As with any dominant college big man, a lot of talk has swirled around Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger and his NBA prospects, and rightfully so. Sullinger has been an absolute monster from the very first day he stepped on campus in Columbus. And if it weren't for some Brandon Knight heroics last March, he could have very well led the Buckeyes to a national title as a freshman.
The first thing that stands out about Sullinger is his brawny, wide-shouldered body. He is very thick, strong and a maestro at using positioning to make up for a lack of foot speed and leaping ability. He possesses dexterity and terrific hands, but lacks first-class explosion. Just eight games through this season, it is abundantly clear that the 15 to 20 pounds that Sullinger lost in the offseason has been extremely beneficial. The obvious reason is that he can now absorb more minutes. But more importantly, he has become a better defender and therefore is less prone to foul trouble and more effective offensively.
Let's start there because that is where Sullinger -- at least to me -- is most confounding. At the collegiate level, the 6-foot-eight, 250-pound power forward/center is merely bigger and stronger than everyone else. He displays solid skills on blocks and a deft shooting touch around the rim. With his back-to-the-basket, he is primarily a left-shoulder guy, although thus far he has displayed a much better feel for how to read the positioning of his defender. Against two physical specimens in Florida's Patric Young and Duke's Mason Plumlee, he correctly read overplay to the middle and either spun or drop-stepped to the baseline. That's the good.
The problem I have with forecasting for Sullinger is that there is bad that comes with the good. He still dribbles far too much and takes too long to make an assertive scoring move once he has the ball. While he can often get away with this in college, he won't in the NBA, where defensive rotations are exponentially quicker and double teams more suffocating. As a result, it remains even more important that the 19-year-old further expand on his face-up game, both in the paint and from the high post. I'm not suggesting that he needs to become the passing dynamo of a Vlade Divac or a shooting threat like Chris Webber, but he must at least be a threat.
Mechanically, his shooting technique (83.3 percent free throws) is rather sound. His elbows are tucked and the high release point makes it a challenge to block or contest. In the modern-day NBA offense, having a plus-shooting big man is not only a luxury, it is a necessity. LA's Pau Gasol and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki are obvious examples, and they are both over seven feet, but David West -- probably a best-case comparison to Sullinger -- has become a splendid high post option and pick-and-pop partner with a consistent stroke. Sullinger may be listed at 6-feet-8-inches, but the scouts I've spoken with think he may be a shade under 6-feet-seven-inches. If he is going to come off the draft board as early as three or four, he must extend his range and show a consistent 12- to 15-foot stroke. Sullinger isn't a natural playmaker or passer out of the block either, making that an even more significant factor as he moves forward.
Let's not kid ourselves: It's on the glass where he will ultimately make his money. I'm hesitant to say it, but as a pure rebounding big, he reminds me a lot of Charles Barkley, who was also undersized. Now, Barkley also happened to be one of the most versatile forwards of all time, in that he could handle and create plays off the dribble; akin to Sullinger, he wasn't an outstanding leaper but was overly physical, and had a wide base and fantastic hands.
Sullinger -- who has averaged over 10 rebounds during his career thus far -- often converts put-backs and, similar to Minnesota all-star Kevin Love, possesses a natural nose for reading the ball's trajectory off the rim. This is something that you simply cannot teach, and it's something that few players understand -- especially this young. Then again, it is very hard to find an undersized big who plays below the rim and who can plug in as a double-double guy. Love happens to be one of the rare cases, but unlike Sullinger, his range extends out to the NBA three.
Just as glaring a weakness for Sullinger right now is his play as a defensive end, where despite improvements, he still looks disinterested at times. With a seven-foot wingspan, Sullinger is very long and remains quite adept with his understanding of positioning. Against more talented and taller forwards, though, he will have to overplay and maybe half or 3/4 front to avoid straight-up, one-on-one situations. As noted, he just doesn't have the size or foot speed to be a shut-down defender, and because he's never going to be a shot-blocking threat (his career average is 0.6 per game), he will consistently be forced to rely on his bulk and strength. Five years down the road, it's plausible to think he could develop into a serviceable defender, but not without vast improvements in both attitude and technique.
Projecting young basketball players is one of the hardest things any GM and his staff do. To be sure, it's an inexact science: You really are guessing, even when you think you're not, and you never really know what you have until, well, you have him. Sullinger's hype happens to be the byproduct of both talent and competition. It will be extremely interesting to see how he fares against quality bigs through the rest of season, particularly against Kansas' potential first overall pick, Thomas Robinson (Saturday), and against Indiana's stellar blue-chip freshman, Cody Zeller.
Ultimately, I do believe Sullinger will be an effective player at the next level; his rebounding prowess alone suggests he will. He's not going to be a guy that gets a ton of offensive touches or plays called for him, but given his relentless motor, he could conceivably average 8 to 10 points mostly off of stick-backs. But is Sullinger an all-star caliber player or front line starter worthy of a top five pick? To me -- especially in a super-talented and top-heavy draft -- that would be a resounding no.
Note: This is a regular series we will be running throughout the season on some of college basketball's most decorated prospects. For breakdowns of Duke's Austin Rivers and Kentucky's Anthony Davis, click here and here.
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