The Flip Side

Sullinger eager to prove doubters wrong at basketball’s highest level

(Editor’s note: True Blue Pistons continues a 14-part series leading to the June 28 draft with a look at Jared Sullinger, one of seven big men who could be on the board when the Pistons pick at No. 9. Coming Tuesday: John Henson)

If the fundamental question with Perry Jones III is why his college production didn’t match his scintillating talent level, it’s the reverse with Jared Sullinger: What chance is there, given Sullinger’s limited athleticism, that his superb college production will carry over to the NBA?

Sullinger is at the opposite end of the continuum from Jones, both as an athlete and, so far, as a basketball player.

Sullinger was a first-team All-American as both a freshman and sophomore at Ohio State. Considered a lock to go in the top 10 of the 2011 draft, Sullinger chose to return to Columbus with the stated intention of winning a national championship. He helped carry the Buckeyes to the Final Four, where they lost to Kansas in the semifinals.

His numbers stayed remarkably similar, averaging better than 17 points and around 10 rebounds a game both seasons. Sullinger did come back leaner, shedding about 15 pounds, and he diversified his scoring, becoming a better face-up shooter with the ability to take the ball in the mid-post and put it on the floor, as well.

Sullinger is intelligent and a team-first player who oozes passion for basketball. He’ll come across extremely well in predraft interviews. The son of a successful high school coach with an older brother who also played at Ohio State, Sullinger will draw nothing but high marks for character and competitiveness.

Yet for all his productivity and admirable personal traits, Sullinger comes with some heavy question marks – at least for a lottery pick. Nobody doubts he’ll hang around the NBA a good long while and carve out a handsome living, but can he deliver high impact if his physical limitations make it difficult for him to score in the paint?

Is he Elton Brand or is he Glen “Big Baby” Davis? He’s heard both comparisons, as well as others, to Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson or Kevin Love.

“I get so many different basketball players,” he said at the Chicago draft combine, where Sullinger was helped by physical measurements (6-foot-9 in shoes, a 7-foot-1 wing span and a standing reach of 8-foot-11) but perhaps damaged by bringing up the rear in lane agility and sprint times. “I think I’m different because I like to play back to the basket – actually, I love to play back to the basket – but I can face up and shoot the jump shot as well. It’s pick your poison with me.”

In three games against Big Ten rival Michigan State last season – a team with the closest thing the conference had to NBA size with big men Derrick Nix and Adrean Payne alternating on Sullinger – he shot just 33 percent, making 17 of 51 shots. In the Final four loss to Kansas, with 7-foot shot-blocker Jeff Withey and lottery pick Thomas Robinson, Sullinger had 13 points and 11 boards, but shot just 5 of 19.

It’s folly to make too much of small sample sizes, but the many who wonder how Sullinger will score against size are going to look hard at such things. NBA teams that bring him to their cities for individual workouts will take pains to arrange for long, athletic defenders to work against him.

Sullinger is well aware of his critics and their doubts. A classic pudgy kid growing up, he’s heard those doubts his whole life.

“Can I play defense? Can I jump? Will I be able to play the four? Am I a five? Can I shoot the basketball? Will I be able to guard the four or will I have to guard the five? There are multiple questions people are going to ask,” he said. “Everybody’s been asking that for years. I’m kind of used to it.

“All my life, I’ve been known as the underdog. People said I wasn’t going to be able to play at the college level; I did. People said I wasn’t going to be able to play at the high school level. Some people said I was too overweight to play at the middle school level.”

Sullinger did not look unduly heavy in Chicago, and his body fat percentage (10.7), though not ideal, was hardly alarming, either. He weighed in at 268 and says his ideal weight is anywhere from 255 to 270.

Most talent evaluators feel Sullinger will figure out a way to be a force offensively, even if it’s becoming predominantly a pick-and-pop big man, a la Orlando’s Davis. It’s on the defensive end where the concerns are heightened. In particular, they worry Sullinger’s lack of lateral agility – long suspected, now confirmed by the Chicago testing – will make it difficult for him to defend the pick and roll, increasingly a staple of NBA offenses.

In assessing Sullinger, the Pistons will have to consider how he fits next to Greg Monroe. Ideally, the player who starts up front next to Monroe would have the ability to play above the rim, represent a shot-blocking threat and have a little more explosive athleticism than Sullinger provides. There are a few players who could be available to them who come closer to matching that profile – Arnett Moultrie, John Henson, Perry Jones III and Meyers Leonard among them – but none are more certain than Sullinger to become NBA difference makers.

One other thing NBA teams will mull as they assess Sullinger: how his body type projects over a career of 82-game seasons. The weight Sullinger will have to carry up and down 94 feet, at a tempo much higher than he experienced in the often-plodding Big Ten, more often than not takes a toll on the back, knees and feet. At Ohio State last season, Sullinger was nagged by back spasms and missed time with a foot injury. Perhaps those were minor, isolated injuries that wouldn’t cause teams any pause had they been incurred by a shooting guard or a 230-pound big man. With Sullinger, it’s another complicating factor to analyze in a player who already poses contradictions.