In a draft with many questions, Jared Sullinger is worth the risk
This NBA draft is so crazy that the only sure pick is the first one. Teams may package and re-package picks all night. The Pacers' new, manic general manager, Kevin Pritchard is a heavy favorite to make a trade with himself, and in between the 15th and 16th picks, Isiah Thomas will draft somebody, just because he is Isiah and he does things that don't make any sense.
Five years from now, when Anthony Davis is so popular that people will get unibrow tattoos over their noses, we can make some sense of this draft. In the meantime, it's chaos. And that brings us to my favorite part of the NBA draft every year: watching general managers take players whom they don't even like all that much.
In the NBA general manager's world, you can teach a beautiful woman to be nice, but you can't make a nice girl better-looking. They often go for size and athleticism over other, subtler traits, like being able to play basketball. This is how a perfectly well-meaning general manager can end up with Hasheem Thabeet publicly embarrassing him for a year, while the general manager nervously laughs and tells his friends, "But he's SO tall!"
Well, in this draft, Andre Drummond is tall. Thomas Robinson is tall. Perry Jones, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Jared Sullinger are tall. Teams have to put them in some kind of order. That is the story of this draft -- today, and probably 10 years from now. And this is where I might as well say it: Sullinger will probably go last in that group, and I find that insane.
Part of this is medical: Teams are worried that Sullinger's body won't last in the NBA. Evidently when he took his physical, an MRI showed actual red flags inside his body. But Sullinger's body held up just fine at Ohio State, and medical concerns, like everything else leading up to a draft, tend to be overblown. We live in an age of miracle medicines and surgery for everything. Sullinger is 20 years old. If I ran an NBA team, I'd be cautious about being too cautious.
Sullinger has compared himself quite a bit to Timberwolves star Kevin Love. When Love came out of UCLA, scouts questioned his athleticism -- a lot of them thought he would have a long, solid career, but would never be a star. Love is one of the 10 best players in the world now. I suppose every power forward with questionable athleticism will compare himself to Love now. But with Sullinger ... well, let's compare them.
Coming out of UCLA, Love was listed at 6-foot-10, 271 pounds. Sullinger is 6-9, 265 pounds. At that size, one inch and six pounds is a rounding error. These guys gain nine pounds at lunch. Now, look at their college numbers. Love played one year at UCLA and Sullinger played two at Ohio State.
Love averaged 17.5 points, Sullinger averaged 17.3. Love shot 55.9 percent, Sullinger shot 53 percent. Love shot 35.4 percent from three-point range, Sullinger shot 36.5 percent. Love shot 76.7 percent from the free-throw line, Sullinger shot 73.3 percent. Love averaged 1.4 blocks, 1.9 assists and 0.7 steals; Sullinger averaged 0.8 blocks, 1.2 assists and 1.1 steals.
Come on: That's almost freaky, isn't it? I don't know if you could find two players with more similar stats. The two also each made one Final Four and lost in the semifinals. Sullinger needed two years to do it, but Love played on a UCLA team with Russell Westbrook, in a Pac-10 that was not as strong as this year's Big Ten.
Sullinger struggled against long shot-blockers, which scares teams. If he can't get his shot off against Kansas's Jeff Withey or Michigan State's Adreian Payne, what will he do against Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka? It's a fair question, but this is where the Love comparison comes back. Sullinger basically played center for Ohio State because he could dominate most teams that way. He is more skilled away from the basket than people realize. Whoever takes him will be banking on him adjusting his game. I think he can. But my career is not at stake.
Every one of these guys is a risk. Robinson of Kansas might be the No. 2 pick, and he will have a long NBA career, but really: No. 2 overall? When was the last time a guy barely played for his first two years of college, then became an NBA star? (I know Robinson sat behind the Morris twins at Kansas, but I'm not convinced they will be NBA stars either.)
Perry Jones spent most of his Baylor career showing people he wasn't as good as they thought he should be. Henson is athletic but not very thick. Zeller is thick but not very athletic.
Drummond has the bad-guy-you-don't-want-on-your-team label, because Connecticut went from national champs to almost missing the NCAA tournament in his one season in Storrs. But his talent is undeniable, and it's too simplistic to pin the Huskies' problems solely on Drummond.
Any one of these guys could plausibly turn into a very good NBA player. They all look good in the right circumstance -- like, if you just picked them.