For the Boston Celetics, Jared Sullinger is at once both the biggest unknown and best chance for a huge boost for the 2012-2013 season. Is he, and will he be for the Celtics, the multi-tooled, irresistible offensive force that vacuums up rebounds and herds opponents away from the action? Or will he be the slow footed, earthbound, slightly pudgy, quickly out-of-breath, and under-heighted big man with chronic back pain? The fact that each of these questions is legitimate, and accurately descriptive, suggests that there is a huge over/under on the performance level to be expected, or maybe hoped for, both in this season and those of the future.
Dateline: August 24, 2012––37 days until the start of training camp!
There are some obvious comparisons between Jared’s post-up game and that of former Celtic Al Jefferson. Both are short for a post player but have a plethora of inside moves and the ability to release their shot from a variety of angles creating the uncertainty in the defender that helps them get their shot off against taller opponents.
The similarity breaks down, however, when you examine Sullinger’s zest for contact. His ability to use strength and weight to carve out space, shorten the distance to the basket, and keep the defender off balance are tools that Jefferson didn’t have available. Those same tools, and a keen understanding of position and leverage, also make Jared a far superior rebounder and low post defender.
Another area of difference also in Sully’s favor is his passing. From the high post inside, from the inside out to the perimeter, and from a defensive rebound outlet to the guard, are all areas in which Jared excels. Sullinger’s understanding of the game and eagerness to move the ball are robust improvements over Jefferson, whose talents most will remember made him the centerpiece in the Garnett acquisition. Big Al was mostly a one-trick pony, a slick offensive low-post attacker whose defense and team play lagged far behind his offensive prowess. Jared Sullinger brings quite a lot more to the fray being both better rounded and far more able and willing to use his skills to enhance the play of teammates.
I’ve seen a number of opinions suggesting that Sullinger, even if he gets substantial minutes, will see far fewer touches playing with a second unit alongside Terry, Lee, and Green—all significant offensive threats in their own right. I see a different dynamic developing. If Jared comes into camp in top shape to handle the load, his inside attack might allow the Celtics to play inside-out. Sully’s willingness and ability to pass out to the perimeter and to the other post, would create an attack angle unavailable to Boston in recent memory. Those significant offensive skills of Jason, Courtney, and Jeff would all be amplified by the spacing and timing of and inside threat willingly giving up the ball. This array of talent in the second unit could be quite devastating applied against other team’s backups.
Now Sullinger’s game might sputter against NBA big men. It may take him a while to adjust to finding the clear blue sky without premium leaping ability. Still, he uses both hands and has a myriad of up-and-under, hook and half-hook angles, and turns either way—all the while banging with that body that makes it hard for opponents to gather for their jump or time his moves. If he encounters a real height disadvantage, he has shown the recognition and willingness to pull the taller opponent outside where he can shoot over them or drive around them. While it may take some time for him to adapt, I think he will figure things out rather quickly. By midseason I think he will be a primary asset for the second unit and may see time with the starters as well.
Then again, he may replicate Big Baby’s league leading statistic in getting your own shot blocked and be mostly relegated to the bench. Still, he gets my vote for player most likely to provide an unexpected boost to the Celtics’ season.
Boston, and all points beyond