Sullinger's defense impressive against proven centers

The conversation on Jared Sullinger's excellent performance this season is dominated by two aspects of his game: We've come to know Sullinger as a great rebounder, and he hasn't disappointed us in that department, grabbing 23.4% of the defensive rebounds available. On top of his consistency in rebounding, he has really shone offensively: He scored 10.9 points per 36 minutes last year. This year, that number was 18.4. That's a huge difference. Oh, these are just quantitative parts of his play, he's been passing the eye test too with his hustle play, energy and presence. (On a side note, I really miss Tommy points...)

However, one really impressive aspect of Sully's play is his defense, something I wanted to write about last week after watching him defend Roy Hibbert of the Pacers. He really grabbed my attention that game, yet I've decided to withhold my praise for him based on just one game and wait to see how he fares starting at the center position. He's played against two more proven centers of the league since, namely Big Al and Al Horford, and I stand corrected: He's been great, and the stats back him up too.

Here's the thing: Sullinger was never bad on defense. In fact, he ranked 20th last year in ppp allowed (0.74). However, there were quite a few reasons to doubt his true defensive capabilities. First of all, his lack of athleticism made him sort of inept at defending P&R Roll Man. He also didn't start many games last year, which meant that he played against second tier power forwards and centers, oh, and a Future HoF defensive mastermind was mostly by his side to save him. Therefore, it made sense to lower one's expectations of Sullinger when it came to defense.

That's why I was pleasantly surprised when I watched him defend Roy Hibbert. See, even though Hibbert is mostly known for his defense, he still shoots 47.6% and is productive in the low post where he converts 41.9% of the opportunities. However, playing against Sullinger, he only scored 1-4 in the post, including the missed dunk attempt to the left. Maybe most impressively, Sully forced Hibbert to turn the ball over 3 times in the post.

Sullinger's defense continued against Al Horford, whose season average of 54.4% FG was rendered ineffective: Horford tried to score 6 times against Sully, succeeding only twice, meanwhile offering pleasant sights such as the one below. Sully continued his great D against one of the most polished offensive bigs of the game, Big Al of the Hornets, last night. Jefferson also went 2-6 against Sullinger.

Two things make Sully's defense really attention worthy: First of all, he is playing against centers who are all taller than he is, and he isn't even in game shape yet. Secondly, being someone who committed 6.2 fouls per 36 minutes last year (in other words, he'd foul out if he played 34.8 minutes on average) he has learned to be effective without fouling his opponent, cutting that number to 3.9 fouls only.

I'd recommend you pay special attention to Sullinger's matchups next time you watch a Celtics game. He'll most probably play against Kosta Koufos, and given his performance against these three really proven centers, he should have one hell of a night.

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