Andy Gottesman / multimedia editor
It’s that time of year again. College basketball is over and a flurry of underclassmen are forced to decide between a chance at millions of dollars in the NBA or returning for another year of school.
Duke’s Kyrie Irving, Kansas’ Morris twins, Illinois’ Jereme Richmond, Pittsburgh’s Ashton Gibbs and UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt are among the growing list of players who will test the waters in the NBA.
One name noticeably absent from the list is Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger.
By all accounts, Sullinger was a guaranteed lottery pick; most mock drafts had him being selected somewhere in the top 10.
But Sullinger made it clear after OSU’s 62-60 loss to Kentucky in the fourth round of the NCAA Tournament that he was coming back for another year at OSU.
Following the loss, Sullinger sat in a somber locker room and said, “I’m going to be an Ohio State Buckeye next year. This isn’t why I came here, to come in here and see my seniors in here crying. I came here to win a national championship.”
Some said Sullinger would waver on his decision. After all, how could anyone sit in front of his teammates after such a traumatic loss and say, “Well, it’s been fun, guys, but I’m off to bigger and better things. See you around?”
But that’s not the case. Sullinger never budged.
He was in that same locker-room situation just three years ago. During Sullinger’s sophomore year at Northland High School in Columbus, his team made it to the district semifinal game against Westerville South High School. He had a chance to make a run at a state championship.
Before the game, Sullinger’s coach and father, Satch Sullinger, suspended his son for the game for slacking on academics. Northland lost.
After the loss, Sullinger was left in a locker room full of depressed and disappointed seniors.
Sure, Sullinger wasn’t suspended for the Kentucky loss and, to be honest, was one of the major reasons OSU stayed in the game. But losing can leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Sullinger said he can’t get rid of the taste. I think the taste was with him in the locker room following the game and that it’s with him right now. He can’t just rinse his mouth out, vanquish the taste and leave for the NBA feeling like a new man. That’s not the way he thinks.
Sullinger is wired to do two things: win and do the little things to ensure success.
He lost four total games in his high school career. He won an AAU national championship and an Ohio high school state championship his junior year, the year after he was suspended for the district semifinal game.
He’s not winning by being the flashiest player on the court or because he’s freakishly athletic. Sullinger is big, and no one has the superb footwork he does. He is the guy who puts the ball off the glass instead of dunking and gets in the triple-threat position instead of dribbling between his legs. Sullinger wins by doing the little things everyone else thinks are secondary.
Most NBA prospects don’t share that mindset, most have uncanny athletic ability and have been told from a very young age how exceptional they are.
But Sullinger is not your typical NBA prospect.
Instead of being praised as “the chosen one” or “the next (insert name of NBA star here),” Sullinger was being shoved to the asphalt by his two older brothers on the neighborhood court across the street from his home. He was being taught proper footwork at age 2. He was being called J.J. Sullinger’s “big, fat little brother,” by his future coach, Thad Matta, in 2006.
The fact is, Sullinger never was allowed to get a big head because whenever it looked like he was getting cocky, his brothers or his dad, as evidence of the sophomore suspension, would put him in check.
He’s as grounded as his 6-foot-9, 280-pound frame.
I’m not sure Sullinger ever seriously considered the NBA. In his mind, I think two things were clear. First, he didn’t win a championship, which is his ultimate goal. Second, I think he would consider leaving an abandonment of doing the little things in order to achieve success.
Leaving early would go against the fabric of Sullinger’s nature. Until he thinks he’s done everything he can to win, including all the little things, Sullinger won’t be satisfied.
He’ll still have that bad taste in his mouth, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the college basketball world.