CHICAGO - Life is a gamble – even for All-Americans.
Jared Sullinger can talk about that, but the former Ohio State men's basketball standout isn't defensive about having taken a chance professionally a year ago and seen his decision not work out so well.
The 6-foot-9 forward was projected by many as a sure-fire NBA Lottery selection following his freshman season in Columbus in 2011. There was even talk of his being the top selection overall. Fast-forward to today and Sullinger is being left out – to a degree – by those same NBA scouts.
On Monday it was announced that Sullinger would not be among the select few NBA Draft-eligible players invited to sit in the famed “Green Room” backstage at the draft, which most assuredly means a later selection. But he isn't looking back with regret.
“It helped me out big time,” Sullinger said of staying in college for his sophomore season. “The maturity, my focus, there are certain things that I didn't do my freshman year that I learned how to do my sophomore year.”
His level of play did not digress during this past season and that is why he is a two-time All-American. His second-year statistics virtually mirrored those from his first season. Sullinger averaged over 17 points and nine rebounds both years. The Buckeyes won a ton of games (65 in total) over his brief career and if anything, Sullinger did what the NBA scouts had asked of him; he got in much better physical shape.
“My eating habits (improved),” Sullinger explained, “getting my body in shape. There were a lot of things. That is why I was so blessed to be able to come back for my sophomore year.”
Most experts now believe Sullinger will fall anywhere from the late teens to early 20s in Thursday's draft, but that may be due as much to Sullinger's health as it is his ability.
Sullinger was examined by physicians at the NBA Draft Combine earlier this month and some reports state that certain teams are concerned about his back.
At the Combine, he spoke about experiencing back spasms this past season, but also said that he has been in the weight room religiously this off-season and he looked in great shape.
“I had back spasms and stopped lifting to protect my back,” Sullinger said. “But now, since the (regular) season has been over, I've been in the weight room, running, just doing things to get my upper body right and my lower body right.”
There is a perception that the longer that a player remains in college it actually doesn't help his stock with NBA scouts. The belief is that the more time that the scouts have to analyze a player's abilities, the more time that they have to find faults within that player. Sullinger has been questioned throughout his career, and he continues to receive them from NBA teams leading up to the Draft.
“Can I play defense,” Sullinger said as he rattled off the criticisms. “Can I jump? Will I be able to play the four (power forward)? Am I a five (center)? Can I shoot the basketball? Will I be able to guard a four? There are multiple questions that people are going to ask. Everyone has been asking them for years.”
Sullinger compared himself to former NBA All-Star Elton Brand, but only to an extent.
“I think that I am different because I love to play with my back to the basket,” Sullinger said. “But I can face up and shoot the jump shot. It's all about picking your poison with me.”
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has sent many players to the NBA and he has lauded Sullinger for his basketball intelligence. Another positive trait with Sullinger is his ability to accept coaching. He emphasized at the Combine that he simply wants an opportunity, even if it comes late in the first round instead of near the top.
“I just want to play,” Sullinger said. “People say that I'm not tall enough to play the five (or) I'm not fast enough to play the four, that's what they think. Whatever position my coach or team wants to put me in, if that is the five or the four, I just have to accept that. It's no biggie. I don't classify myself as a (certain) position.”