The 24-year-old big man made his debut for the Raptors in their Wednesday night loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
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While that outcome was disappointing, Sullinger’s brief appearance provided encouragement for Raptors fans.
Playing just 14 minutes, Sullinger recorded eight points and three rebounds on 4-of-10 shooting. While not known as a defender, he provides a toughness and experience that Pascal Siakam doesn’t possess yet.
Despite his physical limitations, he played nearly 24 minutes per game for a top-four team defense last season with the Boston Celtics, a defense that is now ranked 20th this season despite replacing Sullinger with a better individual defender in Al Horford.
There’s something to be said for having a player that can play well within a defensive system. That’s something Toronto’s big man rotation has been short on so far this season.
There are other areas where Sullinger will help Toronto beyond his toughness and experience. The Raptors currently rank 19th in rebound rate as a team. Last season Sullinger ranked 20th in rebound rate and is an elite defensive rebounder.
Defensive rebounding is and overlooked important part of team defense. Part of why Boston has struggled defensively has been their inability to prevent second chances. Toronto currently ranks 15th in defensive efficiency and Sullinger’s rebounding may be a key to turning that around.
One interesting thing to not about Sullinger’s return was that the bulk of his minutes came at the center position. It’s possible that this was a way to ease him into the lineup after foot surgery. Mobility and conditioning will be the biggest concern with his return.
Playing Sullinger at the 5 can help prevent him from being exposed by quicker power forwards. It’s worth noting that Sullinger played 86 percent of his minutes last season at center, per basketball reference.
So while Toronto’s biggest need is at the 4, there may be an adjustment period as he transitions to that role.
The most likely role for Sullinger will be one of a Swiss army knife. I would expect the team to stick with their plan of starting him at power forward next to Jonas Valanciunas. However, as the game progresses he’ll likely end up playing small ball center next to Patrick Patterson.
This will impact the minutes for both Siakam and Lucas Nogueira. While Nogueira’s play still warrants minutes, the versatility of Sullinger-Patterson lineups could take over as one of the Raptors’ most successful looks.
In the game against the Sixers, Sullinger’s intelligence off ball was easy to see. Two of his baskets came by identifying soft spots within the defense. One example of this was his first-quarter basket off the pass from DeMarre Carroll. (You can view the play here).
This play is a classic example of the intelligence of Sullinger. While he is an absolute brick wall setting a screen, as he approaches he is taking note of how the defense is reacting.
When Robert Covington moves off of Sullinger to hedge the ball handler, Sullinger immediately dives towards the basket before the switch can occur. Carroll reads the play and finds him for an easy basket.
This is a dimension to the Raptors offense that has been missing and will help make life easier for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
With Sullinger playing for a contract, the Raptors can expect him to try and make up for lost time. Despite missing half the season, he appeared to be in good shape for his debut. While he will be on a minutes restriction for the near future, the Raptors will need him to contribute in a hurry.
Nogueira is currently out with a concussion. In addition to that, Carroll sustained a head injury against the Sixers. No Carroll takes away a power forward option for a Raptors team that is currently without Patrick Patterson.
Sullinger will help a Raptors team in desperate need of bodies. But as he regains his comfort, look for him to assume a significant role on a Raptors team that’s already very good. While he isn’t a star, his strengths address several needs for this Raptors roster.