This time last year the debate surrounding the New Orleans Pelicans was whether Omer Asik could reasonably fill Andrew Bogut's role with the Golden State Warriors. None of our writers thought it was a realistic expectation, but the hope was Asik could regain the form he had as a starter with the Houston Rockets.
Spoiler alert: Asik did not.
However, if you squint just a little bit, there is a big man on the market this summer who can do a number of things that Bogut does with the Warriors. No, Jared Sullinger does not check off every box Andrew Bogut does (read: rim protection) but in a number of other areas he is quite similar.
To begin, it is important to define just what Bogut does for the Warriors at both ends of the floor. Bogut is a superb facilitator from the high post and sets brutal screens for the whirling dervish of player movement that is the hallmark of the Golden State attack. An easy way to measure this is through his assist rate: 15.4% and 14.8% in the last two seasons. Sullinger's assist rate the last two seasons, in an equally uptempo offense, clock in at 14.2% and 15.5%. Not bad, especially when considering his turnover rate is half of Bogut's; 10.4% compared to 21.6% this season for example.
The similarities do not end with simply distributing the ball.
Both big men are voracious on the defensive glass, gobbling up over 18% of all available rebounds. Just 20 big men who logged 1,400 minutes last year collected 18% of available rebounds. Of those 20 only Pau Gasol had a higher assist rate (21.7%) than Sullinger (15.5%) or Bogut (14.8%). Sullinger's 10.4% turnover rate also ranks best among that group. Large human beings who can rebound and pass the ball are extremely rare.
Running into a Jared Sullinger screen is probably like running into a queen size mattress.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 16, 2016
Sullinger was a key component to the Celtics, starting 73 games and playing in 81 of 82. In the nine game he did not start, Boston went 3-6 (.333 winning percentage), in the other 73 they were 45-28 (.616 winning percentage). Boston posted a +4.3 net rating with the big man on the floor and a less inspiring +1.7 net rating when he went to the bench. In the process the defense got slightly worse (101.3 On, 100.6 Off) and the offense was significantly better (105.6 On, 102.3 Off).
Not a rim protector
Here we arrive at the massive difference between Sullinger and Bogut. Andrew Bogut is a superb rim protector, ranking 5th in points saved per 36 minutes according to Seth Partnow's rim protection statistics over at Nylon Calculus. Jared Sullinger ranks 70th between Willy Cauley-Stein and DeMarcus Cousins. (Of note, still ahead of Anthony Davis who ranks 84th.) Partnow's statistic includes not only how well team's shot at the rim but the contest rate where Sullinger (27.4%) pales compared to Bogut (36.2%).
Jared Sullinger is not a rim protector, but he should be considered ideally suited to guard the kind of big men the Pelicans hope to keep off of Anthony Davis. If Davis eventually develops into the shot blocking menace we all expected out of Kentucky, pairing the two together will work.
Shooting and space to consider
There are areas where Sullinger far exceeds Bogut as well. Bogut cannot shoot. The last two seasons at Golden State he has shot 50% from the foul line. That low rate makes it difficult to play him in crunch time, although the Warriors have the luxury of not needing to thanks to the Death Lineup. If anything, Sullinger's ability to shoot is what is driving down his efficiency. Last year he ranked 9th in the league between 20-24 feet, converting 44.9% of his looks, falling just behind Kyle Korver. Take a step in or out and Sullinger's percentage plummets.
So many bricked 3-pointers and "in-between" jumpers pushes Sully's overall percentages down. A big culprit: tons of post-ups in the cramped space of Boston's offense. Sullinger used 160 possessions in the post and scored just 0.82 points per possession while shooting a dreadful 41.3% from the floor. Anthony Davis used 262, scored 0.78, and shot 35.9% in comparison.
Initial concerns about Sullinger's ability to finish in and over NBA length appear misguided; he's shot 61.2% in the restricted area over his career and had a relatively low 6.2% of his shot attempts blocked last year. As expected his rebounding and suction cups for hands have translated over from his days as an All-American at Ohio State. A sky-high basketball IQ drives up his assist numbers while pushing his turnover rate downward. Additionally, what he lacks defensively (explosiveness and height to defend the rim) he makes up for in part with positioning and anticipation.
Cost and obtainability
As expected the good folks over at CelticsBlog rapidly turned against keeping the big man after a poor playoff series versus the Atlanta Hawks. Their focus is on the things Sullinger does not do (hit three pointers, shut down a pair of All-Stars in Paul Millsap and Al Horford) and not on the things he can do (rebound, pass, shoot midrange jump shots). If the Pelicans were in need of a true "stretch four" Sully's fit in New Orleans would be tenuous.
However, I do want to point out that he brings a skill that no one else on our roster has been able to duplicate consistently over the past couple of years. Sully has repeatedly demonstrated that he is able to handle large, strong, bruising centers down low. He always seems to do well against Dwight Howard, against Andre Drummond, and against Pau Gasol, to name a few. In short, he does well against more "traditional" centers, on both ends of the court.
However, New Orleans does not need a stretch four. What they need is a versatile five who can play beside Anthony Davis. The player Wes Howard clearly defines above. Did I mention that Sullinger is just 24 years old and only a year older than Anthony Davis? The Omer Asik experiment has failed, but the need to protect Davis, and ideally find the kind of versatile five that can stay on the floor and punish teams that try to go small, remains.
Sullinger will not come cheap, but if the Celtics get all their ducks in a row in free agency, his restricted status may be a non-factor. In fact, considering what they did on draft night, Sullinger is almost certainly gone. A contract around four years and $50 million or so could get things done. Sullinger has a history with assistant coach Darren Erman to lean on too, so the Pelicans will be one of the more informed potential suitors in free agency.
Betting big on another big man may raise very reasonable concerns. Unlike Asik and Ajinca, this big man is on the upswing of his career and fits far better with Anthony Davis. Don't be scared of the price tag.
Atone for the past mistake of passing on Sullinger to draft Austin Rivers, Dell Demps. Please sign Jared Sullinger this July.