There’s a lot of negativity floating around the Boston Celtics corners of the internet, and understandably so. But, as Jordan outlined for you a couple days ago, there’s at least one bright spot on the horizon: Jared Sullinger is coming back pretty soon.
As you probably already know, the Boston Celtics were an awful rebounding team last year, 29th in the NBA in total rebounds. Interestingly, the C’s were middle of the pack (13th) in defensive rebounding, meaning the offensive rebounding numbers were so low, they dragged the total rebounds deep down into the muck (something Doc Rivers’ defensive gameplan is famous for being OK with).
For some faster-paced teams, this might not have been as much of an issue, but the Celtics were 16th in pace. Fewer offensive rebounds means fewer shot attempts in fewer possessions, which meant that the field goal percentages needed to be excellent. The percentages were fine (.506 eFG%, sixth overall), but few would argue that the Celtics didn’t get killed on the glass, particularly the offensive glass, and the rebounding certainly hurt Boston at times.
Anybody can get an offensive rebound every once in a while. Just ask Jeff Green who inexplicably ended up with 55 of them this season, despite being a notoriously mediocre rebounder. But to get offensive rebounds consistently, like Sullinger did last season, players need a combination of determination, intelligence, anticipation and athleticism.
Yes, athleticism. Sullinger, though not particularly quick or springy, is very strong, and strength is an athletic trait. Perhaps more importantly, strength is an athletic trait that won’t necessarily be affected by his back surgery, at least not long term. But we’ll get to that in a little bit.
Let’s start with some numbers. In just 48 of Boston’s 81 regular season games, Sullinger gobbled up 92 offensive rebounds, which added up to just over 14% of all offensive rebounds the entire team pulled down for the entire regular season. The only Celtic to grab more was Brandon Bass, who pulled down 129 offensive boards in 1,300 more minutes.
Sullinger’s offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of available offensive rebounds Sullinger could have grabbed when he was in the game) was, as you might imagine, far and away the highest on Boston’s roster. His 12.6% would have been tied for 11th in the NBA, had Sully been able to finish the season. By way of comparison, Minnesota Timberwolves’ star Kevin Love had an offensive rebounding rate of 11.6% in 2011-’12. In fact, only 17 other rookies since the 1999-’00 season managed offensive rebounding rates of 12.6% or higher, and each one has either achieved some modicum of success in the league or looks to be a promising prospect (names with potential like Andre Drummond and names with established rebounding success like Anderson Varejao leap out at first glance).
Going through all of Sullinger’s offensive rebounds last season (as listed by MySynergySports.com), very few were the result of long bounces and luck. In fact, the majority were the result of excellent positioning during the shot, a series of tips to keep the ball alive, or some combination of the two. The following graph shows how many of Sully’s boards were a result of good position and how many were a result of tipping the ball to himself, and a few other categories.
First things first: You’ll notice that the values here don’t add up to 92, Sullinger’s final offensive rebound tally. There are two reasons for this: First, some of his tip rebounds actually counted for two or three offensive boards in his final tally, but here we just totaled them together. Second, Synergy wasn’t able to load a couple of his rebounds, so I was unable to classify them. Still, the sample size here (76) is more than enough to make up for the one or two unclassified ones.
Let’s break down these categories individually.
We’ll bury the lede a little bit and work in reverse. A few times, Sullinger missed a shot and had the presence of mind to go flying in after it right away. This isn’t a reliable way to grab a lot of offensive boards since it can be difficult to gauge where the ball is going after it hits the hoop, but it worked on occasion.
These are much more common for Sully in conjunction with position rebounds. Occasionally, defenders who have solid box-out position on Sullinger end up with not-so-solid position after a couple of…bumps. Unfortunately, he received some serious rookie treatment last year from the officials, who usually caught him doing it (and occasionally thought they caught him when they actually didn’t).
Because of the foul calls, these less-legal boards were infrequent. Much more common were rebounds like this one.
This is beautiful offensive rebounding. Sullinger first sees where the ball is going to come off the rim. He then positions himself nicely and applies enough pressure to Taj Gibson so that when the Bulls’ big man leaps for the ball (incidentally, leaping a lot higher than Sully), he ends up jumping away from it so that Sullinger can come down with it easily. He grabs it, lays it in and absorbs the contact.
These, perhaps more than any other, are a product of effort. If you have ever done a plyometric workout, you know how tiring it is to repeatedly jump up in the air in rapid succession. Tip rebounds require the mental strength to push through that and keep working for the ball. Fortunately, Sullinger has that strength.
This kind of work on the offensive glass can negate the superior length and vertical athleticism of certain players (Tristan Thompson in this example). They might be able to outreach Sullinger, but as long as he can keep batting the ball around, he still has a chance to keep it alive and come down with it. It’s an impressive amount of willpower.
Sullinger has also shown a good sense of when to tip the ball off the backboard (which, as previously mentioned, bolstered his offensive rebounding stats a bit, since each time he tipped it off the board, it counted as a new rebound). The following is an example of the type of rebound that counted for more rebounds than we totaled here. It also demonstrates a pretty significant amount of effort.
Again, Sullinger is keeping it alive, but this time his tip was less about negating another player’s athleticism and more about just keeping the play alive. Jeremy Lin does a pretty good job of getting up and preventing an easy tip-in initially. But Lin, who is obviously shorter and lighter than Sully, can’t be expected to compete for the rebound afterward, and with all of his teammates out out of position to help, it’s an easy basket.
Which leaves us the fun category…
Sullinger gets rebounding position very, very well. The term “a nose for the ball” seems like one of those sports cliches that really means nothing (like “a dynamic player”), but he really does seem to have an instinctive ability to put himself in the right place at the right time.
Here’s a still frame that demonstrates the kind of positioning we are talking about. In the play leading up to it, Sullinger cut down the middle looking for a pass as Kevin Garnett squared himself for a shot. Garnett took a long two instead, but Sully continued rolling to the basket, getting underneath Charlotte’s rebounders. This made for an easy rebound, thanks to his perfect positioning.
Having beaten three Bobcats to the rebound, Sullinger finds himself swarmed and is unable to get the putback, so he wisely pulls it out and resets. But the willingness to remain under the basket and go for the second opportunity was something the Celtics were sorely lacking this year.
In the next video, we see Sullinger again positioning himself well, this time in transition.
The play starts with an atypical breakdown in San Antonio’s defense. Rondo has two streaking posts (if you want to call Sullinger’s fast-breaking “streaking”) and a wing 3-point shooter (if you want to call this year’s version of JET a “shooter”). San Antonio, somewhat discombobulated, has just two defenders to contest these options.
Rondo tosses an unusually bad lob to Wilcox who can barely reach out and knock it off the backboard. Fortunately, as you can see in the picture above, Sullinger never stopped tracking Rondo and just kept running toward the basket, playing the ball off the backboard and getting the lay-in.
In this final video, Sullinger takes advantage of his defender helping on Rondo’s drive.
As soon as Sullinger’s defender turns his back, Sully moves toward the basket. Rondo’s shot is off, but with only James Harden (who also needs to cover Courtney Lee) to try to take the board away from him, Sullinger has a layup.
So what does all of this mean? That depends on Sullinger’s health, of course. He has told multiple sources, including our editor emeritus Jay King, that his back is 100% fixed, which might be a little much to expect next year. Fortunately, it’s not explosive athleticism that the Celtics will need from Sullinger. It’s strength, dogged determination and his impressive basketball IQ. Those attributes aren’t likely to be gone in the near future.
That’s something to look forward to.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.