Amid criticism, OSU's Sullinger shows growth on and off the court
Despite his success, Jared Sullinger hasn't received the praise others have gotten
Criticism changed Sullinger's demeanor on the court as he tried to prove his worth
Sullinger could be most important player in the Final Four game against Kansas
This week, The Associated Press named Jared Sullinger a first-team All-America. Sullinger received the honor last year, too. So I guess the critics are right: He did not improve.
Sullinger is only a sophomore, but in a short-attention-span sport in a short-attention-span world, he already seems like old news. Sure, he leads Ohio State into the Final Four on Saturday. And (as the All-America honor indicates) he has been recognized as one of the best players in college basketball. But there was much more talk this season about Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, who will be (and should be) the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA Draft. And Kansas star Thomas Robinson, who went from sophomore reserve to junior All-America. And Michigan State senior Draymond Green, who seemed to add a new offensive skill every week and led the Spartans to a top seed in this year's tournament.
Sullinger? He is ... uh, just really good. Again. As a freshman he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds for a Big Ten champion that earned a No. 1 seed. As a sophomore he averaged 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds for a Big Ten champion that earned a No. 2 seed. People who expected him to dominate college basketball this year have been disappointed.
Sullinger seems like the same guy we saw as a freshman. But he isn't. And that is why he stayed in school.
Sullinger would have been a top-five pick in last year's NBA Draft. When a player of his caliber chooses to return to college these days, we tend to ask two questions: Can he improve his draft stock? And can he win the national championship?
Sullinger returned for a simpler reason: He needed to spend another year in college.
His father Satch, who coached him in high school, says: "My wife and I were really concerned, releasing a 19-year-old to the professional world, where the team camaraderie would never exist again the way it does in high school, grade school and college."
Sullinger has not had the year he envisioned -- or rather, he has not had the year that others envisioned for him. Draymond Green beat him out for Big Ten Player of the Year. NBA scouts don't seem to love him quite as much as they did a year ago. Sullinger has an impressive vertical leap for a 280-pound man, but he is not a quick jumper. Scouts worry his shot will get blocked a lot in the NBA.
It is not always easy being the flavor of last year. Sullinger, one of the nicest college basketball stars you could meet, seemed angry on the court at times this season. He complained too much to officials. He got frustrated by physical defenses.
When Sullinger was a freshman, the beauty of his game was that he didn't care about point totals or highlights. He could pass out of 10 double-teams, and when that 11th defender came to double down on him, he would pass again. But this February, he seemed so determined to prove his worth that he forced some shots.
As a freshman, Sullinger used Twitter as prolifically as his favorite low-post moves. But on Jan. 11 of this year, he tweeted: "I'm taking a social media vacation. I'm done with y'all" and he hasn't tweeted since.
Ohio State assistant coach Jeff Boals said: "You saw the vitriol that people would send these kids after a bad game, just unbelievable, the stuff people would write to him. Instead of responding to it or let it affect him, he just decided to get off it."
Satch says: "All you're doing is filling your head with a whole bunch of garbage. People have a right to say whatever they want. You also have a right not to read it."
In late February, after Sullinger looked especially frustrated in games, the coaching staff showed him film and tried to calm him down.
"He's not an emotional guy, so you knew it really affected him for him to show it," Boals said.
The public did not notice, but Sullinger has improved in subtle ways. As a freshman, he hoisted 12 three-pointers, and that may have been 12 too many (He made three). This year he shot 38, and he made 16 -- he is a genuine threat from the perimeter. Sullinger's numbers might look the same, but in context they are more impressive. Last year he had sharpshooter Jon Diebler and senior wing David Lighty to open up the defense. This year's Buckeyes do not have as many offensive weapons.
"They would double- and triple-team more," Boals said. "Very few teams played him one-on-one this year."
Now Sullinger may be the most important player in this Final Four. If the Buckeyes beat Kansas on Saturday, Sullinger has a puncher's chance of leading the Buckeyes past Kentucky in a national final. He has the size and skill to get Davis, the Kentucky star, in foul trouble, and that may be the only way to beat the Wildcats.
But that's just a basketball question. And this isn't really a basketball story.
"I don't know whether his skill level improved," Satch says. "It probably did. But the biggest thing that happened to him is he grew between his ears."
Jared is the youngest of three boys. His oldest brother J.J. played for Ohio State, and his brother Julian played for Kent State.
"I have three grown men now," Satch says. "Last year [Jared] still needed a father. Now he just needs counsel."
Fathers (or at least, fathers like Satch) usually want their sons to stay in college. Counsel offers advice when it's needed. Satch says he hasn't talked about the NBA with his youngest boy. But his concern about sending Jared into the professional jungle has waned.
"I have no worries about any of my sons," he said.
Jared Sullinger may yet grab that national title. But he has already achieved something greater this season: He has convinced his father it's OK to let go.
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