Jared Sullinger is the epitome of okay. Monday's signing of the former Celtic was a more-exciting-than-expected end to the Raptors' silence this month, but it doesn't exactly crackle with potential the way the low-key addition of Bismack Biyombo did a year ago.
That's fine. The Raptors are a 56-win team returning a core that should experience internal growth. A handful of prospects, some of whom are ready to contribute meaningfully this season, are dazzling at summer league as well. This wasn't a roster in need of a flashy upgrade -- the pantry is stocked with enough talent of all shapes and sizes that the Raptors should be able to ward off a significant regression in 2016-17.
Sullinger should modestly boost the Raptors potency, despite being a somewhat awkward fit in the big man rotation. It remains amazing that Toronto was so consistently good this year despite Luis Scola's presence often derailing the opening six or so minutes of games. Replacing those 76 starts and 21+ minutes a night with "Not Luis Scola" is about all you want from a guy making the Mid-Level Exception on a one-year deal.
Sullinger can be more than just a warm body, though. While he never turned into the kind of low-post force his high school career seemed to portend, he does have some highly functional NBA skills. Thanks to a hefty posterior, Sullinger is an awesome rebounder. He uses his behind in a pre-weight-loss Kyle Lowry kind of way to carve out space and haul down boards. He's almost immovable when he establishes box-out position, and missed shots tend to just fall into his arms while opponents helplessly watch from behind.
While the loss of Biyombo isn't impossible to compensate for, his prolific rebounding was a key reason why the Raptors ranked seventh in both Defensive Rebounding Rate (77.7%) and Total Rebounding Rate (51.6) last season. Sullinger's ability to scoop up boards will help mitigate the drop-off Biyombo's exit will probably trigger. He averaged 12.7 rebounds per 36 minutes over 81 games last season.
One thing Biyombo brought to the table that Sullinger certainly won't be able to replicate is passable perimeter defense. Toronto's newest pickup isn't winning any All-Star Game halftime referee races -- his wide stature is great for boxing out and makes him an inert post defender, but there are few players in the league that Sullinger can guard one-on-one away from the paint. It's just not his game.
In these parts, Raptor fans grew accustomed to heavy-footed defense from the starting four this year. Scola's greatest weakness as a Raptor was his lack of mobility, a sore spot that was amplified when paired with Jonas Valanciunas. For similar reasons, the fit between Sullinger and Toronto's rising star centre might be an imperfect one. Valanciunas has mobility issues himself, and it became painfully clear after a full regular season and playoff run that he excels alongside a more rangy front court partner. The Scola-Valanciunas partnership yielded ugly results that were fodder for nitpickers all year -- a 5.9 NET Rating over 909 minutes on the floor together paints a clear picture of an ugly scenery. Contrast that with the +16.3 NET Rating Valanciunas posted with Patterson on his hip and there's just no debate to be had.
Sullinger definitely skews closer to Scola than Patterson on the speed spectrum; they may in fact occupy the same rung. Any anticipation fans have about a complete and effective starting lineup with Sullinger now in the fold should be tempered until we see how Dwane Casey will assemble his rotation. Sullinger might offer enough offense and rebounding to prop up a Patterson-less second unit just enough to make Casey comfortable rolling out the Lowry-DeRozan-Carroll-Patterson-Valanciunas opening unit. That fivesome should theoretically eviscerate defenses -- and was one of a handful of post-season lineups that was a positive for Toronto (+5.7 NET Rating in 96 minutes) -- but Casey could only use it sparsely during the regular season due to injury and his commitment to playing Patterson as a co-sixth man with the killer bench mob.
If Casey's dedication to a reserve version of Patterson remains, that puts Sullinger into essentially the exact same role Scola occupied last season -- a starter that is almost never a finisher. Given his profile as a player, similarly underwhelming results from the starting front court might be in order if Sullinger is part of it.
Scola's main job on offense was simple: spot up in the corners and try to knock down the open looks the defense would inevitably give him. And he did it well! Scola's evolution into a 40 percent three-point shooter on 3.5 attempts per game was one of the more pleasant surprises in a Raptors season loaded with them. Still, even though he converted with impressive regularity, defenses didn't respect Scola like a typical dead-eye shooter. He was the least of all the evils in Toronto's potent drive-and-kick offense.
Sullinger won't get that respect, either. You can't say he doesn't try. Over four seasons he's attempted exactly 500 threes, nearly 400 of which came in his second and third seasons before scratching his itchy trigger finger this past year. Despite the volume, Sullinger has never locked in from distance. Last year he shot just 28.2 percent from outside, and he's just 138-of-500 in 258 career games.
He also tends to get a little mid-range-happy. Shots like this one are both maddening and routine:
Sullinger's threes came from everywhere but the corners last year, and his shot chart on the whole looks like a DeMar DeRozan-Valanciunas Venn diagram. Because the Raptors' offense is so dependent on clear driving and rolling lanes, Sullinger could stand to clog up the pipes if he remains committed to this sort of shot selection:
While it may not happen, Sullinger's best role on this team will likely be as a reserve who pairs up next to a more fleet-footed centre like Jakob Poeltl (who has flashed his highly touted ability to hedge and recover on the pick and roll in summer league). No, a Sullinger-Poeltl front court tandem isn't thrilling considering one is a rookie and the other is a pseudo-stretch big whose game doesn't really stretch on either end. The bench would almost certainly be in line for a decline compared to the numbers it produced in 2015-16. But Patterson is tremendously effective on both sides of the ball, and any unit that loses him will suffer. The trade off of having a steamroller of a starting lineup could make the depressed reserve output worth it.
No matter what flaws Sullinger possesses, it's hard to be discouraged by his addition to the team. Scola was just about unplayable once he started missing his threes down the stretch, and even if Sullinger isn't a ground-covering defensive multi-tool, his low centre of gravity makes him a solid interior defender. With a more corner-focused approach to his threes, maybe the Raptors can incite an uptick in his long distance shooting to a point where he can at least resemble Scola's 2015-16 run of accuracy.
And at the very least, he brings some stability and insurance to a front court in flux. Behind Valanciunas and Patterson there is little versatility and a lot of what-ifs. Sullinger can flip flop between a four and a functional five more seamlessly than Scola could, and he'll decrease Casey's need to rely on unproven rookies and Bebe to play meaningful backup minutes.
Those expecting a Biyombo-like boom on a one-year value-rehabbing deal will probably be disappointed. But Sullinger represents an upgrade, even if it's only a small one, to one of the weakest elements of a 56-win team.