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Jared Sullinger surprised many by electing not to enter the 2011 NBA draft last April, despite being projected as a likely top-5 pick. Sullinger stated his desire to win a national championship as his motivation for returning to Ohio State after his team lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and, to his credit, held true to his commitment. He did not rest on his laurels in the offseason, noticeably slimming down and improving his physique considerably.
Sullinger is having a strong season both individually and from a team perspective as the centerpiece of Ohio State's offense. His scoring rate and efficiency are both up, as he ranks as the 4th best per-minute scorer in our top-100 rankings, making nearly 60% of his 2-point attempts, 45% of his 3s and 76% of his free throws. He remains a very good rebounder at the college level, rarely turns the ball over, and is getting more blocks and steals per game. By all accounts, Sullinger is producing like a national player of the year candidate, and should be firmly in the mix for most every award he's eligible for.
Sullinger continues to see the majority of his offense with his back to the basket this season, where's he's one of the most dangerous players in college basketball. He works extremely hard to establish deep position inside with his strong lower body and low center of gravity, drawing plenty of fouls by simply forcing opponents to try and contain him in the paint.
Patient, mature and extremely polished in the post, Sullinger backs players down with brute force and has excellent footwork, being capable of finishing with a jump-hook or spinning into a smooth turnaround jumper. He rarely finishes plays above the rim, usually using his excellent touch to finish plays with his skill-level rather than sheer explosiveness. This is what differentiates him from other top-10 candidate big men such as Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond or Thomas Robinson.
His soft hands allow him to catch most anything that's thrown his way, making him an ideal (and very rare) target to build a half-court offense around. While not the most prolific passer at this stage, Sullinger shows good vision passing out of double teams, turns the ball over at an extremely low rate and rarely forces up bad shots, which only adds to his to his terrific scoring efficiency.
Facing the basket is where Sullinger seems to have improved the most this season. He's regularly stepping out to the perimeter, and is attempting one 3-pointer per game, making 45% of his shots from that range thus far and 36% of his overall jumpers.
Where he's even more dangerous is in the mid to high post, where he sees a large amount of isolation plays in Ohio State's offense every game. Sullinger can put ball on the floor effectively and attack his matchup in a straight line off one or two dribbles, being very difficult to contain thanks to his strength and aggressiveness. Sullinger bounces off opponents and can make difficult shots on the move thanks to his excellent touch, at times using the glass. This is a part of his game that should translate very nicely to the NBA level.
Defensively, Sullinger is fairly effective at the NCAA level as the anchor of the best defensive team in college basketball.
With that said, question marks linger about his potential on this end of the floor at the NBA level, mainly due to his average physical tools. Slightly undersized for a center and not especially agile for a power forward, Sullinger doesn't cover ground very quickly on the perimeter, and isn't explosive enough to offer much of a presence in the paint rotating from the weakside.
He's very intelligent on this end, knowing how to bait opponents into take the shots he wants them to, and doing a good job contesting shots and bodying up opposing big men without fouling. His smarts and solid intensity level help him here, as does his above average length.
Playing for one of the best defensive coaches in the NCAA in Thad Matta, Sullinger has surely learned plenty of tricks that will help him out at the professional level, but his upside here is a bit limited by his average lateral quickness and leaping ability.
Assuming he elects not to forgo competing against other prospects, private workouts could end up playing a role in exactly how high Sullinger is picked. Certain teams drafting high in the lottery could have some question marks about his heavy feet, below the rim style, and perceived lack of upside, wondering how he might fare against bigger, more athletic and skilled big men in the NBA on both ends of the floorand will want to see him matching up head to head in individual settings.
To Sullinger's credit, there is already a model in the NBA for players in his mold (such as Kevin Love, Luis Scola or Paul Millsap) who can be incredibly effective with similar limitations, so it may not be prudent to overanalyze his flaws and ignore his tremendous productivity.
The one thing NBA teams will want to study intently is Sullinger's medical report, as he's been slowed this season by back spasms caused by an aggravated disc and plantar fasciitis, being forced to sit out two games in December.