NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 25: Jared Sullinger #0 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates after a play against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half of the east regional semifinal of the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Prudential Center on March 25, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Jared Sullinger certainly doesn't look like a prototype NBA power forward, but in leading Ohio State he surely produces like one. What tools must he improve to build his NBA Draft case?
It would be impossible to invent a prospect as divisive as Jared Sullinger, the player most likely to ignite the type of "stats vs. scouts" controversy that defined Michael Lewis' Moneyball.
Sullinger is one of the most dominant players in college basketball. He averaged 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds on 54.1 percent shooting his freshman year, leading Ohio State to a 32-2 regular season record and a trip to the Elite Eight. He won the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award and was the only freshman to be named a first-team All-American.
This year, after dropping 20 pounds, he's been even better. Through seven games, he's averaging 19.1 points and 10.2 rebounds on 62.2 percent shooting. The undefeated Buckeyes are the No. 2 team in the country, and he is one of the front-runners for the Naismith Award.
But while what he's doing is impressive, scouts are likely to question who he is doing it against. At 6'8 and 265 pounds, Sullinger bullies smaller opponents on the low block, using his combination of size and skill to dominate opponents he is bigger, faster and stronger than.
And with the Big Ten down this year, Sullinger may only face five NBA-caliber big men in the regular season: Patric Young (Florida), Mason Plumlee (Duke), Thomas Robinson (Kansas), Meyers Leonard (Illinois) and Adreian Payne (Michigan State). While Ohio State has already beaten the Gators and the Blue Devils, neither team had a second legitimate low-post player, so Sullinger still spent a lot of time playing against sub-par competition.
He'll face NBA-caliber big men 82 times a season in the NBA; the caliber of interior play is the biggest difference between the pros and amateurs. Consider if Sullinger was playing last season's Dallas Mavericks: Is he going to be able to finish over Tyson Chandler, a 7'1 center with a 32' vertical? He obviously couldn't cover Dirk Nowitzki, but would he be able to keep Chandler off the offensive glass?
Sullinger will not face many post defenders in college basketball as big and athletic as the players he will see on a nightly basis in the NBA, like the 6'11 DeAndre Jordan, 6'10 Al Horford, 6'11 LaMarcus Aldridge, 7' JaVale McGee or 6'10 Chris Wilcox, none of whom made an All-Defensive Team last year.
Sullinger is a legitimately great college basketball player who seems to have all the intangibles you would want in an prospect, but the question remains whether his tangible physical abilities make him worthy of a top draft pick.
6'8, 265 lbs., sophomore power forward
- Shot creation: One of the most gifted low-post scorers in recent college memory, with outstanding footwork, creativity and touch on the low-block. But without great athleticism at 6'8, effectiveness in NBA paint is an open question. Developing a face-up game and a turn-around jumper are both essential at the next level for a player his size.
- Defense: Might be a "4.5" -- too slow to defend 4s like Lamar Odom and too short to defend 5s like Andrew Bogut. Will need to be hid on opponent's least effective front-court player. Has averaged a very unimpressive 0.6 blocks over his career.
- Outside shot: Plays mostly in the paint, but has a good-looking stroke and is shooting 83.3 percent from the free throw line this season. A reliable pull-up jumper and three-point shot would be huge for career prospects.
- Passing: Very fundamentally sound player who can have offense run through him in either low or high post, a valuable skill for a second-unit big man. Career averages of 1.3 assists to 1.6 turnovers.
- Rebounding: Lack of athleticism makes it difficult to win battles above the rim, but uses low center of gravity, wingspan and soft hands effectively. Career average of 10.2 rebounds.
- Best case: Toughness and skill level allows for career as starting power forward despite athletic limitations -- Luis Scola.
- Worst case: Unable to create shots efficiently in the NBA while weight issues hinder defensive effectiveness -- Sean May.
6'5, 185 lbs., senior shooting guard
- Shot creation: Excellent catch-and-release shooter, can curl off picks and shoot without much space. Long arms and natural fade make it hard for smaller defenders to challenge shot, but not as comfortable getting into the paint off the dribble. Averaging only 3.3 free throw attempts as a senior, not going to be asked to create shots regularly in the NBA.
- Defense: Very fundamentally sound with good length and foot-speed at 6'5, often given the most difficult perimeter assignment. Doesn't have top-end athleticism to be elite NBA defender, but should defend multiple back-court positions well at next level.
- Outside shot: Very comfortable playing off the ball after four years in Columbus with Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger. Career 40.4 percent three-point shooter and 79.8 percent free throw shooter.
- Passing: Good ball skills, can make difficult pick-and-roll passes but lacks athleticism to draw double teams and create shots for others. Averaging 3.3 assists to 1.7 turnovers this season.
- Rebounding: NBA-caliber size and athleticism at the shooting guard position and isn't afraid to mix it up inside. Averaging 4.4 rebounds over career.
- Best case: Valuable role-playing shooting guard due to outside shooting, defense and overall skill-level -- Wesley Matthews. Very reminiscent of former Buckeye teammate David Lighty. Lighty, like Matthews, went undrafted, but lockout will make it much more difficult for him to make an NBA roster.
- Worst case: Replacement-level shooting guard who never gets much of a chance to crack an NBA rotation -- Alex Acker.
Guys worth keeping an eye on down the road:
Amir Williams -- 6'11 freshman center. McDonald's All-American not currently in the Buckeyes' rotation. An intriguing long-term prospect due to coach Thad Matta's history of placing big men at next level -- Greg Oden, Kosta Koufos, B.J. Mullens.
DeShaun Thomas -- 6'7 sophomore small forward. Gifted scorer who can stretch the floor (career 32.6 percent three-point shooter) and score inside. Hard to judge ceiling since very rarely asked to be a shot creator. Will need to improve athleticism, foot-speed and focus to be an adequate perimeter defender in the NBA.
Aaron Craft -- 6'2 sophomore point guard. Solid all-around player and likely four-year starter at Ohio State. However, 6'2 point guards without great athleticism are dime-a-dozen in the pros. Will need to become a Jordan Taylor-level contributor in Columbus to get a legitimate shot at making an NBA roster.
Lenzelle Smith, Jr. -- 6'4 junior shooting guard. NBA-caliber athleticism but will need to prove jump-shooting ability to become a legitimate prospect.
Jordan Sibert -- 6'4 sophomore shooting guard. Like Smith, could be next roleplaying Buckeye guard on draft watch lists with consistent outside jumper. Matta has developed similar players (Daequan Cook, Buford, Lighty) into NBA prospects.
Shannon Scott -- 6'2 freshman point guard. Like Williams, another McDonald's All-American unable to crack rotation early in the season. Will be interesting to see whether that changes by March.