You could see it in Jared Sullinger’s eyes the instant Aaron Craft committed the lane violation and the clock soon after expired in the Superdome, his Buckeye career was over. Sullinger announced yesterday that he was leaving Columbus and heading for the NBA Draft. A likely top five pick last season, Sullinger returned for another shot at a Final Four following the Buckeyes’ premature exit in the Sweet 16 last season. Sully was rewarded for his commitment to the university, and he leaves as one of the most well-liked and polarizing figures of Ohio State basketball in recent memory.
I can still recall being on the Schottenstein Center floor as a student following Ohio State’s victory over Illinois to clinch the Big Ten regular season championship in 2o10. As the Evan Turner-led Buckeyes gathered to cut down the nets, a high school senior named Jared Sullinger watched from a row behind the OSU bench. Already, fans were well aware of who Sullinger was. Chants of “Sully, Sully” were heard, and there was a buzz about just how good that team could be the next season with the big guy leading the way. Could he do what Greg Oden had done earlier in Matta’s tenure and lead his team to The Final Four? The 6’9″ big man went about it a much different way than the towering 7-footer Oden, but he carved his own path to postseason success.
Two Big Ten regular season championships, two Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship game appearances, one Big Ten Conference Tournament title, two Sweet Sixteens, one Final Four, 65 wins. As far as the Ohio State record books go, Sullinger finished 28th in total points with 1,282 and 11th in rebounds with 717. More than the statistics, it was the passion with which he played the game and represented his hometown university. No one seemed to enjoy the college experience quite as much as Sully did.
Do I think Sullinger made the right decision? Of course I do. I was truly prepared to lose him after last season, but to his credit, Jared stayed true to his word and returned for a sophomore season, as was his plan all along. It was refreshing to see Jared do that in the wake of no one believing him and asking, “Why on earth would you come back?” Sullinger came back for exactly what he got this season. He may have slid from the #3 or #4 pick down to the bottom of the Top 10, but I don’t think he regrets returning one bit. It’s still hard to see him go, because if he would’ve done the unthinkable and returned for his junior season, the Buckeyes would’ve been favorites to cut down the nets next year. But, there’s no hard feelings here at all. Many feel it’s time, and it’s pretty hard to refute that.
What type of NBA player will Jared Sullinger be? The comparisons range from Carlos Boozer to Kevin Love to Elton Brand to Paul Millsap. For me, the answer is that he will be a very reliable, hard-working player. He’s a safe pick with a slightly lower ceiling than others in the Top 10. I don’t think he’ll be a perennial All-Star, but I do think he has a chance to make a few. He will rebound, convert at the foul line, and score on the block at the next level, and I believe in time he’ll develop a very consistent perimeter jumpshot. To me, one of the things few people point out with Sullinger is the incredible amount of pressure there was on Sullinger to stay down low and not experiment with branching out his game. When you have a player like Kevin Durant at Texas or Blake Griffin at Oklahoma, they have more freedom to showcase all aspects of their game. Sullinger was the best player on the team in both seasons, but he also had David Lighty, Jon Diebler, William Buford, and Deshaun Thomas who could score the basketball, so the onus was not on Sullinger to score 25+ points too often. However, he was still so important to his team’s success that he essentially played two years of uninspired defense for no other reason than how inconsistent officials are. The 5-foul college game made Sullinger a victim of 2 first-half fouls and significant bench time on several occasions. While I don’t think Sullinger is anywhere close to a dominant defensive player, he’s fundamental and instinctive, and I think on a team where he isn’t asked to be the main guy, he can relax and play his game more comfortably.
If anything, the factor that could’ve boosted Sullinger’s stock, his outside game, was limited by the fact that Amir Williams was slow to develop and Lenzelle Smith Jr. emerged as a legitimate starting shooting guard. Had things fallen another way, we may have seen more of a Craft, Buford, Thomas, Sullinger, Williams lineup. That would’ve allowed Sullinger to play more at the power forward position as he will in the NBA. Sullinger seemed to only dabble in his outside game when things weren’t going so well inside. He hit 16-of-40 three pointers this season, and he has good form.
Lately, the focus has been on what Sullinger cannot do instead of what he can do. Yes, he struggled against the physical frontline of Michigan State, but he also willed his team through 7-footer Robert Sacre of Gonzaga, Yancy Gates of Cincinnati, and the Syracuse 2-3 zone that featured several big bodies. The big guy faced double and sometimes triple teams from day one, and they only increased in his second season. The NBA’s an entirely different game. Sullinger will get more foul calls, he won’t be double teamed, and he’ll be a better player for it. For the scarce few times where Sullinger didn’t deliver for his team, it seems to be forgotten just how many times the Buckeyes put their hopes on the big guy’s shoulders where he carried them across the finish line. Whether it was a key string of foul shots or a must-have score on the block, Sullinger secured a lot of Buckeye wins in his time at OSU.
So, thanks for the memories, Sully. You’ll always be remembered fondly in Columbus and wherever Buckeye basketball fans live. Good luck in the NBA, and here’s to a long, productive NBA career.
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)