Jared Sullinger’s slide down the NBA draft board was hard to watch for a lot of reasons.
The former Ohio State star is a good guy. He’s bright. He works hard. He returned to school for his sophomore season, which demonstrated a lack of greed, even though he acted primarily in his best interests. Many talented freshmen see only dollar signs. Sullinger didn’t.
There is a lot to like about the Northland graduate, and his loss of draft stature from one season to the next is unfortunate, in part because he has done nothing to deserve it. If he has a bad back, as NBA doctors claim and he denies, that’s not his fault. If he’s not athletic enough to suit some NBA suitors, he’s not to blame for that, either.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been drafted before the 21st pick, where he was taken by the Boston Celtics last night, but simple reality didn’t make the watching any easier.
Were there really 20 players in this draft class ahead of Sullinger? Is Royce White of Iowa State a better pick? How about Andrew Nicholson of St. Bonaventure? Some guy from France?
There was a time when it seemed as if this might be Sullinger’s draft. The 6-foot-9 forward had a freshman year that was just short of spectacular, good enough to earn first-team All-America honors. He would have been an NBA lottery pick then — some even suggested that he would go in the top five — and when he returned to Ohio State, there were those who thought he might end his sophomore season as the national player of the year.
He was a load for opposing defenders to handle, a tenacious rebounder who, even when he had one of his shots rejected, often got the ball back and scored. He grew up in a basketball family and knew how to play the first day he set foot on campus.
But if his freshman season was about all the things he could do, his sophomore season seemed to continually focus on what he couldn’t. Expectations were through the roof, and he couldn’t seem meet them, in part because of back spasms that lingered for much of the season.
He was good enough to be a first-team All-American again and even got his team to the Final Four. But the conversations about him always seemed to focus on his lack of athleticism, as if every good basketball player on the planet had be built like LeBron James.
There are plenty of NBA players who might be considered as Sullinger comparables in an athletic sense. Think Zach Randolph, Elton Brand, Kevin Love and Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a group that shouldn’t scare anybody away.
There are no guarantees that Sullinger will be a star in the NBA, but then there never are. Even some top picks bomb: Michael Olowokandi (1998) and Kwame Brown (2001) are salient examples. Darko Milicic’s choice as No. 2 overall in 2003 behind James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shows that scouts don’t always know what they think they do.
Sullinger’s gradual fall accelerated after ESPN reported that NBA doctors had “red-flagged” him for unspecified back issues that could shorten his career. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to be too critical of teams for being gun-shy, even though his success in what might have been the nation’s best basketball conference would indicate that his health is less of a risk than the talent level of many of the players picked ahead of him.
That some Ohio State fans remain skeptical of Sullinger is harder to understand. He is only the third two-time first-team All-American in school history, following three-timer Jerry Lucas and two-timer Jim Jackson. The Buckeyes were 65-11 the past two seasons with Sullinger as their best player. He represented the program with class.
Life isn’t fair. It never has been. But Sullinger deserved better, better than senseless criticism and a 21st pick that the Celtics called “low risk, high reward.”
Hard as this was to watch, it wasn’t an end but a beginning. It’s good to know that Sullinger still has a chance to have the last laugh.
Written by: Bob Hunter