Jared Sullinger’s Medical Red Flags Call Into Question His Draft StatusPosted by EJacoby on June 19th, 2012
Jared Sullinger was one of college basketball’s biggest stars the past two seasons, entering Ohio State as the #2 consensus player in his high school class and consequently producing at an elite level for the Buckeyes from day one. The 6’9″ fundamental machine averaged over 17 PPG and 9 RPG in back-to-back seasons, becoming a First Team All-American in both years. He led OSU to a #1 seed and Sweet Sixteen appearance in his freshman year before igniting the Buckeyes even further in 2011-12 — all the way to the Final Four. Yet Sullinger saw his draft stock slowly drop throughout college, from a potential #1 pick to just borderline top 10 status as of early June’s Draft Combine, due to concerns about his NBA upside stemming from limited athleticism. He failed to impress during Combine measurements and testing, finishing dead last of 52 competitors in the agility and sprint drills while showing up with 10.7% body fat.
But things got much worse on Monday, after Sullinger was reportedly red flagged by NBA doctors who have serious concerns about a long term back injury. Team doctors worry that “back issues could shorten his NBA career” and some medical staffs “advised their teams not to draft him in the first round,” according to ESPN’s Chad Ford. This news will make it even more challenging for Sullinger’s professional prospects — somehow, this dominant college big man with consistent professional intrigue may not even get selected as a first round NBA pick. Could Sullinger wind up becoming a late steal (think: DeJuan Blair), or should concerns about his physical condition validate passing on him in this deep draft?
Sullinger’s father, a successful high school basketball coach, is downplaying his son’s condition. “We’ve got nothing to hide,” says Satch Sullinger. “He had a bulging area that was due to his hamstring and quads being so tight. He’s been to doctors, he’s doing yoga and deep tissue massage. [...] Jared is a skilled player. A two-time All-American. He can play.” The same goes for Jared’s agent, David Falk, who also doesn’t believe the back injury is a long term concern: “Jared needs to maintain vigilance with his flexibility. And if he does that, and keeps his weight at an appropriate level, then he should have absolutely no problems over the next 15 years.” Both his father and agent say they received information from spine specialists that his back problems stemmed from an undetected hamstring injury. While they try to quell concerns about Sullinger’s health, all the medical jargon can’t sound great to evaluators who were already torn on the big man’s athletic potential.
Medical issues are difficult for any non-health care professional to comment on, but getting red-flagged 10 days before the draft is never good news for a prospect. Looking ahead, does Sullinger now become a possible sleeper pick if he falls on June 28? ‘Sully’ remained adamant after his poor Combine results that he’s still a top prospect, and why wouldn’t he — the big man dominated college basketball’s top conference and led his team to a Final Four, putting up huge efficiency numbers in the process. According to ESPN’s stats guru John Hollinger, Sullinger finished with the second-best Player Efficiency Rating (16.86) of all collegiate prospects, behind only Anthony Davis. He improved his three-point and free throw shooting percentages from his freshman to sophomore seasons as well as his steals and blocks averages, adding additional facets to his game through hard work and repetition.
But it doesn’t matter what Sullinger, his father, or his agent says. It’s not even necessarily about what his Ohio State statistics show, either. Success at the professional level requires different skills than the college game, especially for a guy with limited athleticism like Sullinger. He’s undersized for a power forward and lacks quickness as a small forward. He plays entirely below the rim and will face bigger and stronger defenders on a nightly basis in the league. The sole question now is whether Sully is athletic enough to prosper in the NBA, but also we have to consider whether his legs and back will hold up for a pro career. For a player who draws favorable comparisons to the former Pittsburgh star Blair, it looks like Sullinger is only confirming those similarities, as Blair fell to the second round on draft night due to medical red flags as well. In such a deep 2012 NBA Draft pool with so many potential late contributors, it’s likely that Sullinger will fall further on draft night than any college basketball fan could have anticipated after two great seasons in Columbus.
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him on Twitter @evanJacoby.