Perusing through the mock drafts every now and then has become a sort of hobby of mine, and I noticed this morning that nbadraft.net has us drafting Jared Sullinger of The Ohio State University with the 17th pick.
This is a pretty surprising projection. For one thing, it was only last year that Sullinger was viewed as a consensus top-5 pick, with some mocks projecting him to go in the top 2. This year, he has slid to mid-to-late lottery status in most mocks, with the chance of being a late-teens pick, as in this case. (Part of this can be explained by the relative weakness of the 2011 draft. By my count, only seven players in the 2011 class had above-average rookie years -- Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Iman Shumpert, Kenneth Faried, Marshon Brooks, Chandler Parsons, and Isaiah Thomas.)
For a top-notch college player with great production and pedigree and no character issues, this is a pretty dramatic slide that hasn't been thoroughly explained. So let's examine the facts.
Sullinger returned to Ohio State in 2011 to come back and try to achieve his stated goal of winning a national championship. In his sophomore season, his production was basically the same as the year before -- 17.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg compared to 17.2 ppg and 10.2 rpg. His team made it all the way to the Final Four and lost to Kansas in a close game in which Thomas Robinson and the Jayhawks rallied from 9 down at halftime. All in all, it was a really successful year for Sullinger from both an individual and team standpoint.
But Sullinger's return to school also hurt him. College basketball in the one-and-done era works like this -- there are at most a couple alpha-dog players every year that get all the press, recent examples from the past few years being JJ Redick, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Tyler Hansbrough, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Kemba Walker, and Anthony Davis. Sullinger firmly occupied that spotlight in 2010, with seemingly everyone praising his skilled low-post game, impressive maturity for a freshman, and general dominance of games (and with Dickie V slobbering over his ability to use his "big backside" to move people around in the paint).
But Sullinger's return changed all that -- he wasn't new enough or sexy enough to still draw headlines. The national attention shifted away from him and toward other prospects, and although he still was an AP All-American, he wasn't often mentioned alongside Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson in the discussion for major national awards.
And with the increased time to watch him play against his peers, basketball analysts and draftniks began to break down more flaws in his game, some of which they didn't notice his freshman year or merely overlooked due to his being a freshman then. In particular, critics have consistently outlined two things that could constrain his NBA potential:
1. He is short for an NBA center so he could struggle against lengthier players in the NBA.
2. He has average athleticism and quickness, both of which are important in playing good team defense as a big man.
The first point is a valid concern because while Sullinger is a healthy 280 lbs, he stands only 6'10 in shoes. He has had some trouble with getting his shot blocked by taller players, which is a problem. However, he has above average length (a 7'1 wingspan) despite his height and he's always exhibited great smarts and savvy in using his strength and moves to his advantage in the post. He's also added a reliable face-up game and a solid 15-fo0t jump shot that is practically a necessity for scoring bigs in today's NBA.
As to the second question, it's undeniable that Sullinger isn't Tyson Chandler. He plays a very "old-man" type of game and is a very capable post defender, but obviously doesn't move that fast. Ultimately, though, there aren't many players in the league that can -- that's why the Kevin Garnetts and Dwight Howards of the world are so rare. Sullinger seems to play with intelligence and desire on the defensive end, and that should enable him to grow into a decent team defender despite his physical limitations.
DraftExpress, a private scouting and pre-draft analysis website, sums up my feelings perfectly in this quote from their profile of Sullinger:
To Sullinger's credit, there is already a model in the NBA for players in his mold (such as Kevin Love, Luis Scola, or Paul Millsap) who can be incredibly effective with similar limitations, so it may not be prudent to overanalyze his flaws and ignore his tremendous productivity.
Basically, I think that as analysts have focused more on the one-and-dones and "sleepers" of this draft, they've tended to nitpick and poke at Sullinger's game while forgetting how damn good he's been. He was hands down the most physical, skilled, and tough-to-stop low-post player in the country the last two years, bar none. He's a great rebounder in spite of his ground-based game, a pretty good passer with great hands and low turnover rates, and a smart player who projects great effort and intangibles.
I think he should be a lottery pick and it would be an absolute steal if the Mavs could take him at 17. We really have lacked a strong low-post scoring presence since Erick Dampier left (joking) and have become an increasingly jump-shot-dependent team, so this would help with our balance. Additionally, I think Sullinger has shown in the past that he's a mature guy and a winner who's truly committed to the team (he made the choice to go back to college on his own and then shed 20 pounds this season to improve his mobility), both of which suggest he would be able to contribute immediately for Dallas.
Admittedly, a starting lineup of Dirk Nowitzki at PF and Jared Sullinger at C would lack some things defensively. It would, then, be important for us to get a good defensive backup (like Omer Asik or someone) that could step in at times. Ultimately, though, I would easily prefer this type of situation to what we had with the three-headed-monster this year.
Sullinger, more than most other prospects (and certainly most big men) this year, seems to be a known quantity. Assuming Dallas wants to fill a need at center -- or even if they want to take the "best player available" approach -- if Sully's still on the board at 17, we should take him and run.