The No. 1 Buckeyes are unbeaten thanks largely to freshman forward Jared Sullinger, who has skill, smarts and a feel for the game far beyond his years
The problem with watching Ohio State freshman forward Jared Sullinger is that people expect Shaq and miss Mozart. Sullinger is 6'9" and 280 pounds and dominates with his big, powerful ... brain. Some players have to be seen to be believed. Sullinger must be believed before he can be seen, otherwise you'll miss the subtle genius that makes him great. Heck, you can see Sullinger and his unbeaten Buckeyes and not realize you are watching the best player on the No. 1 team in the country—even if you happen to be his mother.
"People keep saying that to me, and I really don't see it," Barbara Sullinger says. "I think he's a good basketball player. But the best freshman in the nation? I don't see it that way."
It's O.K., Barbara. You are not supposed to see him play all the notes. Just listen for the symphony. Often the Ohio State coaches don't appreciate how well Sullinger played until they watch the game tape.
There is Sullinger, passing out of the double team before there even is a double team. There he is, taking a quick dribble to get a better angle for his boring but dependable jump hook. There he is, stopping immediately when the whistle blows instead of finishing a play that won't count because he wants to save his energy for the end of the game. There he is, sprinting down the floor at the end of the game, in perfect position for a dunk that could crack your TV screen. There he is, turning down that dunk for a layup.
This is another problem with watching Sullinger. Dunking does not interest him. Oh, sure, he'll dunk when it's necessary, and he admits that "every now and then you like to see an interesting dunk with people like Blake Griffin and Josh Smith and LeBron James," but he sounds as if he is talking about a different sport. He taught himself to windmill jam at 14, but only because people kept asking him to show off a dunk. He doesn't like to do it. ("You have to catch me on a good day," he says.)
Ask him to name his favorite play of his career. It's like asking a vegetarian to choose between Five Guys and In-N-Out Burger.
"Play?" Jared says. "Um... ."
Well, what was your favorite highlight?
You know: highlight.
"Highlight ... I don't know," he says.
Sullinger's game is not just fundamentally sound. At times it is postfundamental. After Sunday's 82--69 win over Minnesota, he was averaging 10.3 rebounds per game, second in the nation among freshmen, but a lot of the time he doesn't even box out. "I couldn't tell you it's positioning," he says. "I just know where the ball is going to go." Fundamentally sound players secure the ball in the post before they try a move, but, Sullinger says, "there's times when I don't even focus on catching the basketball. When the ball hits my hands, my eye is on the middle of the floor to see where the double team is coming from." He seems to know what opponents will do before they do. One of these days Sullinger is going to get whistled for traveling through time.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was asked what opposing teams do that bothers Sullinger. He was stumped. "If they're doing something, he'll just go to the counter to it," he says. Matta has coached three top five NBA draft picks at Ohio State, including the No. 1 pick in 2007, Greg Oden, and last year's college player of the year, Evan Turner, who went No. 2. But he says Sullinger "is the best I've ever brought in here in terms of productivity."
At week's end Sullinger was scoring 18.0 points per game, but he could average 25 if he wanted. That also does not interest him. All he cares about is making the right play. Assistant coach Jeff Boals says Sullinger must lead the country in "hockey assists"—the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the score.
Then there is everything Sullinger doesn't do (besides dunk). He has only fouled out once in 24 games. He has only picked up four fouls two other times. He rarely complains about a call and doesn't like to let opponents see him frustrated. In this era of college basketball, elite teams usually rely on wise upperclassmen, or freshmen on their way to the NBA. What makes Sullinger special is that he is, in effect, both.
"He is making senior plays," Matta says. "I don't know if he's done something this year and I said, 'Well, he's a freshman.' Not once. Some of the things he does, I'm like, That wasn't in the game plan, but boy, that was the right move."
How did this happen? How did an 18-year-old arrive at his hometown school as a basketball maestro? You should know, Barbara. You were there.
James (Satch) Sullinger told everybody from the beginning: Jared will be the best player in the family. Better than Satch and Barbara's oldest son, J.J., an Ohio State guard from 2003 to '06. Better than the middle child, Julian, a forward at Kent State from 2005 to '09.
Satch knew there was something different about his third child when "I saw him come out of the womb, and when he started unfolding his hands, his fingers just kept coming. They just never stopped." But that isn't why Satch was so sure Jared would be the best. It was because Jared was last.
For his first four years, J.J. did not have to share his parents. He became the scorer, the most flamboyant one. Julian had to fight to establish his place in the family, and he became a scrapper. Julian played in the paint at Kent State despite being listed generously at 6'5".
Jared is 10 years younger than J.J. and six years younger than Julian. If he wanted to play, he had to catch up. He could make free throws when he was three years old. He practiced drop steps in his parents' bedroom when he was four. One time J.J.'s high school team got blown out, and afterward, he recalls, "Jared walked up to me and said, 'Bro, y'all are terrible.' I said, 'I know.' He said, 'Why don't y'all play hard? I don't never want to play like that.' " Jared was six. At around that age, he would watch games on TV and point out to his family when a lack of weakside help defense allowed a backdoor pass for a basket.
