Expecting Big Things from Sullinger

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I'm from Ohio, so Jared Sullinger has been on my radar for a long time. But more than that, I've been a fan of Kevin Garnett since early in the Timberwolves days, which means that the draft has had a special spot of wistfulness in my heart for awhile. As you may or may not remember, the owner of the Timberwolves (in conjunction with Kevin Mchale) made an under the table deal with Joe Smith and got caught, which resulted in the league punishing the team by taking five #1 draft picks away. The league later gave two of those picks back, but as a result of the punishment and other trades the Wolves only had one first round pick between 1999 and 2005.

Thus, the yearly lottery and draft became more of a wish session for me than anything else. I'd see an outstanding college prospect and think "wow, it'd be nice to see that guy playing next to KG"...knowing that there was no chance it would happen because the Wolves had no draft picks. And the few times that they did have draft picks, I'd end up setting my heart on players that were way out of price range:

  • In '03 I really got into this undersized shooting guard from Marquette that I hoped would slide because of his height limitations...but instead Dwyane Wade went with the fifth overall pick, and the Wolves ended up picking someone named Ndudi Ebi at pick #26 (ironically, the pick before the Grizzlies would choose a high school center named Kendrick Perkins).
  • In '06 I got all into this awkward defensive monster who was dominating the NCAA, and the Wolves actually had a lottery pick that I crossed all my fingers and toes would be high enough for them to get him. But instead Joakim Noah went back to school, and the Wolves traded past Brandon Roy and Rudy Gay to bring home Randy Foye.
  • In '07 another dominant big came through Ohio State like a whirlwind, and since I'd been hearing about him since junior high I was sure that it was destiny for him to play next to KG to form a modern day twin towers. Instead the Wolves got the 7th pick, way too late to make my Garnett/Greg Oden frontline dreams come true...but early enough for them to pass on the previous year's dream (Noah) to instead take his much less talented teammate Corey Brewer.

Yeah, the NBA draft was a special kind of torture for someone that followed the Timberwolves.

And since Garnett got to Boston, the draft has never really been a priority since the team was always so veteran-heavy and built to contend NOW. Unlike the pull-the-bandaid-off-slow torture of the the draft for the Timberwolves, since KG got to Boston I haven't given much thought to the draft at all.

But man, back in 2010, I couldn't help but take notice when the Bucks trotted out another dominant big guy in Sullinger. It hadn't been that long since Oden had swirled through, so I was a bit surprised to see them again sporting one of the best big man prospects in the country. And Sullinger was crushing the game, carrying the Bucks up the rankings list while making a name for himself as a potential #1 overall draft pick. And for the first time in years, I started getting that old wistful "man, it'd be nice to see that guy play next to KG, but it'll never happen" feeling that used to be a staple during the Timberwolves years.

And it wasn't just because he was a great player that played in Ohio. No, like with Oden, I was more intrigued by just how much his skill set seemed to perfectly mesh next to Garnett. With Oden I fore-saw them forming the greatest defensive frontline possibly in NBA history...that obviously isn't what I saw in Sullinger. In Sullinger, though, I saw the potential for one of the most talented and balanced inside/outside tandems in the NBA at both ends of the court. At first blush Sullinger was the consummate college banger inside, but upon further viewing it was clear that he was incredibly skilled as well. That he had touch, that he could shoot with both hands, that he was comfortable off the face-up and with the midrange J as well, that he could pass, and that he had excellent hands. When I saw Sullinger play as a freshman I realized that Garnett had never played next to a big man that skilled offensively, and I really wanted to see what such a tandem might look like.

Sullinger of course returned to school for his sophomore season, and once again I was paying attention. I noticed that there was consistent talk of him being hurt and having to sit out some games, and I started hearing buzz that maybe he was too short to dominate on the next level. But again, if anything all this talk did was give me the slightest glimmer of hope that he might fall to the Celtics in the draft because I knew that if there was one person in the NBA perfect to cover for Sullinger's weaknesses, it was Garnett. Garnett has the length to guard the centers that would be too tall for Sullinger and the quickness to cover the stretch 4s that might be too fast for Sullinger on defense. And on offense, Garnett's presence ensured that no defense could ever focus their best interior defender on him either. I still saw no way Sullinger would fall low enough that the Celtics could grab him, but I still day-dreamed about the possiblity.

So imagine my joy (and mild shock) in this year's draft when, pick after pick, Sullinger just stayed on the board. When he got to 10 I noticed but tried to ignore it. By the time he got to 15 I couldn't help but start counting down the picks. And when the Nuggets took Fournier at 20, I was ready to positively erupt. My only fear at that point was that the Celtics, like the Wolves had done in '07 with Noah, would decide to pass on the player that just obviously (to me) was the best on the board. But the Celtics had two picks, and they put me out of my worry quickly by getting the Sullinger pick in with the first one.

So now he's here...realistically, what can we expect from him this year?

I think the biggest question/limiting factors are 1) how much Doc wants to depend on a rookie and 2) the politics/finances/talents of Brandon Bass and Jeff Green. Because I really think that (as Doc said in an interview this summer but few really believed) Sullinger could come in and start day one, and be an excellent addition to the team. I think that his ability to knock down the mid-range would make him a good pick-and-pop partner with Rondo, that his hands/passing ability/touch/scoring knack would make him an excellent high-low partner with Garnett, that his rebounding would be a welcome boost on the boards at both ends of the court, and that all-in-all he might be the best starting option for that position that we have.

But Bass played well last season, and Bass and Green signed for a combined $15M per year...I have trouble seeing both of them coming off the bench. And that's a complicating factor for Sullinger, because I think (more than the other two) he NEEDS to play next to Garnett to be a big minutes threat. Sully should be able to go against the second unit of opponents just fine because he is that talented, but it wouldn't make sense for him to be the player that subs in for KG in the 5-5-5 plan because that would put him in the position to be the defensive anchor for significant minutes against opposing starters...not a good position. But if he's playing purely the 4 I just don't see enough minutes for him to thrive backing up Bass and fighting off Green for minutes as well.

Which leaves my Sully forecast with a large degree of uncertainty. If he were to start from Day One I truly believe he'd be a Rookie of the Year candidate. On the other hand, I could also see him playing only 15 minutes per night off the bench and developing into more of a rebounding role player this season. Ultimately, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Early on he might not get as much burn, but I really think that Sullinger is better now than Big Baby was even when he was getting 6th man of the year buzz in 2011. By the time the playoffs roll around, I have to feel like Sully will have found a way to make his mark, and will be a huge part of our postseason rotation.

For the first time, the team that I'm pulling for has drafted the exact player that I wanted to see play next to Garnett. Count seeing Sully in Green as another one of the reasons that I am extremely excited about this upcoming season.

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