The boulder on Jared Sullinger’s shoulder
|07.02.12 at 2:37 pm ET|
ALLSTON — For most, if not all of his basketball life, people have doubted Jared Sullinger. They told him he was too big. They told him college would be too fast. They looked at his 6-foot-9 frame carrying 268 pounds and wondered how he’d keep up with faster, sleeker and taller opponents.
Sullinger can point to the 17 points and 10 rebounds he put up in each of his two seasons at Ohio State. He can tell them how he led the Buckeyes to the Final Four, the Big 10 championship as a freshman and the 65 games he won in his two seasons there. But he also knows that none of that really matters to his critics.
“If you consider me [going] to the Boston Celtics a drop then I’ll do it all over again, without a hesitation,” Sullinger said. “It’s been like that all my life. When I was younger, everybody said I was too big. Going into high school they said I wouldn’t be able to play that fast. Going into college I wouldn’t be able to keep up. So, it’s just the way I live my life. I’m just ready to get started.”
The only reason Sullinger was available with the 21st pick in the draft was because he was red-flagged at the Chicago scouting combine in May due to a bulging disk in his back. The Celtics say they have done their due diligence and will take steps to help him. It’s a concern, but in terms of risks/rewards, they feel the latter far outweighs the former.
“I don’t have any back problems, but it is what it is and I’m just playing basketball now,” he said. “I finally have a job and now it’s time to take the next step and get ready to play.”
This is how it is for Sullinger now. He will always have to prove himself, but now he knows where he will be and for his agent, David Falk, he’s in a perfect place.
“I’m not worried about the number, I’m worried about being in the right environment to grow and develop,” Falk said. “I’m thrilled that he’s here. Playing for Doc Rivers, who is a great motivator, a great coach. Having a chance to play with people like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce who are Hall of Famers. He’ll get a post-graduate education as a rookie.”
Falk mentioned another one of his clients, Roy Hibbert, who was taken 17th in the 2008 draft, who was also said to be too big and slow. Hibbert has an offer in his back pocket from the Blazers for the max; a four-year deal worth $58 million. Yes, falling in the draft cost Sullinger money in the short run, but it’s the second contract that will lead to the big payday and that was Falk’s message to his young client.
“I told him I hope he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, I hope he has a boulder,” Falk said. “It’s his nature. There are inherent biases in the NBA against players with his body type. There’s a bias against them in favor of players like Tyrus Thomas, Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, none of them who were qualified yesterday. The GM’s always love the high flyers.” For the record, Randolph and Beasley weren’t extended qualifying offers, but all three have been professional disappointments.
Falk continued, “That’s why 50 percent of the players drafted in the top 10 fail and why only nine teams in 32 years have won an NBA championship. Because teams make the same mistakes year after year in evaluating players. They only look at their upside as opposed to worrying whether they have a downside.”
Throughout his tenure with the Celtics, team president Danny Ainge has taken a number of gambles on athletic players in the draft. But he’s also had his eye on players with a proven track record of success. (See: Ryan Gomes, Glen Davis, Leon Powe, etc.) More often than not, those players have been ready to compete in the NBA and been able to carve out careers in the league, despite physical or medical limitations.
In Sullinger, Ainge has a back-to-the-basket low-post scorer who can rebound. That’s not something the Celtics have had the last few years, and it’s an appealing option for a second unit that has struggled to score. Ainge also believes that in time Sullinger can play the center spot, as well.
“There’s not much difference between the power forward and center position in the NBA and Jared is smart, he’s versatile and he’s strong,” Ainge said. “As he matures and gets stronger and gains more knowledge of the NBA game, he’ll be versatile enough to play both positions. He rebounds well enough to be a center and I think he has the ability to play both positions eventually for sure.”
Sullinger also feels that there’s more to his game than what he was able to show at Ohio State. Collegiate defenses being what they are, there was less room for him to operate, so he adapted.
“I really had to do what the defense forced me to do by forcing me into double-teams or baseline,” Sullinger said. “Pretty much all I had was back to the basket because there was really no place for me to move. I can shoot the outside shot. I can face up. I can go off the dribble. There’s a lot of things I couldn’t do at the college level because of the collegiate defense. We’ll see. We’ll see how that goes.”
The proof will be on the court, and that’s something Sullinger already knows as well. In a way, he’s already had a taste of what the NBA life is all about, with constant scrutiny and rapid assessments of his game. The draft is only the first step. The hardest part awaits.