Jared Sullinger screams due to intense back pain (Jim Rogash/ Getty).
Most every June, rumors abound of a notable draft prospect having an injury that could linger and hamper his entire NBA career. It's happened in the past with DeJuan Blair (literally no ACLs) and Darrell Arthur (a phantom kidney issue), and many other potential issues have been brought up and dismissed. In some cases, like with Blair and Arthur, the players dropped in the draft significantly. When suggestions of injury pop up, an already inexact science gets that much more confusing.
In this year's draft, there's a potential injury scare now afoot with Ohio State big man and projected lottery pick Jared Sullinger. Though incredibly productive in Columbus, Sullinger scares some teams because of a perceived lack of athleticism and defensive deficiencies. Now, based on a report from Chad Ford of ESPN.com, there might also be a problem with his back:
Sullinger, who is projected to be a lottery pick in the draft on June 28, underwent a series of medical tests at the draft combine a week ago. A number of NBA team doctors have reviewed the information from the NBA and have told their front office staff that Sullinger's back issues could shorten his NBA career, and some have advised their teams not to draft him in the first round.
Sullinger's agent, David Falk, told ESPN.com by phone that he was not in a position to comment on the story. Sullinger's father, Satch Sullinger, said he believes the issue isn't that serious.
"He had a bulging area that was due to his hamstring and quads being so tight," Satch Sullinger told ESPN.com senior college basketball writer Andy Katz in a phone call Monday afternoon. "It pulled on his hip flexor and he's been taking care of it to loosen it. You can call it a red flag if you want. But it's tight hamstring and tight quads. He's been to doctors, he's doing yoga and deep tissue massage. The flexibility is helping take the pressure off the area.
"We've got nothing to hide. At this stage it's all about what they can't do. Jared is a skilled player. A two-time All-American. He can play."
Falk didn't speak to Ford, but he did talk to Sam Amick of SI.com:
"Jared has consulted with one of the foremost specialists of backs and spines, who has vast experience treating professional athletes," Falk told SI.com. "He has explained to us that Jared had extremely tight hamstrings that became tight because he had suffered an injury that I don't think he was aware of to his hamstring. He needs to maintain vigilance with his flexibility. And if he does that, and keeps his weight at an appropriate level, then he should have absolutely no problems over the next 15 years."
The reports from doctors and the comments by Falk and the elder Sullinger don't necessarily contradict each other. It's entirely possible that this red flag can be nullified by proper conditioning. Some doctors might be telling teams to stay away, but the general point of the red flag is to warn. Sullinger's injuries aren't a death sentence to his career — they just alert teams to pay special attention to him.
Plus, in some cases, dropping in the draft can be good for a player. Teams are in the lottery because they need lots of help, and top picks tend to be saddled with undue pressure to perform well immediately, no matter how unfair those expectations might be. Sullinger is a talented player, but he's also limited in pretty obvious ways. He's not necessarily cut out to be a star, and could be a better fit (at least in his early seasons) as a rotation player than as a starter expected to shoulder a large scoring and rebounding load.
In his most recent mock draft for DraftExpress.com (updated Tuesday afternoon), Jonathan Givony has Sullinger going at No. 7 to the Golden State Warriors — a team with established yet injury-prone frontcourt starters in David Lee and Andrew Bogut and little depth. Imagine, though, if Sullinger were to drop to a team in the teens like the Philadelphia 76ers or Dallas Mavericks, for whom he could ease into a role. Maybe he would get in better shape, become quicker, and turn into a more effective defender; perhaps he'd find his way as a more interior version of Kevin Love. Whatever the case, getting that space to figure things out could help his career over time. He'd take a financial hit early, but he could even end up making more money over time.
Draft prospects understandably want to be picked as high as possible — they're a confident bunch who dream of becoming stars in the league. In practice, though, it's not a terrible thing to end up with a playoff team that needs an extra boost. There are only a few guys in the NBA capable of coming into a bad team and changing the course of the franchise. By most appraisals, Sullinger isn't that sort of player. Is it the worst thing to end up with an organization that will accept any boost he can provide?
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