clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Cautionary Tale of Jared Sullinger, or Why Players Trust John Calipari

A sure-fire lottery pick in 2011, Jared Sullinger returned only to see his NBA stock drop due to back problems.
A sure-fire lottery pick in 2011, Jared Sullinger returned only to see his NBA stock drop due to back problems.

We have been here before, haven't we? The place where college basketball fans observe that player, or those players, who were hot one year, come back for another bite at the college apple, and suddenly wind up a cautionary tale?

So it seems it will be with Jared Sullinger. "Sully" had an all-American season with the Ohio St. Buckeyes a year ago, decided to come back for another year in school, and now we have this from Rob Dauster at NBC Sports:

As a result, Sullinger’s draft stock has gotten to the point that he reportedly has not been invited to the Green Room at the draft, where players expected to be pick in the top 10 to 15 spots wait to be selected. There is still a chance that he gets taken earlier is a team is enamored with him, but recent history isn’t favorable. Darrell Arthur fell all the way to 27th in the 2008 draft as a result of questions about a potential kidney ailment. A year later, DeJuan Blair — a guy that many use as a comparison for Sullinger at the next level — fell to the second round because of he didn’t have any ACLs in his knees.

I am sorry for Sullinger, but you could see this coming. We have seen it before, as Dauster notes above. I can almost promise you this, though -- if Sullinger had been playing for Kentucky instead of Ohio St. last year, this would not have happened to him.

For all the heat John Calipari gets for encouraging players to go when they are ready, Sullinger's case is pure reinforcement of the idea that if you don't make your move when circumstances dictate, you can potentially see your NBA career blow up in your face.

I'm not saying that's what's going to happen to Sullinger, and he could still be drafted in the first round and do very well in the NBA. But dark clouds have materialized over what was wall-to-wall sunshine last year, when he would have almost certainly been a top five pick. That's a whole universe of difference with this year, when he'll be on the outside of the the Green Room looking in.

Earlier in his career, Calipari convinced a hot college player to go pro early, a pioneering move in player-coach relations. His name was DaJuan Wagner, and he was famous for being the first of Calipari's "one and done," and a very controversial one at that. But thanks to John Calipari's complete understanding of how this system works, and the critical, sometimes career-dependent importance of timing, he saved Wagner many millions of dollars:

Take Calipari’s situation with Dajuan Wagner as a primary example. Wagner, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2001, was the first superstar to pair up with Calipari in nearly a decade. With Wagner, Memphis won twenty-seven games and looked poised for a deep tournament run if Wagner would return for his sophomore campaign. Still, Calipari revoked Wagner’s scholarship for his sophomore season because Wagner had been wavering on whether to declare for the NBA Draft or to return to school. Calipari knew it was best for his star to enter the draft and make millions of dollars while his stock was at an all-time high. By taking the decision out of his player’s hands, Calipari’s foresight salvaged Wagner’s career. The sixth overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft was discovered to suffer from ulcerative colitis just two seasons into his NBA career. Had Calipari not forced Wagner to take the riches of the NBA, Wagner’s illness likely would have been discovered before he ever earned millions.

This is why you don't come back to school when you are a lottery pick. Ever. Every player who does it is doing himself and his family a disservice unless an education right now is legitimately more important to him than millions of dollars. I cast no aspersions on any lottery pick who holds that view, if such a one actually exists. Rather, I simply suggest that they be prepared to accept negative consequences for the decision, and accept full responsibility for those consequences.

It's not the NBA's fault that Sullinger developed back problems. In fact, this points to a major reason why the NBA wants to add more years to their age restrictions -- it gives physical issues like those of Sullinger or Greg Oden time to emerge into view before teams invest millions in their careers.

So when Calipari was tearing up Wagner's scholarship papers, as the story goes, who was looking out for his welfare -- Calipari or those who were counseling him to return?

I think I know the answer. I think you do, too.