Why Jared Sullinger Won’t Be a Bust in the NBA
By Brandon Castel
“For all his skill on the low block, he does run into some problems in the post, specifically when he’s going up against a longer defender. He is prone to having his shot blocked, and has trouble trying to score over bigger defenders. He doesn’t show much in terms of vertical explosiveness, being a mostly under the rim player. To his credit, he does a great job pursuing his own misses, as his motor never stops, and he’s often able to convert on his second effort.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Few words have better encapsulated the weaknesses—and strengths—in Jared Sullinger’s game during his two seasons at Ohio State.
Statistically speaking, Sullinger had a monster career with the Buckeyes, even if it only lasted two seasons. That was one more than most expected when the Columbus native arrived on campus two years ago.
All he did with the Buckeyes was lead them to the ‘Sweet Sixteen’ as a freshman and the ‘Final Four’ as a sophomore, while posting All-American numbers for head coach Thad Matta. He averaged more than 17 points a game and nearly 10 rebounds a night, despite injury issues which have caused some concern amongst NBA general managers.
In reality, Sullinger missed only three games in two years (counting the South Carolina game where he played only six minutes). As a beat writer covering the Buckeyes, I saw nearly every one of them.
His weaknesses were undeniable, especially the concern about his ability to score over taller, longer defenders in the post.
“My ability to finish over length,” Sullinger said in a recent interview when asked what he was hoping to show NBA scouts in his pre-draft workouts.
“Everybody says I can’t finish over length, but the college game plan is a little bit different than the NBA game plan.”
The fact he measured in at 6-9 in shoes at the NBA Scouting Combine—which is really the way all the players were measured to fit their previously listed heights—was huge for Sullinger.
It shows he has the height to be a true power forward in the NBA—make no mistake about it, that will be his position. He was never a true center, but that was what he needed to be for the Buckeyes.
Jared Sullinger goes against MSU's Adreian Payne
Photo by Jim Davidson
Officially being 6-9 in shoes, however, doesn’t change the fact Sullinger did struggle against longer defenders like Michigan State’s Adreian Payne and Kansas center Jeff Withey.
In his first meeting with Michigan State this past season, Sullinger scored 17 points but was just 5-15 from the floor with 10 turnovers in a 58-48 loss at home. Sullinger helped the Buckeyes to a 72-70 victory in their second meeting—thanks to a game-winning shot from William Buford—but was just 5-17 from the floor in East Lansing.
Sullinger also had some issues with the length—and overall physical presence—of Josh Harrellson during Ohio State’s 62-60 loss to Kentucky in the tournament during his freshman year.
Not Feeling the Love
Guys like Harrellson are a dime a dozen in the NBA. Only it wasn’t Sullinger being discussed in that opening quote, but Kevin Love, when he was coming out of college after one year at UCLA.
“Lack of athleticism, ideal height, and quickness are criticisms that the big man has faced over the years,” NBA Draft Express wrote back in 2007.
“Yet he continues to prove everyone wrong at every single stage with his incredibly productive play.”
The same can be said of Sullinger, who has overcome any perceived physical limitations with hustle, instinctive rebounding and a high basketball IQ. Despite lingering back and foot issues during his sophomore year, Sullinger carried a young basketball team all the way to the Final Four.
That is exactly how far UCLA went during Love’s one season with the Bruins. He was named consensus first-team All-American and Pac-10 Player of the Year that season. He was taken fifth overall in the NBA Draft with numbers eerily similar to those posted by Sullinger at Ohio State.
Compare Freshmen Seasons:
*Kevin Love at UCLA: 17.5pts, 10.6reb, 1.9ast, .559 fg%, 23 double-doubles
*Sullinger at OSU: 17.2pts, 10.2reb, 1.2ast, .541 fg%, 18 double-doubles
Does that guarantee Sullinger is going to be an NBA superstar like Love at the next level? Certainly not. It took Love a while to become a star in the NBA. He averaged 11 points and nine rebounds as a rookie with Minnesota in 2008, shooting less than 20 percent behind the arc while finishing sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.
But Love continued to work hard, which is something we also know to be true about Sullinger. His second year, he was up to 14 points and 11 rebounds a night, and by year three, he was turning into one of the premier big men in the NBA. He averaged 20 and 15 that season while shooting nearly 42 percent behind the arc.
Can Sullinger be that good?
Or maybe Sullinger will be Sean May, who fizzled out in the NBA because of injury problems after just two seasons with Charlotte. May’s collegiate career took a much different path than Sullinger.
He was a terrible free throw shooter early in his career, and it wasn’t until May’s third season at North Carolina that he started posting numbers (17.5pts, 10.7reb) Sullinger was putting up as a freshman.
