Today’s Fastbreak looks at some of the best bargains in spite of a money crazy NBA free agency period. This edition is on Toronto’s acquisition of Jared Sullinger.
It has been a record-breaking summer on all levels in the NBA, with contracts that have to be seen to be believed being handed out. Guys that once made little more than the mid-level exception now have more money than they know what to do with, as their salaries have jumped to eight-figure sums.
Other players haven’t been so fortunate. Perhaps because of injuries; perhaps because of reputation. Or just maybe it’s that they haven’t quite gotten the appreciation they deserve.
Whatever the reasoning, there are those who haven’t quite gotten the money their talents deserve, and as a result, some teams have gotten lucky, picking themselves up a serious bargain contract.
Jared Sullinger was one of those players picked up for what can be considered less than market value when he signed for the Toronto Raptors almost two weeks into NBA Free Agency. The former Boston Celtics forward inked a one-year contract for the mid-level exception, which ended up being in the $5.6 million range.
WE THE NORTH #0
— Jared Sullinger (@Jared_Sully0) July 11, 2016
From a financial perspective this may have been to some disappointment for the Ohio State draftee, but this is nothing new. Concerns about the long-term durability of his back led to the once projected lottery pick slipping to the very lucky Celtics with the 21st pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Sullinger certainly delivered in his four years in Boston. He averaged 11.1 ppg on 44 percent shooting, 7.7 rpg and 1.8 apg in 24.9 mpg during that span. One of the issues in his tenure was the 70 games missed in his four seasons, which is between 17-18 per year.
It was a slightly bitter end once 2015-16 came to a close, with the Celtics pulling their qualifying offer for the forward and Sullinger even favoriting tweets from fans calling him out of shape or fat. The star acquisition of Al Horford seemed to seal his fate with the team, though the Celtics can hardly be blamed for such a decision considering their new man’s talent.
His presence will be missed in Boston though, as former teammates were quick to praise his impact on the team.
“He’s a great guy first of all. He’s a great person to have in the locker room with the jokes,” Terry Rozier told the Boston Herald during Summer League. “He’s definitely a guy that you’ll notice if he’s not around. Obviously you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And I know he’ll be fine. He works hard, he’s a great person off the court.”
This will fit well with the hard-working, tough style Dwane Casey has built in Toronto. The Raptors have a dire need at the power forward spot. Sullinger brings scoring and rebounding that will prove very useful to the Canadian franchise.
“We are delighted that Jared chose to join the Raptors,” said Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri. “He provides us with another experienced front court player that can rebound and score.”
When it’s considered that Timofey Mozgov will earn $16 million, Jeff Green $15 million, Dwight Powell and Trevor Booker $9.25 million per year, Sullinger’s below $6 million is a relative steal. Unfortunately though, it seems as if the forward and small-ball center has been a victim of lineups going smaller, at least in Boston.
Brad Stevens utilized smaller lineups particularly in 2015-16, and it was Sullinger’s minutes that took a hit. After playing around 27.0 mpg the 2 seasons beforehand, it dropped to 23.6 last year in the regular season and just 13.5 in the playoffs. It seems Sullinger’s fate was mostly sealed before the season was done.
His inability to improve from deep was a problem and it was perhaps why he was used less at the four. Sullinger played 60 percent of his minutes there in 2014-15, but only 14 percent last year and the rest at center. Being only a 28-percent shooter from the perimeter just wasn’t enough when the Celtics needed a four to stretch the floor.
Sullinger’s difficulty with staying in optimum shape and keeping his weight down also drew criticism from fans and analysts. Despite starting the season in shape thanks to working out with the renowned John Lucas, Sullinger gained weight as the season went on. Perhaps it is no coincidence his minutes dwindled as his conditioning did.
He did a lot to alleviate the aforementioned health concerns, completing 81 of the 82 games last season. The big man is also a supreme rebounder, ranking in at 12th in the NBA (of players who logged 1000 minutes or more) with 12.7 rebounds per 36 minutes.
Something that may surprise those who don’t watch a lot of Celtics or Sullinger in particular is that he has improved as a team defender. Last season, he logged 3.6 defensive win shares, which is good for 22nd in the NBA. That can only help a Raptors team who slipped defensively last season as a unit, and has also lost lynchpin Bismack Biyombo.
Sullinger can produce on both ends, and in February 2014 he won Eastern Conference Player of the Week after posting 20.3 ppg, 12.7 rpg and 1.7 bpg. There is a brilliant player inside Sullinger waiting for the right situation.
It’s also more than likely his best basketball lies ahead of him — at age 24, he appears able to put his injury problems behind him. Another key will be keeping his conditioning up, and if he can do that he will likely attract more money next summer.
Sullinger was frank when asked about his excitement in coming to Toronto, and revealed a former Raptor had sway in his decision to come North.
“Amir (Johnson) said it’s a beautiful city, he didn’t want to leave, and he said that the fans are unbelievable,” said Sullinger. “He said Toronto made him who he is today. When you hear stuff like that, it means everything.”
His new team is coming off a 56-win season (a franchise record for the Raptors) and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, they’ve improved a gaping hole at the power forward spot and Sullinger has a lot to prove. It’s a match made in heaven, and the potential bruising front court of Valanciunas and Sullinger has the potential to beat up their rivals on both ends.
The Raptors didn’t make a big splash and neither did Sullinger, but a good year for both could mean the doubts that held Toronto’s new man back in 2016 free agency will cease to exist next summer.