the rim.
When he is tasked with defending the goal, Sullinger can be successful at times. He refuses to be bulldozed by players going “downhill” towards the rim, and he has a knack when it comes to using his hands to swipe down against gathering finishers, a theme that will surface throughout Sullinger’s defensive game.
While those are positives aspects of his game, he just doesn’t exhibit them often enough. He seems timid to even try to step in front of players as the last line of defense, often attaching himself to his original assignment in the slot – unwilling to rotate and protect the rim. His timing for when to contest is off several beats and he doesn’t have the explosiveness or physical attributes that can compensate for timidness around the bucket.
Of players that defended the rim against more than 400 shots, Sullinger ranked last by allowing the highest percentage of made field goal attempts at 54.3%. This was worse than infamous defensive sieves such as Kevin Love, Enes Kanter and Nikola Vucevic. As a point of reference, the Raptors’ former backup centre, Bismack Biyombo, only allowed 45.2% of shots to be converted while he protected the rim.
To contextualize the difference, both Sullinger and Biyombo allowed the same number of shots to be made while defending the rim, at 248 field goals a piece. The difference between the two undersized big men is that while Sullinger caused 209 misses, Biyombo caused 301.
Pick & Roll: ICE
As a center defending pick and rolls in today’s league, Sullinger is typically tasked with dropping back anywhere from the free throw line extended to the rim while persuading the ball handler into taking a tough mid range jumper. A proper mix of agility, lateral quickness and an awareness of angling one’s body is a necessity to effectively complete this task.
Occassionaly, but not often, Sullinger can become stiff and will not execute proper use of angling his body to guide an opposing ball handler in the proper direction.
Sullinger will sometimes get into a bad habit of aligning his feet parallel to the penetrating guard’s path to the hoop, which allows for a clear lane to the basket.
Otherwise, Sullinger’s improper positioning can situate him too far in the other extreme, by becoming perfectly perpendicular to the driving ball handlers path. In this case, he allows the driving guard to turn the corner too easily, as he doesn’t have the elite lateral quickness to completely wall off penetration.
Those cases are relatively infrequent (but still notable) for the former Celtic, as Sullinger’s ability to read angles is generally up to par. The issue with Sullinger’s reads on the defensive end is that as a result of his size and build, he doesn’t have the ability to quickly react at the snap of a finger if he is caught off guard by a sudden responsibility in defensive coverage. He has to be well prepared on every side pick and roll, because he can be left stranded with poor positioning.
When successful, Sullinger properly angles his body and feet to guide the driving ball handler away from the paint after his on-ball teammate negates use of a screen. The result is often an errant mid range jumper, either from the guard or screener, after Sullinger has dissuaded the guard from the paint by walling off a path to the rim, or more aggressively corralling the ball handler.
When in a good flow defensively, Sullinger is adept at picking his spots in regards to aggressively harassing the ball handler. While he has a tendency to let the ball handler come to him, every now and then Sullinger can surprise a guard by making use of his quick hands.
The issue is that those few times where he is able to successfully strip the ball while pressuring the driving guard has tempted Sullinger far too often. He often leaves the rolling screener unattended while he pursues the ball handler aggressively, leaving an over-the-top pocket pass open more often than not. In addition to the poor habitual aspect that produces this outcome, Sullinger’s lack of height or leaping ability does not do him any favours. Recovering back to the screener once they have received the pass in the lane is tough for any big man, but Sullinger has even more difficulty as he typically defended players much larger than himself. The difference in height and in positioning is a fatal combination for the over-eager big man.
Sullinger does not apply his ability to switch very liberally, often opting not to unless the defense suffers a breakdown where it is the only option left. The few times he did, he fared well, though context is important. The typical matchup Sullinger is willing to switch onto defensively is generally a larger wing, maybe a small-ball four. When they come off a down screen where he is involved in defensively, he has no problem stepping out. He doesn’t become jumpy or start to gamble, rather he sits down in his stance and is able to apply short bursts of speed and agility.
While his build can hinder him in many places on the defensive end, it is certainly something Sullinger leverages when defending the post. His low center of gravity, reminiscent of former Toronto Raptor Chuck Hayes, is perfect for the low block. Prior to the catch, he doesn’t give up valuable real estate near the hoop, even against significantly taller opponents. After the catch, he refuses to be caught out of position by fakes and hesitation moves. Taller players varying in skill have difficulty scoring against the 6’9 big man, even when they attempt to go over his head.
Additionally, Sullinger’s sneaky hands impact this facet of his defensive game as well. The mix of a sturdy build that will not be shoved under the rim and a patient, yet concentrated focus, allows for the perfect amount of frustration to set in for the offensive player so Sullinger can sneak in and tap the ball away.
Finishing off a possession with a rebound after a missed shot is crucial and often overlooked. While some volume rebounders have inflated numbers due to low difficulty/uncontested rebounds, others excel and are able to thrive with the added traffic while the ball bounces away from the rim.
Courtesy of Nick Sciria, (@Nick_Sciria on Twitter) we can see that Sullinger, ranked eighth among qualifying players in pulling down contested rebounds. Assuming he is inserted into lineups that were previously occupied by Luis Scola, who ranked 64th, as well as lineups where Patrick Patterson (just outside the top 60) is currently featured, Sullinger will be able to boost the Raptors rebounding on the defensive end. Additionally, when paired with Valanciunas, the Raptors will be the only team to have two players that ranked in the top-15 for this statistic in the upcoming season.
Last year, Sullinger defended the more sluggish opposing big man, while Johnson took on a myriad of fours that could stretch the defense out to the perimeter one night, with the ability punish on the interior the next. To put it into context, Johnson was more likely to switch assignments on any given possession with Crowder, than he was with Sullinger. There is going to be an adjustment period when Sullinger plays with Valanciunas, regardless of if he starts beside him or sees time off the bench. The two will need to coexist, as they have overlapping defensive matchup preferences, but seeing as the Raptors made a Valanciunas-Scola pairing work enough for the 11th ranked defense, while Sullinger was a rotational member of the fourth ranked defense, there’s also room for optimism on that front.Follow @raptorsrepublic