The Curious Case of Jared Sullinger

By Kyle Rowland on June 28, 2012 at 10:00a
Jared Sullinger has received a smorgasbord of bad news.

Where did it all go wrong? This isn’t how Jared Sullinger’s draft week was supposed to go. Instead of a glorified funeral procession for his yet-to-begin NBA career, Sullinger’s week should have been a coronation.

His dream of playing professional basketball will still be realized, but he won’t have that lifelong memory of hugging family members before strolling across the stage in Newark, N.J., to shake Commissioner David Stern’s hand, as nearly all lottery picks do. It’s an indelible image that provides the first portrait for a prosperous career – or bust.

Sullinger will be at home in Columbus surrounded by family, feeling the burn of the NBA, which opted against inviting him to the draft after doctors red-flagged “back issues (that) could shorten his NBA career.” Some even took the step of advising their team not to select Sullinger in the first round. Sullinger steadfastly denies any rumors of injury.

His agent, David Falk, who is known for being the agent of Michael Jordan, said Sullinger met with a back and spine specialist and that he must “maintain vigilance with his flexibility. And if he does that, and keeps his weight at an appropriate level, then he should have absolutely no problems over the next 15 years.”

It’s dramatic news when you consider a year ago Sullinger was a shoo-in to be a top-five pick. He passed up untold NBA riches to stay at Ohio State, though, and helped lead the Buckeyes to the Final Four in his sophomore season. While Sullinger’s stat line – 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game – was similar to his impeccable freshman campaign, he didn’t do it with the same authority, that of Albert Belle running over Fernando Vina, and he looked raged at times. Now Sullinger might not be drafted until the top five of the second round. The latest projections on have him going 23rd overall to Atlanta.

“If I came out last year, I probably wouldn’t be as good of a basketball player as I am now,” Sullinger said. “My shooting ability wouldn't have been the same, my conditioning; you never know what could happen.

“So if you want to do 'what if?" I always do 'what if' with the negatives and not the positives.”

Sullinger is dismayed at injury talk. 

The first sign that something could be amiss came after Ohio State humbled Duke in late November. Sullinger missed the following two games citing a back injury. His father, Satch, said he suffered from the painful foot condition plantar fasciitis. Jared, however, played it off and never confirmed his father’s diagnosis.

But throughout the season, Sullinger seemed to labor and play more timid around the basket. The absence of a perimeter scoring threat no doubt played a role in how opponents defended him, treating Sullinger like unwanted in-laws during the holidays. Still, Sullinger was named a first team All-American for the second consecutive season.

Thirty franchises have put Sullinger’s collegiate exploits out of vision. In the high stakes world of professional sports, health concerns become a liability – ask Greg Oden. Another recent example, though, is last year’s No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving. In only one season at Duke, Irving played in just 11 games due to a foot injury, and then missed 15 games of his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers as he battled various ailments. He still went on to win Rookie of the Year honors and does not have Cavs management breathing down his neck, worried about future health problems. 

General managers have talked themselves out of such injury risks before. In 2009, DeJuan Blair went from a lottery pick to second-round selection because team officials were worried about his knees, which do not contain ACLs. Blair has since developed into a starter for the San Antonio Spurs, the team that drafted him, and has only missed three games in three seasons. Danny Granger was red-flagged in 2005, slid to the 17th pick and is an All-Star.

In his first series of workouts for NBA scouts, a process similar to beauty pageants, Sullinger’s anemic performance started a drumbeat of questions about his athleticism. In the myriad of tests for agility, speed and strength, Sullinger put up numbers that would have earned him Ds on his report card.

Satch Sullinger has discounted many health theories. 

He responded to critics by declaring, “I don’t test well” and “I just produce.”

In another workout, this time for the New Orleans Hornets, he again delivered less than desirable results, Sullinger said, “I apologize to everybody that thinks I didn’t do well. That’s just me. I’m a basketball player. I know how to play with a basketball.”

So here sits Sullinger, once again, in a position to prove legions of cynics wrong.

In middle school, they called him fat. After a stellar high school career, he was told he wasn’t good enough to succeed at a school like Ohio State. Each time he did more than just answer the call – he did so emphatically.

“Everybody says I can’t do this, I can’t do that,” Sullinger said. “Everybody points out all the negatives. There’s a lot of positive things I think I do.”

Sullinger's loyalty to OSU cost him millions of dollars.

He’s taken his plight to Twitter, changing his avatar to the cartoon character Underdog. He followed it with a tweet that read, “I guess I got another ladder to climb. It’s nothing new.”

Earlier this month in Toronto, Sullinger spoke to reporters about his lifetime of adversity.

"Since day one, I've been an underdog," he said. “It’s life. I like it."

Sullinger says all the right things, but underneath his outer shell is a clear sense of frustration. In recent weeks, the questions about his physical shape, back injury and other poking and prodding have led to the usually cerebral Sullinger to become abrasive.

“I couldn't care less,” he said when asked about his draft status. “Half of y'all have never played basketball a day in your life. Maybe in an open gym or around the rec or something, but never organized basketball. So it is what it is. If I'm slipping, I'm slipping. That's fine with me.”

