Imagine if Jared Sullinger came back for one more year. The fantasy is vivid.
Imagine Sully playing power forward, which will be his NBA position. Imagine him playing power forward while Amir Williams and Evan Ravenel man the post. Imagine Deshaun Thomas moving to small forward — from the four to the three, as they say — and playing his natural position, his NBA position.
Imagine backcourt combinations with Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott. It does not matter who is at the point or on the wing. And think of what coach Thad Matta can do with Sam Thompson. He could go bigger in back, or smaller up front, or use him as a designated stopper, or an offensive microwave. That kid is sick.
How about LaQuinton Ross? He is supposed to be a blue-chipper, and if he can crack this lineup, he certainly is. Get him going, maybe bring in another one-and-done big man and there you have it, the No. 1 team in the country.
The fantasy is vivid. So is the fantasy that Sullinger should be doing anything other than what he is doing — he is leaving Ohio State. Yesterday, he had a news conference and made it official. He is off to the NBA, either too late — or right on time.
Last year, after Ohio State lost to Kentucky in an NCAA regional semifinal, Sullinger surprised many when he made a locker-room announcement, said he was returning for his sophomore season. Sullinger was emphatic. He felt as if he had some unfinished business.
“I’m coming back to win,” Sullinger said then.
He left a lot of money on the table then. How much?
Last year, he was projected as a lottery pick, maybe top five overall. This year, he is projected to be picked 10th to 15th overall. The difference between the No. 5 overall pick and the No. 13 overall pick is more than $6 million over the four-year course of a rookie contract.
“Last year, I felt completely at peace with my decision,” Sullinger said, “and also this year, completely at peace. Stock doesn’t mean anything to me at this point. I just want to do what’s best for my situation, and I feel what’s best for my situation is going to the next level.”
There are two views of Sullinger as an NBA prospect. One, he is going to struggle because he plays below the rim. Two, he’s going to be a good player for a long time, for a number of reasons — he has great feet, good touch, a big body and, most commendable of all, a terrific basketball brain. He gets it.
Yes, he left a lot of money on the table. No, there seems not a shred of regret.
In two years, Sullinger led the Buckeyes to more victories (65) than in any successive years in program history. They won two Big Ten titles and made it to the Sweet 16 and, last week, the Final Four.
He returned for his sophomore year for all the right reasons. He wanted to win a championship. He loved Ohio State. He understood he might take a hit in the wallet. He took it.
The old Northland High School coach lent his own perspective on his youngest son.
“Last year at this time I wasn’t comfortable with the option of him possibly going to the NBA,” papa Satch Sullinger said.
Satch went on to explain how everything had come easy for his third son — until this past season, when the kid had to deal with injuries, adversity and a bull’s-eye on his back.
“You know,” Satch said, “I came to the realization that I didn’t have any little boys anymore. I have three grown men.”
One can imagine what the Buckeyes would be like if Sullinger came for just the one more. Man, they might be truly nasty — especially if Thomas doesn’t opt out (stay tuned).
But Sully is ready to go, and it is time. No matter where he is taken in the June draft, or what he is paid, he is readier now than he was last year. He is a man, grown up right in front of us.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.