As the youngest of three brothers, Jared Sullinger has always had tough acts to follow. On a rainy Tuesday in Value City Arena, the Ohio State power forward got the chance to follow a man who announced he was there to “blow stuff up.”
On Columbus City Schools Baseball Day on OSU’s campus, an estimated 3,000 sixth graders were treated to a number of speakers including one of their own. Sullinger, who graduated from Columbus Northland, was one of the featured presenters on a list that included the aforementioned representative from COSI who created on-stage explosions a few moments before the Buckeye took the stage.
Reading from an outlined script, Sullinger used his own situation to encourage the students to stay in school.
“Do you know that the NBA wanted me to play with them next year?” he asked. “That’s, impressive, right? Guess what I told them? Playing basketball is important to me, but staying in school is better.”
That was the message delivered to the students, who were scheduled to also take in an OSU baseball game that afternoon. That he was even there to deliver it was a feat in itself given most NBA draft projections following his freshman season. After being named the nation’s top freshman, Sullinger turned down the chance to become a lottery pick to return for his sophomore season in Columbus.
Immediately after the season ended with a loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Sullinger told anyone who would listen that he would be returning. Now, nearly two months later, the reasons why are becoming evident.
Gone are three players in David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale who twice reached the Sweet 16, captured an NIT title and one of whom (Lighty) helped bring home three Big Ten titles in five years. This year’s team will feature one senior, a transfer student who will be a junior, six sophomores and five freshmen.
Expected to be a major leader on the team next season, Sullinger not only opted to return but he declined an invitation to play for Team USA this summer.
“We’re real young and they need all the leadership that they can get,” he said. “We don’t have Jon Dieblers or David Lightys who have been there. We’ve only been there one season so we need as much leadership as possible.
“It was easy. Honestly, it’s team before me. I love this team and I’d do anything for them. I juts understand that Trey McDonald and Amir Williams need another big there that’s been through everything, especially coming from where I came from weight-wise. They’ve just got to understand that they’ve got to come in and work hard so I’m trying to set the table.”
After being listed at 280 pounds on the roster last season, Sullinger said he has trimmed down to 275 – about a 10-pound drop from what he played at throughout the season.
Twice, Sullinger mentioned June 20 as a key date this summer. It is when the freshman class – including post players Amir Williams and Trey McDonald – will arrive on campus and start preparing for the 2011-12 campaign.
Sullinger said he and William Buford, the senior on the roster, are already getting a grasp on what their roles will be this season.
“We’re having fun,” he said. “Will and I are seeing things and we’re trying to get everything ready to go and lock and load June 20 when the freshmen come in. We’re just handling our business right now.”
“Next year, (seeing) what we have to do, where we have to take our leadership,” he said.
Although he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds while playing almost exclusively in the paint, Sullinger was more of an all-around player in high school. Adding Williams, McDonald and Evan Ravenel could mean fans will see Sullinger playing closer to the perimeter at times.
That has been the focus of Sullinger’s skill session workouts with the coaching staff this spring.
“It helps us out because I’m working more on my perimeter game than my inside game,” he said. “Now we’re focused on next year and not this year. With Amir coming in and all the bigs we have, Evan Ravenel and Trey McDonald and even you can throw Deshaun (Thomas) in sometimes, it will be interesting to see what kind of lineup we have.”
As for his message to the students, Sullinger has his father and former coach, Satch, to thank. As a sophomore at Northland, Sullinger was suspended for a playoff game because his father felt he had been lagging behind in the classroom. The Vikings subsequently lost, and an emotional Jared Sullinger swore to never make the same mistake again.
“It’s part of the place where I grew up,” he said. “Academics are the biggest key right now in every part of the world. I don’t want anybody to fall short like I did my sophomore year.”