Sullinger, Jones And The Burden of Scrutiny

The smile on Jared Sullinger’s face was hardly indicative of the frustration he was experiencing upon being faced with the same health-related questions and criticisms he was hearing for the umpteenth time.

“Not really,” says Sullinger in response to whether reports of his back issues have been getting to him. “Most of [the reporters] have never even played the game before, so what can they say?”

One could argue that young NBA prospects have never been better prepared to endure the public scrutiny, attention and second-guessing that comes with their introduction to the pros. Of course, one could also argue that the degree of scrutiny, attention or second-guessing has never been higher.

Regardless, these are still young men in their early 20’s being forced to contend with a repetitive and often vaguely attacking line of questioning as they continue to position themselves ahead of next Friday’s draft.

On Thursday in Toronto, in what Raptors’ vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski called “a real heavyweight workout”, Ohio State’s Sullinger showcased his abilities against Baylor’s Perry Jones III, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and UNC’s John Henson. The common thread among all four is their status as prospective NBA big men.

But, at least in the case of Sullinger and Jones III, there is a common chip to be found on their broad shoulders.

Sullinger’s prickliness, in particular, was on display on Thursday, a surprise from a player with a reputation for being mild-mannered. But while some may be quick to chalk his moody, snappy disposition up to being an immature 20-year old, it may not be that simple.

Think about things from his perspective: you are coming off two successful years as the go-to guy with the Buckeyes and are now working towards draft day through continued battles with a group of rival power forward prospects while so many others shy away from competitive workouts. And yet, all you’ve encountered along the way is negativity – questions about your health, your draft stock, your decision not to go pro a year earlier and, ironically, reports of a potentially costly red flag from NBA doctors even as you participate in full contact drills.

Jones III, who has participated in several workouts already with Sullinger, can relate.

The athletic 6’11” forward boasts a muscular physique and 7’2″ wingspan, prompting many observers to expect more out of him that what he displayed in two years at Baylor (13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds). Despite playing a critical role as a scoring and passing threat out of the post on two talented Bears squads that also featured Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, questions about Jones’ motor were still rampant.

“I can’t worry about what’s being said about me or what people think I should do different,” says Jones. “[...] For me, it’s all about finding a way to block out a lot of what the critics are saying but, at the same time, also use it as motivation.”

Who’s to say that there isn’t any legitimacy to the criticisms being levied at this trio of prospects? It’s hard to see Sullinger’s injury reports being completely baseless and Stefanski wasn’t ready to extinguish the speculation when asked about the health of the former Buckeye (he would only say that “our doctors will look at everything”).

Meanwhile, the unpredictability of Jones, perhaps, best illustrated through the 20-year-old’s projected “Best Case / Worst Case” comparables on DraftExpress.com (best case: Rudy Gay / Josh Smith hybrid, worst case: Yi Jianlian).

At this stage, no one – not even Anthony Davis – is a sure thing. As with so many other drafts, there will likely be a player to fall through the cracks on account of over-evaluation.

If it turns out to be one of these men, it will represent yet another case of nitpicking taken too far.