By Jim Weber
Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart has become the ultimate cautionary tale for those projected to go in the first round but opt to return for another college football season instead of enter the NFL draft early.
You know the story: A lock to be the No. 1 pick of the 2005 NFL draft instead of Alex Smith, Leinart returned to campus only to take a step back under center while scouts dissected every weakness in his game. The result? His stock dropped immensely and he was taken No. 10 overall in the ’06 draft.
Well, it looks like Jared Sullinger is about to become the Matt Leinart of the NBA draft as the ultimate cautionary tale for college basketball players who pass up being selected in the lottery to return to school.
Just 12 months ago, Sullinger was a lock to be a lottery pick and possibly even a top-five selection if he had left Columbus early. He had a dominant freshman year in which he was compared to Utah Jazz rebounding machine Paul Millsap for his work on the glass, bruising style and efficient scoring.
Sullinger’s last game of his freshman season seemed to cement his status as a top-five pick going up against a massive Kentucky front line of Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones, which Sullinger torched for 21 points and 16 rebounds and showed a nasty side that NBA scouts surely loved. Sure, he was still considered undersized and unathletic by NBA standards, but scouts were willing to take a chance on him after such a dominant season and the “upside” all freshmen appear to be labeled with.
I have no way of knowing this but get the strong sense Sullinger would have gone fourth overall in the draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers instead of Tristan Thompson, who was very raw at Texas and not nearly as impressive as Sullinger. You can bet Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert would have been drooling over the possibility of pairing Kyrie Irving with Sullinger, already a hero in the state of Ohio who would have filled seats and had fans dreaming of a John Stockton-Karl Malone-type 1-2 punch that would have helped Clevelanders forget about that other in-state phenom that took his talents to South Beach.
Sullinger first raised eyebrows when he declared he had lost 30 pounds for the upcoming season to increase his endurance. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” many people moaned as they wondered if Sullinger would be the same dominant force in the paint with an overhauled body.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Sullinger lost weight because he was told her could never play power forward in the NBA given his size and athleticism and this was Sullinger’s ill-fated attempt to show NBA scouts he could step away from the paint and be a Kevin Love-type player who had better range than they realized and didn’t need to play above the rim to be effective. The problem? That’s not Sullinger’s game and trying to hone it in one offseason didn’t work.
The real trouble started with back spasms that forced Sullinger to sit out two games in December; the rest of the calendar year was basically a wash as Sullinger worked himself back into form.
Even when the Big Ten season rolled around, Sullinger just wasn’t as dominant as his freshman campaign – especially on the glass – and things came to a head at the end of February in which Sullinger essentially disappeared in three contests against Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. He averaged just 10.3 PPG and 6.7 RPG, people wondered aloud whether Sullinger’s loss of 30 pounds was a mistake and even Thad Matta said the big man was playing “timid.”
Sullinger finally went back to his freshman-year style – starting with 22 and 18 vs. Northwestern and 30 and 12 vs. Purdue – that eventually led the Buckeyes to the Final Four.
But just when it appeared Sullinger had raised his draft stock, he thoroughly was dominated by Jeff Whithey at the Final Four as the Buckeye big man shot a dismal 5-of-19 against a massive Kansas front line of Whithey and Thomas Robinson proving once again that Sullinger just isn’t big enough to play in the paint at the next level.
When Sullinger walked off the court for the last time in 2010 he had scouts salivating over his tenacity, knack for scoring tough points and ability to corale rebounds in bunches like he did in the Sweet Sixteen vs. Kentucky. A year later, those same scouts witnessed Sullinger walk off the Superdome floor humbled by the Kansas front court and coming off an up-and-down season in which he downgraded his post game without adding anything to complement it from the outside.
The result? Instead of being a top-five pick, many draft pundits had him outside the Top 10 going into next week’s draft.
And now Sullinger may have just received the kiss of death: A medical red flag that his back won’t hold up in the NBA. His agent, David Falk, has already downplayed the reports but the damage is already done.
In the light of big men who couldn’t stay on the court like Sam Bowie, Yao Ming and Greg Oden, nothing spooks NBA scouts like a medical condition to a big man. Look no further than former Kansas center Darrell Arthur, who went from a potential lottery pick to 27th overall in the 2008 draft due to a reported kidney condition (which, by the way, hasn’t been an issue in the league), and ex-Pitt star DeJuan Blair, whose lack of ACLs had him free fall all the way to the 37th pick of the draft.
Chad Ford now has Sullinger projected to go 20th overall to the Nuggets, which seems very optimistic if the history of Arthur and Blair are any indication. Now just one year removed from possibly going as high as No. 4 in the 2011 draft, Sullinger could very realistically land in the second round next week. After all, the NBA draft is all about perception and Sullinger has gone from being hailed as the next Millsap or Carlos Boozer to the next Tyler Hansbrough – a great college player who only comes off the bench in the NBA. Throw a reported bad back on top of it and there’s no telling where Sullinger will get picked.
The worst part is that Sullinger is a great kid by all accounts who returned to school because he loved college and wanted to reach the Final Four instead of chasing NBA millions. But his sophomore year only exposed loopholes in his game and possibly led to a medical red flag that might not have been raised a year ago before back spasms kept him out of contests.
As much as we’d like kids to stay in college and play football and basketball instead of turning pro almost immediately, it just doesn’t make sense for high picks as Leinart and now Sullinger have shown. And in a cruel twist of fate, it appears the Ohio State big man is about to join the former USC quarterback in infamy next week for valuing teammates and the love of the game over fame and fortune.
And that’s just sad.
Jim Weber is the founder and president of LostLettermen.com. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays.