Sully's Playing the "Best Defensively" of His Career

WALTHAM, Mass. – Jared Sullinger is playing “the best defensively that he’s played” during the Brad Stevens era, according to the Celtics' coach.

Ahead of Tuesday’s practice, Stevens gave a bit more color regarding what, exactly, Sullinger is doing so much better at the defensive end this season.

“All kinds of things,” Stevens commented. “I think he’s very active. I think he’s very good in the pick-and-roll so far. He’s obviously a very good defensive rebounder. He’s made a lot of good plays for our team on defense.”

The numbers support the coach’s claim.

Sullinger is having a career year in multiple defensive categories. He is blocking shots (1.2 per 36 minutes) and grabbing steals (1.8 per 36) and defensive rebounds (27.3 defensive rebound percentage) at a higher rate than he ever has as a pro. His defensive rating of 94 is also far and away his career-best mark; his next-best defensive rating was 102, which he achieved during his rookie season.

It’s very early in the season, which means only a limited sample size exists, but it appears that Sullinger’s offseason efforts have made a major impact on his game.

“Over the summer I did a lot of things: running, conditioning, defensive drills, offensive drills,” Sullinger said. “The work I did is starting to pay off.”

Sullinger, who is officially listed at 280 pounds, has stated that he did not lose a massive amount of weight during the offseason. However, he does feel lighter on his feet.

“I’m just quicker to react,” he said.

As such, Sullinger has been in much better position this season to defend opponents’ shots. He is one of only two Celtics, along with Kelly Olynyk, who are averaging at least 1.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes through three games. Sullinger attributes the statistical surges to his improved reaction speed, instincts and film study.

“Timing,” he said, “and just watching film and knowing what is their favorite move and what they like to go to and try to beat them to the spot.”

The work that sometimes goes unnoticed cannot be overlooked, either. Sullinger is using his girth and strength to knock opponents out of position before they even touch the ball.

“That’s the best thing to do when you’re playing the 4 and the 5 and you’re 6-9 and you’re going against somebody 6-11, 7-foot on a daily basis,” the big man said. “The best thing I can do is use my body and make catches as tough as possible and try to get them out of their comfort zone.”

Sullinger is knocking opponents out of their comfort zone on a regular basis while he’s on the court. Meanwhile, he’s knocking himself into Stevens’ comfort zone when it comes to playing time.

Sullinger has started the second half during each of the past two games. That fact can be attributed in large part to his staunch defense.

Can he maintain this level of defensive play for an entire season? That remains to be seen, but the initial feedback indicates that has turned himself into a legitimate threat at that end of the floor.

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