The Rise and Fall and Rise of Jared Sullinger

Before every season, the league sends its GMs a survey with more or less the same questions. Then we get to look at it and mock it in a panoply of ways. There are always the requisite knee-slappers (somebody thinks Carmelo Anthony will be the MVP, somebody thinks Boston signing Darko Milicic was the most underrated player acquisition this offseason), but there are also things that are telling about the perplexing psyches of NBA general managers and how the decisions they make create the fabric of the league. Case in point: Jared Sullinger.

Before he forewent the 2011 NBA Draft, Sullinger was considered a top 5 prospect. A back-to-the-basket threat who scored efficiently and rebounded well, Sullinger sounds like he should have been a lock for the lottery based on his Draft Express scouting report from February of 2012. At least until the last line, which reads, “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.”

So intently did they study it, in fact, that Sullinger slipped in the draft—as was forecast—all the way down to the Celtics at #21. Even as he slipped, the consensus was that he was going to be a solid player who could contribute to a team right away. He might not have had the upside of an Anthony Davis or a Bradley Beal, but in the top half of the first round, what are teams really looking for but players who can contribute immediately?

With multiple picks for some teams, Sullinger’s slide meant that 16 GMs passed on Sullinger, or better than half the league. The Rockets took not one but TWO power forwards ahead of Sullinger—Royce White and Terrence Jones—plus other teams picked Andrew Nicholson and John Henson. None of those picks were bulletproof, from concerns about White’s anxiety to concerns about Henson’s ability to play at the NBA level as a rail-thin shot blocker with a limited offensive game. GMs took players with shakier games who would need more time to develop over a more complete player—the best player on one of the best teams in the country—with a perceived injury risk.

Medical concerns are the GM’s greatest fear. No one wants to draft the next Greg Oden, so they play it safe. If Henson and White don’t develop into quality players, well, we knew going in that they might not. But if a GM takes Sullinger and then instead of becoming a solid, serviceable player like Luis Scola (whom Draft Express compares him) or Elton Brand he finds himself constantly injured and unable to play, that looks a lot worse to an owner.

Yet when it was time to answer the survey, 17.2% of GMs pegged Jared Sullinger as the most likely “sleeper” success from this draft class. He got more votes than Andrew Nicholson or Terrence Jones, both drafted ahead of him. It would be nice to imagine that none of the GMs who voted for him were ones who passed on him, but I wouldn’t bet on it. If even one of them is one who passed on Sullinger, it’s fairly telling about how being the general manager of a team can mess you up.

Every time a player starts to drop in the draft, you can almost smell the fear coming off the GMs who are making the picks all along the way. As much as they want to hit a home run, they also don’t want to foul it into the catcher’s mitt. Their jobs are on the line, after all, and, like most of us who like our jobs, they’re usually better off being safe and wrong than trying to roll the hard six and coming up empty. But the whole time, they know: if those medical concerns never come up, this guy is going to be the steal of the draft.

And this whole time, Sullinger’s been the same guy even though first he was a refined player with maybe limited upside, then an injury risk, then a bust, and now a sleeper according to this survey. It cloaks GMs in an anonymity that, most of the time, matters little. They’ll pick the Heat to win it all, pick LeBron James to be the MVP, pick Dwight Howard as the best defensive player. But every so often, an answer will reveal just how constrained they are in their jobs, how narrow the gap they must navigate between risk and reward. We lambast them for getting it wrong, complain that they can’t see what’s right in front of their faces, but the reality is that it’s not hard to see the delicious treat before them. They’re just a lot more worried about whether there’s a box propped up with a stick tied to a string above it.

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