He was fat and he sucked his thumb into his middle-school years, but he never felt socially awkward. "Jared is the type of person who really doesn't care what other people think," Barbara says. He just cared about what he wanted: to be the best basketball player in the family.
Satch coached all three of his boys at various levels, including Julian and Jared at Northland High. He did not force them to play basketball, but if they wanted to play, they had to play his way. Satch is a cement truck of a man who doesn't speak as much as bellow. He tells his players all the time, "You play the game the way you live your life." If his sons failed to grab a rebound, he said it was because they didn't take out the garbage the night before. If they didn't defend, it was because they didn't do their homework.
When Jared was a sophomore, he fell behind in his schoolwork. He was still eligible, but Satch benched him for a district tournament game anyway. Northland lost for the first time all year, and Jared was inconsolable. He blamed himself. He cried and told the seniors, "I'll never do that to you again." What he meant was that he'd never do that to anybody again.
Jared began to play with a purity of purpose that is startling even today. He can goof around with his teammates until five minutes before tip-off; then, he says, "I flip a switch and go play basketball." Matta adds, "He takes the first four minutes of the game and gets a feel for what's going on. From there, he plays the mental side of it." By the final buzzer, opponents don't know if Sullinger will score on them or pull nickels out of their ears.
Both his life and his game are free of clutter. He does not have any tattoos because he likes his arms the way they are, and besides, "My mommy—she told me she don't like tattoos." He has never picked his jersey number; in high school he wore Julian's 34, and at Ohio State he wears J.J.'s 0. He shakes his head when his brothers buy expensive clothes.
"What's the point of having that?" he asks. "Just give me a nice pair of Levi's."
What would he buy if he had a lot of money? A nice house, he says—for his parents. What about for himself? He thinks for a minute.
"I'd like to buy front-row tickets to a Jay-Z concert," he says. "If I could meet Michael Jordan and Jay-Z, I'm pretty much set."
But that's not a material item.
"To me, that's an item," he says. "An experience is an item."
Forget the spoils. To the victor goes the victory.
"I consider myself a winner," Sullinger says, and this is as close as he will come to bragging in public. It is also the only way he measures success. For now, the Sullingers have tabled the discussion of Jared's leaving for the NBA after this season. He is trying to lead Ohio State to a national championship, and everything in his experience makes him believe he can do it.
Sullinger's Northland teams went 95--4. His last three AAU teams went 201--9. Ohio State is 24--0. Add that all up, and he has won 96.1% of his games.
Sullinger will be a lottery pick whenever he leaves Ohio State. But NBA scouts are not in love with him the way they fell in love with Griffin or Oden. They question his athleticism. They wonder if his shot will get blocked too much—all those layups are fine against college kids, but what will Dwight Howard do with them?
The people who know him best aren't concerned. They say he has a better perimeter game than people realize—he just hasn't needed it at Ohio State. He has always learned to do whatever was necessary on the court, always been two steps ahead. These days college teams try to force him to his left hand, and even though he is just a freshman, they are already too late. He added a lefthanded jump hook last summer, before he needed it.
No, what worries the people who love him is not the game of pro basketball. It is the business of it. "He'll be a commodity," his mother says. They wonder what will happen when a young man with such a virtuous approach to basketball joins a league with so many agendas.
"He won't understand why somebody is not going to be his friend," says J.J., now a Columbus real estate agent. "He won't understand why somebody will refuse to pass him the ball. He won't understand why somebody will refuse to play hard, or why a team refuses to try to win. Jared only knows one way to play. He only knows how to win. All that other stuff, the extra, is what I worry about."
And yet ... Jared Sullinger has been playing the game the way he lives his life for years. Surely, he can find a way to live an NBA life the way he plays the game: unselfishly, without excess.
His mom says she doesn't get to talk to him as much as she would like these days. But she asked him recently, "Jared, are you happy?" And Jared the jokester said no, he was not happy, because his girlfriend was being mean to him.
"Seriously," Barbara said, "Are you happy? With all these cameras, all this media attention, all these fans calling your name, all this pressure... . Are you happy?"
"I'm used to it," her youngest son said. "I've been under pressure for a long time."
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ELITE TEAMS RELY ON UPPERCLASSMEN, OR FRESHMEN ON THEIR WAY TO THE NBA. SULLINGER IS, IN EFFECT, BOTH.
Photograph by DAVID E. KLUTHO
THE BIG MOZART Sullinger, who averages a double double, arrived on campus with a symphony of moves and countermoves.
MATT BLISS (JULIAN SULLINGER)
FAMILY STYLE Barbara and Satch (center) have nurtured a hoops-loving trio of brothers that includes J.J. (0) and Julian (34).
Photographs by DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]
Photographs by DAVID E. KLUTHO
UPWARD BOUND Even though he doesn't carve out ideal position underneath, Sullinger finds a way to corral rebounds.