Throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, the Raptors had a glaring need for a reliable power forward, and eventually this need caught up to them at many points in the playoffs. With all due respect to Luis Scola, who has had a very good NBA career, he was a shell of his former self by the end of the year and was not the answer for what the Raptors needed for the starting lineup. The other primary option was Patrick Patterson, and he was one of the more frustrating Raptors last season. His spacing and smart defense were so vital and important, but some nights giving up an open Patterson look was the optimal choice on defense for the opposition. Patterson did a lot of the little things right, but sometimes your big man needs to be able to get a key block, more than four rebounds a game, and a playoff 3-point percentage closer to his norm to add to the little things if you want to win a championship. Patterson maximized his talent, but the team needed reinforcements at the four.
Bbefore Jared Sullinger signed with the Raptors, the Raptors were looking like they were going to ask Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl to work at the PF position with Patterson, who would have likely had to start games. Then Sullinger signed with the Raptors. and he has big shoes to fill, despite “only” getting paid $6M to join the team. Not only does Sullinger need to fill in the void of Scola, but he also has to help fill in the void of Bismack Biyombo. Sullinger is a guy who can probably provide an upgrade at the position to start, and a unique twist to the bench lineup as a backup center.
There is a lot to say about Sullinger, and I have decided that I want to mention a lot, so here is a list of 5 things I wanted to discuss about the Raptors new starting four.
1. Remember how great of a rebounder Biyombo was? Sullinger may have some weight issues in his past and not look as athletic as Biyombo, but the guy is basically the same rebounder that Biyombo is. Last season, Sullinger averaged 12.7 rebounds per-36 minutes, and 17.1 rebounds per-100 possessions. Biyombo averaged 13.0 and 18.7. These are remarkably similar rebounding numbers. A positive to Sullinger is that he sometimes can do different things with his rebounds. Sullinger is fantastic at putting back offensive rebounds on the offensive end through contact, and he is very capable of making long range outlet passes, which is something the Raptors really lacked last year. With the athleticism of Norman Powell and Terrence Ross off the bench, Sullinger’s ability to get a rebound and throw a long pass up court is going to give opposing teams fits. Sullinger and Valanciunas both ranked in the top 20 in total rebound percentage, and with good defenders like Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll out there, there will be a lot of lower percentage shots, with very rare opportunities for a putback with these two anchoring the paint in the starting five.
2. Sullinger has had weight issues in the past. At one point last year he weighed 300 pounds. The great thing about this one-year contract is that Sullinger, who is looking skinny, will likely be very motivated to stay in shape with all of this money being thrown around the NBA. Sullinger was completely ineffective last playoffs and was not relied upon by Brad Stevens because he was being heavily exploited in the pick and roll by the Atlanta Hawks, in part because of his slow rotations. If he can stay in shape, it’ll probably make him millions of extra dollars next offseason. Through one preseason game, Sullinger looks to have his weight under control, and he looked very mobile compared to the playoffs. Hopefully he keeps his conditioning under control this year.
3. Sullinger is a little bit of an irrational confidence guy. He shoots a lot of open threes, and open long twos that defenses will give him in the pick and pop game. We saw DeMar DeRozan a few times getting a screen from Sullinger and get doubled in the first preseason game and kick it out to Sullinger, who would then have an open look. He is not really a great shooter, but he considers himself one, and that will keep defenses honest. Hopefully the Raptors can create some sort of Scola-like shooting improvement, as Sullinger has not shot over 29% from 3 in any of his four NBA seasons but rarely took the easier corner threes. I still think it is important that he has this pick and pop ability, and we saw the Raptors lineups flow much better with Patterson, even when he struggled with his three pointers. Biyombo would also force a lot of doubles, but when he rolled to the basket, it just created a lot of congestion inside and made it difficult for the ball handlers to find an open shot. Sullinger can also put the ball on the floor from the perimeter and drive a little bit, which is something Patterson sometimes does, but not effectively. The spacing is valuable, but if he is not going to shoot more than 30-33%, which is unlikely, it could be frustrating to see him shoot the ball a lot on some nights. Hopefully he can become a corner three shooter, as that is an unexplored area of his range.
4. Some fancy stats are always nice to evaluate a player’s impact. The Celtics had a +5 net rating when Sullinger was on the court last year, and a +1 net rating when he was off the court. Part of this might be playing almost 85% of his minutes with Isaiah Thomas, but the Celtics still had a +1 Net rating with Sullinger on the court and Thomas off the court, according to NBAwowy. Another interesting stat is Nylon Calculus’ DRE stat, which talks about a player’s net impact on the court. Sullinger had a +6.7 DRE at the five last season, compared to his +3.0 DRE at the four. Scola, by comparison, posted a -0.7 Dre/36, while Sullinger posted a +0.7 Dre/36. He is obviously an upgrade on Scola, and the numbers support that. Sullinger was a better player, by these numbers, at center last year, and I think he will thrive with the second unit, with his spacing and rebounding ability, playing against other team’s benches, and his ability to throw outlet passes that will constantly stretch out a defense and force guys to not crash for offensive rebounds. I have a feeling that the Sullinger-Patterson combo will be a favorite in the analytics department.
5. Finally, here are my predictions for Sullinger. I believe he will improve the starting five from last year, especially on the glass and with his improved post defense, though not drastically on offense. I believe he will also really help the bench. I think Dwane Casey will rely on him heavily as this is a team in “Win Now” mode and I think that means Siakam and Poeltl will not see the court too often besides blowouts, and maybe some really short minute rotations on certain nights, though it looks like Siakam may be the fourth big in the rotation right now. Statistically, something like 27 minutes, 13 points 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 44% FG, 30% 3 PT feels right.
Here’s hoping Sullinger will stay fit and motivated or a lot of what I wrote will go out the door. He can be a really effective NBA player, and a guy that could easily turn into a fan favorite if he maximizes his potential this year with Toronto.Follow @raptorsrepublic