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Scott Howard-Cooper

Rather than become a one-and-done, Jared Sullinger stayed at Ohio State to refine his body and game.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Slimmer Sullinger looks better, but climbing board is tough

Posted Mar 30 2012 10:10AM

This is the After. His weight is down, his stock is up and Jared Sullinger looks good for his decision to stay at Ohio State rather than enter the 2011 Draft. And that was the whole point: to look good.

Sullinger wanted to be in better shape. Players tracking to the top five, and possibly the top three depending how the lottery broke, don't pass on that spot for another year of college, not when they could be the first power forward off the board. And not when they grew up 140 miles from Cleveland, home to the Cavaliers, who had two early picks.

But there was Sullinger, going back to Columbus to improve his game and his body.

The result has been a flurry of compliments from around the NBA in an important affirmation of the hard work. He scores from the low post at 6-feet-9, plays smart at 19 years old, rebounds, and has gone from 292 pounds when he arrived on campus in Fall 2010 to 264 for the beginning of his sophomore season, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Sullinger always had the game. Now he has a new layer of dedication.

Except the applause from executives and scouts is offset by the reality that all that may not help come draft night. And it could be more contradictory than that: The best player on a Final Four team is earning more praise than a year ago and yet might miss the top five in 2012.

This Draft is much, much deeper. Not only that, the competition at power forward is particularly daunting. Anthony Davis of Kentucky, a lock to go No. 1. Thomas Robinson of Kansas. Perry Jones of Baylor, who is much more of a perimeter player but is 6-foot-11 and also a fierce rebounder. The defensive presence of John Henson of North Carolina. The lottery will be filled with options at the position.

The late-March read is Sullinger is the second or third power forward off the board, behind Davis and in a tight race with Robinson, with three months of increasing importance with individual workouts and team interviews to go. Forever, in other words. A year ago at this time, after all, the assumption was that Sullinger was a one-and-done like all the other projected top-five picks through the years, and that changed.

That was the Before. Sullinger the freshman was an obvious talent even playing in the 290s -- a finalist for the Wooden Award and Naismith Player of the Year -- yet was every bit the terror for all-you-can-eat joints as opponents.

One season and some 30 pounds later, NBA teams, having heard of the transformation, couldn't wait to see for themselves. Not just see the trimmed-down look, either, but to see what it would mean on the court.

Improved conditioning is a great thing, but would Sullinger 2.0 get moved around on the court more? A power forward with decreasing power is no use to the pros, especially when so much of his game is muscled work inside. Would he remain near the front of the line for the NBA while jumping in line for seconds?

The answers were resoundingly positive through the first three months of the Ohio State season. He isn't getting hip checked into the third row while fighting for position. So front offices around the league still consider him the same Kevin Love-type who won't out-athletic anyone, and who has trouble handling length, but plays with the right energy, instinct and skills.

"It was very good of him to show that he can control the weight and actually put the time and effort and focus into getting himself in better condition," one personnel boss said. "You could argue that last year he was not in good condition. He probably picks up some quickness and agility (with the weight loss). Maybe he's not as immoveable, but he's still got a large base."

Large base. The diplomatic description.

"He's got a big ass," another executive said. "He's not going to get pushed around. He might lose weight. He's not going to lose that ass."

Or that lottery look. Which is good, considering looking good was the point all along.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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