Jared Sullinger provides more than just what his reputation would lead on. While he does struggle with awareness issues in regards to what shots are best for him to take, he is also quite the skilled passer and has a level of finesse and skill to his game that is unbeknownst to many. Through this examination of Sullinger’s offensive skill set, every aspect of that side of the floor will be looked at to provide a better understanding of what to expect from the newly acquired big man.
The Raptors haven’t possessed a skilled passer and playmaker out of a consistent rotational big man in quite some time. That will all change once Sullinger suits up for Toronto, as his passing ability and general vision from a playmaking standpoint is something to be leveraged.
The Celtics enabled Sullinger to set up shop at the elbows around 3.5 times per game, per NBA.com. He passed on 2.2 of those possessions every game, indicating his ability to create from that area of the floor.
The Celtics used him as a decision maker in some of their Flex sets, a place where Sullinger can fit in right away for the Raptors. Sullinger is also incredibly adept at reinvigorating a seemingly lost offensive possession with new life in very simple ways. As an escape valve, he doesn’t hold the ball for 5 seconds before deciding to move onto the next offensive sequence, instead he routinely initiates a dribble hand-off (DHO) sequence to free the Celtics’ lead guards.
Where Sullinger should stand out and excite Raptors fans is what he offers from a playmaking standpoint in pick and roll scenarios, especially ones where the ball handler is aggressively trapped or overplayed by the defense. No longer will Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph feel suffocated after using a screen. Dishing off to a big man who can not only catch the ball, but operate with it in an efficient and timely manner on the short roll is a huge bonus.
Being able to score from that position is important, but somewhat one-dimensional without being able to pass the ball once the defense sucks in and collapses in the lane. That’s no issue for Sullinger, as he is an adept and quick passer in 4-on-3 situations after the defense has converged on the initial ball handler. He’s able to quickly identify where the weak side defender came from and can spring accurate passes all along the perimeter.
It obviously is not an offense-breaking thing to not have a pseudo-playmaking big man, as the Raptors have had been efficient with this core for 3 years, but the Raptors have not had a player that smoothed possessions out like Sullinger does from a playmaking standpoint at either big man spot. Sullinger’s vision and playmaking ability had a positive impact on the Celtics offense, netting them an assist rate of 26% while he was on the court, as well as 109 points per 100 possessions, versus an assist rate of 22.6% and an offensive efficiency rating 105.4 points per 100 possessions with him sitting on the bench (numbers per NBAWowy.com). When the offense gets bogged down in the playoffs after the opposing defense traps the primary ball handler (Lowry, DeRozan or Joseph) it becomes crucial to have a playmaker from a larger position, and the Raptors have got a bit of that with Sullinger.
Sullinger’s post game is relatively refined at this stage of this career. He doesn’t attempt to utilize brute force to shove players larger than him under the rim, rather, he has an arsenal of fadeaways, face up jumpers and baseline finishes to attack that type of match up.
Despite that, he shouldn’t be a consistent isolation scorer for the Raptors, especially when paired up with more efficient options, such as Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Lowry. There might be opportunities to leverage his skill in the post with bench units that are challenged offensively, as that has become en vogue in the NBA today, but if the Raptors are depending on Sullinger post ups for a consistent form of offense, there are much larger issues to solve for the club that annually ranks in the top 10 of offensive efficiency.
The intriguing part of his game on the block is that teams cannot defend him with guards and wings in the same way they occasionally experimented with Scola. Sullinger’s size is far too overwhelming and his decision making is quick against switches and smaller opponents.
This seemingly mundane aspect of offense in which Sullinger can play a part in is actually quite the asset for the newly acquired Raptor. His immediately obvious frame does wonders when attempting to free up guards, particularly away from the ball. Avery Bradley was able to build quite the rapport with Sullinger and other guards found success with him as well, often becoming free after engaging in a DHO or flaring away from the screen when running routes off ball.
