Jared Sullinger is paying the price.
One year ago, he made an unconventional choice. As a lock to be drafted in the top five and the engine behind a memorable season, nobody would have blamed the kid for turning in his BuckID for a chance to go pro.
But he didn’t. He came back. His stated reason for doing so was that he wanted to win a championship. There was no reason to doubt him at the time and there’s no reason to do so now. As thanks, he was rewarded with what I’m sure was one of the most trying years of his young career. Sure, it started well. He was named the preseason player of the year. He led the Buckeyes to a dominant showing in the year’s early games, culminating in a blowout win over Duke that had Buckeye fans thinking ahead to March. He averaged 19+ points and 10+ rebounds per game, a marked improvement over his freshman stats. The preseason prophecies seemed a foregone conclusion.
They weren’t. In the days after the Duke win, Sullinger was ruled out for the Buckeyes’ next game against Texas Pan-American. The reason: a mysterious back injury. His season, and now his career, were altered permanently as a result.
Sullinger and the Buckeyes never regained their dominance. They struggled through Big Ten play, only clinching a share of the conference title with a last-minute miracle from William Buford. They lost to Michigan State in the conference tournament. March Madness brought a measure of redemption, but ultimately the team failed to achieve Sullinger’s goal. He came back to win the Tournament, not to lose in the Final Four.
Perhaps more devastating to Jared was the lingering sense of disappointment that many Buckeye fans and, by extension, local and national commentators expressed with his performance. It’s hard to deny that his play notably worsened after his back injury. His offensive productivity fell sharply. He finished the season with numbers that were almost identical to those posted during his freshman campaign. To achieve that, the blistering pace he set at the beginning of the season had to wane considerably. In the midst of his struggles, he suffered withering criticism. Everything about his game, from his athletic ability to his work ethic was questioned at various points throughout the season.
The reason for his struggles never became clear, and anyone who claims they have the answer is either misguided or lying. The back injury could have lingered. Big Ten teams could have been defending him more physically, with some help from the zebras. Or maybe he wasn’t that good after all. The truth, as always, was probably a combination of reasons. Lost in the criticism was the plain fact that Ohio State wouldn’t have sniffed the Final Four if Sullinger had gone pro. But, honestly, it really doesn’t matter now. That’s the past. His future is the NBA, and it starts Thursday.
But in a time that should be reserved for optimism, Sully suffered another blow. Months after the season ended, word leaked that all isn’t right with Sullinger’s back, presumably a result of the same injury that ailed him post-Duke. The concerns could cause his draft stock to fall. And fall it did. On Monday, invitations were sent out to players the NBA wanted on site at the draft, usually 10-15 per year. Sully wasn’t on the list, which speaks volumes about where he’s likely to be drafted.
On the face of it, it seems like Sullinger got a raw deal. He came back for a sophomore campaign and dropped out of the draft’s top five. Hell, he’s probably not even a lottery pick anymore.
It could be the best thing that’s happened in his career since his decision to stay home in Columbus for college.
As a lottery pick, Sullinger would have entered the NBA with monumental expectations. The stakes will still be high, but the likelihood that he’ll be drafted by a quality team in the bottom of the first round and receive top-notch development is exponentially greater than it was a year ago. The alternative would be to enter the NBA as the fresh centerpiece for a perennial loser, a role I’m not sure Sullinger would have played well. For a player who has spent his entire career in the spotlight, some time out of it must be comforting on some level. His game and physique, which still need plenty of work for a player as polished as he is, will have an opportunity to develop over a long period of time. He’ll likely work his way in as a role player and build his career from there, perhaps ascending to stardom years down the line.
I can’t think of a better situation for him to fall into. He’s already got elite talent. Circumstances may push him into the arms of a team that can round off his edges and develop him into something truly special. That combination of factors is rare in the NBA, where top-level players rarely make it out of the lottery.
None of this is definite. We’ll know more on Thursday night, but his story has yet to be written. That’s a good thing. After all, the draft isn’t an ending, but a beginning. College is over, but if he’s placed into the right situation, there’s no reason why Jared can’t translate his considerable college success to the professional game.
We’ll be there cheering when he does. Partly because we owe him. He gave us the Final Four, and lost something in the process. What we don’t know yet is what he gained.