There are several aspects of his game that executives should pay attention to, though. One is Sullinger shedding 20 pounds before last season and developing more of a perimeter game, something the 6-foot-9 brute must use to his advantage against taller competition in the NBA, to go along with his high-level back-to-the-basket play. Sullinger also exhibits a high basketball IQ, excellent passing skills and provides good camaraderie in the locker room.

Sullinger’s case could make GMs wary about repeating past draft day mistakes. For Sullinger, what might be a letdown could be a boon after his rookie contract expires. It’s the second contract where players make their money. If Sullinger proves he can stay healthy, a Brinks truck could be at his door step in a few years.

What city the house is located in is the question.


Comments Show All Comments

Earle's picture

For his sake, I hope he goes higher, but would love to see him there at 24 for the Cavs.  I don't think he'll be an all-star, but could be a solid pro, especially for a team that needs a low post threat, like Cleveland.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Matt's picture

It's unfortunate that he loses out on the millions, but if and when he slips down the draft board, he will slip to a playoff contender, which will be a huge help to his career; he will probably be playing with other winners, which is important for a guy as fixated on winning as he is, and he will likely play for a good coach in a good system.  I actually think this will end up helping his career, although it will cost him a few million dollars on his rookie contract.

RBuck's picture

Don't follow the NBA much at all. How long is a normal rookie contract?

Long live the southend.

tennbuckeye19's picture

typically 4 years
to clarify, for first round picks its typcially a 2 year contract with a team option for 2 more years

RBuck's picture

Thanks fellow Bernie fan.

Long live the southend.

tennbuckeye19's picture

No problem. And yes, I do love Bernie. 

buck-I.8's picture

How much is the minimum he can get paid? 473,604/yr? I think he'll be fine.

SPreston2001's picture

Honestly I always thought Sully was a great college athlete but wouldnt be that same dominating force in the pro's. Hes not very athletic, doesnt jump very high, and isnt the tallest at ~6'8. If he developes a really nice midrange jump shot that would help him out tremedously but I see him being average at the next level. But he is a Buckeye so I do feel sorry for the kid. But like others have said, atleast this gives him a chance to go to a decent team and not end up stuck in Cleveland or Charlotte lol. Dont bash me Cleveland fans but I mean come'on it is what it

tennbuckeye19's picture

In Cleveland's defense, they lost their best player 2 years ago. They are rebuilding, and getting Kyrie Irving was huge for them last year. It is gonna take some time to recover from losing James.
BTW: I don't think he'll still be there or that they'll pick him, but Cleveland does have the 24th pick. 

sir rickithda3rd's picture

I took alot of heat about 3 months ago when i said he would be lucky to be in the top 15. I cant help but feel bad for the guy he's humble and most importantly a buckeye! What I cant believe is why anyone would take bradley beal over mkg

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

BrewstersMillions's picture

This time 10000. I'd consider MKG over the brow to be honest, but he should be the second pick off the board. If MKG falls to Cleveland, Cavs fans should be doing cart wheels.

tennbuckeye19's picture

Beal is seen as more of an offensive weapon. But to me, MKG is the 2nd best player in this draft, and a better overall player than Beal. 
Here's how I think things will go:
1. Davis - NO                                                                                                                 2. Robinson - Charlotte                                                                                                              3. Beal - Washington                                                                                                       4. MKG - Cleveland                                                                                                                    5. Barnes - Sacramento
Cleveland will end up, in my opinion, with Beal, MKG, or Barnes. But as a Cavs fan I WANT MKG.

sir rickithda3rd's picture

cavs are on record saying they like beal better because of how "lights out" of a shooter he is. some have gone as far to say hes ray allen 2.0. i find it hard to believe a guy who shot 38 percent at florida and didnt even avg 15 pts to be a ray allen clone. Then you got the 22 yr old from weber st id take austin rivers all day b4 that kid and hes suppose to be a lottery pick this yr 2. the ONLY 2 players worth a lottery selection is the brow and mkg.... royce white will prolly be the steal of the draft

mark may wins douchebag of the year... again

BrewstersMillions's picture

They may like him, but Beal will probably go 2. I think Robinson or MKG would be a fine addition to the cornerstone that is Irving. If I'm a Cavs fan, I'm praying MKG is there.

tennbuckeye19's picture

True the Cavs like Beal a lot and they need scorers. But from everything I'm seeing, Beal will not be there @ #4 when the Cavs pick. 
On Royce White: Yeah he could be the steal of the draft, but he has had character issues in the past (resulting in him getting kicked off the team @ Minnesota) and personal issues ( he has an anxiety disorder which causes attacks and he has a fear of flying) which could cause many teams to pass on him. 

Buckeye_Mafia's picture

Either way, Sully will play pro ball. Which is his dream. Most kids goal is to play in the NBA. Not be the #1 overall pick or a lottery pick. Good luck to Sully.

"At critical moments throughout the season, we learned about the character of this football team.  This was a team of true character, of true resilience." -- President Barack Obama