Inefficiencies and the Mid Range Jumper
I’d be remiss to discuss Jared Sullinger’s offensive impact without examining his love affair with inefficient, long range (two-point and otherwise) jump shots. Sullinger has taken 500 three-pointers over his career (though, fewer attempts in each of his last three seasons) and has shot an abysmal 27.6% from long range. Nearly 20% of his field goal attempts have been taken between 16 feet away from the rim and the three-point line, a heinous act when judged by anyone who is well versed in somewhat advanced stats. That number nearly jumped to 30% last season, where he shot under 40% from (all numbers per Basketball Reference). That is not an efficient way to conduct an NBA offense, though, in context, it seems somewhat understandable and possibly manageable in the future.
These are jumpers that are borderline unacceptable. Sometimes he has his foot on the line, others he is just in an area where he is a proven non-threat, but overall they should not account for a large percentage of Sullinger’s possessions. They are clear decisions made by him, that after he does a bit of work in the pick and roll he can shoot a long range jumper. The answer to these from now on should be a resounding “NO!” from all the coaches. Continue to work the ball around, stitch together a couple of DHO’s, but whatever Sullinger does, he shouldn’t do that. It doesn’t matter if one goes in, because there is a reason the ball has enough space to leave his hands.
However, there is a portion of shots that Sullinger takes from distances which should be off-limits, which he has surely been instructed to take. The following clips aren’t of a player who has mystically found himself open, rather, there are varying sequences of player movement which has been designed to get Sullinger open looks. Now, nothing can be 100% proven one way or the other, but by watching film and observing patterns around the league, a down screen in the Flex offense can enable a player to be open for a mid range jump shot. If it’s there for the taking, most offenses see that option through. The interesting thing is that many of these actions are run for wings and guards and have been quirkily adopted by Celtics coach Brad Stevens, and utilized to free up Sullinger in unconventional ways.
The point is, the shots he takes aren’t entirely his fault. There is an unknown percentage of blame that should be directed at the decision makers of offenses in which Sullinger has taken part. If some of those actions continue to be run, the blame should be more evenly dispersed.
His shooting is going to make for some very tight spaces when he is paired with Valanciunas. At times, Boston tried to use another big man as the screener and spread everyone, including Sullinger, along the perimeter. There’s just not enough data to conclude anything, aside from the fact the results might be a little bit of everything.
Something that would aid the Raptors in running a spread pick and roll with Valanciunas as the screener is if Sullinger could shoot from anywhere along the perimeter, maybe even the corner.
That possibility means the future isn’t entirely dim, as there is new territory yet to be discovered in Sullinger’s offensive game, an exciting revelation for a team that picked up a former first round pick off his rookie deal. He has only taken 34 corner three-point attempts in his 4-year NBA career, accounting for just 6.8% of all three-point attempts. He’s shot an unimportant 32.4% on such shots, up nearly 5% compared to his total three-point attempts, but seeing as how it has been such an insignificant amount, that number could easily fluctuate in either direction.
Luckily for Sullinger, the Raptors have a pretty good track record in getting big men to change their ways and adapt to the modern NBA, where poor long range shooters drift to the corner in hopes of a better life.
Prior to Dwane Casey’s tenure with the Raptors, Amir Johnson took just 4 corner three-point attempts. Once Casey took over, Johnson proceeded to take 33 such shots. While the number is small, it’s a significant increase. More recently, the Raptors turned veteran forward, Luis Scola, into a corner three-point artist. In over 600 games prior to joining the Raptors, Scola took just 24 corner three-pointers, but during his short-lived stint with Toronto, he took 80 attempts from the corner. His percentage on such shots was 47.5%, and while that didn’t withstand in the playoffs as his body broke down, Sullinger might just be primed to pick up where Scola left off from in the regular season.
Sullinger’s offense has been, and quite possibly might continue to be, frustrating at times. His confidence seems to align with offensive polish in some areas, like playmaking out of pick and rolls, yet in others it seems misguided. The Raptors have a very strong culture on the offensive end and a pretty well-defined pecking order. It seems unlikely that Sullinger signed up to disrupt that, and there are indications that he is a heady player and is liked by his teammates, but it’s still something to be aware of heading into the season.
Otherwise, excitement should be on the horizon. Offensively packed units seem to be in the near future and Casey has the ability to do some funky stuff. What kind of numbers can the Raptors offense put up when they go to a frontcourt of Patterson or Carroll and Sullinger? How about Sullinger and a lineup of wings? It is all fascinating stuff that will unravel once October rolls around.