Perhaps you are familiar with Jared Sullinger. He was projected as a top-three draft pick. Then the NBA issued a red flag pertaining to a back ailment, and lottery teams tripped over themselves running away from the Ohio State big man in terror. He fell to the Celtics at pick No. 20 and turned out to be a mighty fine pro player, until said back issues ended his season in February.
You probably remember this, of course, even though a key element of it is not true.
Sullinger was indeed predicted as a top-three pick — in 2011, in far-ahead projections that, due to their nature, often rely on a lot of assumptions and speculation. By the time the 2012 draft rolled around, Sullinger was consistently slated to go in the middle of the lottery, maybe as high as sixth, in the majority of mock drafts. This is not taking anything away from Sullinger, who proved up and down this season that many of his naysayers were wrong. But a lot had changed in a year. Nobody was drafting Sullinger, healthy or not, ahead of Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Nobody.
Then the red flag came up, the Celtics nabbed Sullinger and the team started rewriting the narrative. Suddenly, Sullinger would have been drafted in the top three, or at least the top five, sans red flag. Never mind that Cleveland, picking fourth, wanted a wing player, or that Sacramento, picking fifth, had a weird fascination with Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, or that Portland, picking sixth, badly needed a point guard. Sullinger was a top-five talent, so he would have gone in the top five, all other evidence be damned.
We bring this up because a similar rewrite of reality happened Tuesday, when Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart announced he would not declare for the NBA draft. The move made sense. At 6-foot-4, Smart probably is too small to play shooting guard as a pro, and scouting reports indicate he does not run the pick-and-roll well. Yet as soon as he made his decision public, the reaction across the basketball blogosphere was shock that a “high lottery pick” was staying a Cowboy.
What? No. Stop. While a couple projections placed Smart as high as the top four — with ESPN calling him the No. 1 point guard on the board — those were not typical before Smart’s announcement. Many reliable draft websites had Smart being selected in the mid-to-low lottery, with the extremely thorough Draft Express placing him at No. 9. These projections have to be part of the reason Smart is staying in college. His move is not a shocking, boneheaded reversal. It is simply practical.
In a draft widely considered to be weak, Smart had several knocks against him. Trouble operating the pick and roll is as severe a red flag as any medical-related one for a would-be NBA point guard. Greivis Vasquez and Raymond Felton have proved that if a player can do little else other than run a pick and roll well, he can play point guard in the pros. Likewise, worries about Sullinger’s lack of length and athleticism reportedly caused some executives to back away from him prior to the draft, before any concerns about his back came up.
Again, this is not a knock against Smart or Sullinger. If anything, Sullinger’s success illustrates how a paint-by-numbers approach to the draft is loaded with faults. Both players show how drastically the premise can shift when the situation changes, however. It is easy to make predictions when they can’t possibly come true. Projecting Smart as the third overall pick would have been laughable when there was still a chance he could be in the draft. Now that he will not be drafted anywhere, such a wild projection cannot be proven false, so apparently it can be paraded around as truth.
Sullinger will be back on the court next fall, battling for a spot in the Celtics’ starting lineup. Smart will be back in Stillwater, Okla., hopefully honing his outside shot and running pick-and-roll drills until he collapses. They should turn out to be pretty good players, no matter where they were — or were not — drafted.
Photo via Facebook/Oklahoma State Athletics