One reason I believe Sullinger will be more Love and less May is the fact he proved he can step outside and hit the 15-20 foot jump shot last season. Sullinger also improved his three-point shooting from 25 percent as a freshman to 40 percent as a sophomore.
May never made a single three during his UNC career.
While I don’t think Sullinger will be the next Kevin Love—who averaged 26 and 14 this past year—or even Elton Brand, I do think he can be a successful NBA player. His game compares favorably to guys like Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and even David West, all guys under 6-10 in the NBA.
At 6-9, 240, West has a similar body-type to that of Sullinger. He is a little bit leaner and a little bit tougher than Sullinger—which is something Sully will have to work on in if he’s going to battle down low in the NBA—but what has made West a two-time NBA all-star is his ability to crash the boards and knock down his jump shot.
If Sullinger can do those things at the next level, he could have a similar career to that of West, who has averaged 16 points and 7.2 rebounds a game for the last nine seasons. West went No. 18 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft, but there are probably 10-12 teams who wish they had taken him sooner.
I have a feeling, when we look back at the 2012 NBA Draft, there will be plenty of GM’s who feel the same way about Sullinger.
Fun With Numbers
*Kevin Love 6-10, 260
1yr at UCLA: 17.5pts, 10.6reb, 1.9ast, .559 fg, .354 3p, .767ft
Rookie with MIN: 11.1pts, 9.1reb, .459fb, .105 3p, .789ft
2nd year: 14pts, 11reb, .450fg, .330 3p, .815ft
3rd year: 20.2pts, 15.2reb, .470fg, .417 3p, .850ft
4th: 26.5pts, 13.6reb, .451fb, .387 3pt, .820ft
*Sean May 6-9, 266
Frosh at UNC: 11.4pts, 8.1reb, .472fg, 0% 3p, .575ft
2nd year: 15.2pts, 9.8reb, .462fg, 0% 3p, .689ft
3rd year: 17.5, 10.7, .567fg, 0% 3p, .758ft
Rookie with CHAR: 8.2pts, 4.7reb, .409%fg, 17.3min
2nd Year: 11.9pts, 6.7reb, .500%fg, .768%ft, 23.9min
*David West 6-9, 240
Fresh at X: 18.3pts, 9.8reb, .536fg, .310 3p, .768ft
2nd at X: 20.1pts, 11.8reb, .513fg, .346 3p, .816ft
Rookie with NO: 3.8pts, 4.1reb, .474%fg, 0% 3p, .713% ft, 13.1min, 1 start
2nd year: 6.2pts, 4.3reb, .436fg, .400 3p, .680 ft, 18.4min, 8 starts
3rd year: 17.1pts, 7.4reb, .512fg, .273 3p, .843 ft, 34.1min, 74 starts
*Paul Millsap 6-8, 253
Frosh at LA Tech: 15.6pt, 12.5reb, .587fg, .641 ft
2nd year at LT: 20.4, 12.4, .575fg, .601 ft
3rd year: 19.6pts, 13.3reb, .571 fg, .623 ft
Rookie With Jazz: 6.8pts, 5.1reb, .525 fg, .673 ft, 18min, 1 start
2nd year: 8.1pts, 5.6 reb, .504fg, .677 ft, 20.8min, 2 starts
3rd year: 13.5pts, 8.6reb, .534fg, .699 ft, 30.1min, 38 starts
*Elton Brand 6-9, 253
Frosh at Duke: 13.4pts, 7.3reb, .592fg, .604 ft
2nd year: 17.7pts, 9.8reb, .620, .707 ft
Rookie with Bulls: 20.1pts, 10reb, .482fg, .685 ft, 37min
Best year: 24.7pts, 10reb, .527fg, .775 ft
*Carlos Boozer 6-9, 266
Fresh at Duke: 13pts, 6.3reb, .614fg, .754 ft
Rookie with CLE: 10pts, 7.5reb, .536fg, .771 ft
2nd year: 15.5pts, 11.5reb, .523rfg, .768 ft
3rd year: 17.8, 9reb, .521fg, .698ft
*Glen Davis 6-9, 289
Fresh at LSU: 13.5pts, 8.8reb, .513, .698
2nd year: 18.6, 9.7reb, .495fg, .261 3p, .676ft
3rd year: 17.7pts, 10.4reb, .484 .347 3pt, .713 ft
Rookie with BOS: 4.5pts, 3reb, .484fg, .660ft,13.6min, 1 start
2nd Year: 7pts. 4reb, .442, .400 3p, .730ft, 21.5min, 16 starts
3rd year: 6.3pts, 3.8reb, .437, .696ft, 17.3min, 1 start
4th year: 11.7, 5.5reb, .448fg, .746ft, 29.5min, 13 starts
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