Before the news of Jared Sullinger's medical red flags hit the press, his stock was already sinking. His poor showing at the pre-draft combine in Chicago confirmed a lot of the suspicions about his agility. While his on-court production was once a very exciting talking point, the conversation had devolved into doom and gloom. If the draft hype does indeed reflect the opinions of NBA GMs, it could be a very real possibility that Jared Sullinger is on the board at #9 when Detroit makes its selection. Should the Pistons let him slide any further?
The Sullinger Slide
Before the combine measurements and medical red flags were released, selecting Jared Sullinger at #9 was largely a pipe dream. Big men with his skill and production are rare in the NBA, and it was likely that a team drafting before the Pistons would bring him in as the best player available. Yet even before the combine, the conversation about Sullinger had changed. His dynamic, often dominant production was off the table, replaced by concerns about his athleticism, his weight, and comparisons to guys like Mike Sweetney.
It is conversations like these that drive down real talent in the NBA draft. Two years ago, Greg Monroe fell to the #7 pick when concerns about his motor, his athleticism and his "passive appearance" seemed more important than the 16 points, 52% shooting, 10 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 fouls per game he put up in college. Two years later, Greg Monroe put up 15 points, 52% shooting, 10 rebounds, 1 steal and 3 fouls in the NBA. Not all players find an even translation to the NBA, and that is why these talking points about motor and athleticism seem to be so important. In Sullinger's case, his worst-in-class lane agility and sprint numbers are the most important numbers he's registered if you read the recent news reports. Never mind that "fat-and-slow" Sullinger just put up 18 and 9 for a Final Four NCAA team.
The Medical Red Flag
Earlier this week, ESPN's Chad Ford reported that Jared Sullinger had been "red flagged" by NBA doctors for a back issue that could shorten his career. Ford cited unnamed sources in his report, and subsequently sank Sullinger's stock to 20 in his 8th Mock Draft for the year. What does this mean for Sullinger's career prospect in the NBA? He could join fellow red-flag Danny Granger who has had 7 healthy years and counting. He could also join Brandon Roy, whose meteoric 4-year rise to MVP contention ended with a 5th year flame-out and early retirement.
The decision on Sullinger's back should fall to Arnie Kander, who will likely have a chance to inspect him at the group workout scheduled for Monday. Even if Kander believes Sullinger may only have a six or seven year career ahead of him, it's important to remember that fully healthy #9 picks don't always last that long in the NBA.
Given that the Sullinger report came from unnamed sources, it could be a diversionary tactic to sink his stock a bit. Even Pistons.com's Keith Langlois recognizes spin when he sees it. Chad Ford has been known to have a direct line to many NBA GMs and he's always been close with Detroit's own Joe Dumars, in fact. If this report is subterfuge, it is the kind of thing Dumars was once well known for. Wild speculation or not, there is potential for smoke and mirrors here.
If He Falls, Would He Fit?
There are four very pressing needs in Detroit, three of which most fans are well aware of-- rebounding, defense and shot blocking. Ideally, Greg Monroe would be paired with a defensive specialist who can play above the rim-- someone like Anthony Davis would fit perfectly. While the defensive need is harder to quantify, the stats tell a clear story of Detroit's problems. They're near the bottom of the league in rebounding and shot blocking, a trait they share with lottery teams like Cleveland and Brooklyn.
Beyond defense, shot blocking and rebounding, what is Detroit's fourth pressing need? Detroit's lack of frontcourt scoring is a glaring issue, one fans and the media have barely explored as we approach the 2012 draft. Detroit's combined 21.9 points per game up front place them in ugly territory with teams like Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans and Portland. While Miami and Oklahoma City also sport low-scoring frontcourts, they make up for it with the two most prolific scorers in the game.
Given Detroit's needs, how would Jared Sullinger fit? His production would clearly improve Detroit's rebounding and frontcourt scoring. If Sullinger's production translates, Detroit could climb above the average in both areas, giving them one of the premier pairings in the league on the glass and scoring.
Shot blocking and defense are two areas where Sullinger wouldn't provide much help. However, there is hope in the numbers that a 20-year-old Sullinger can at least be serviceable at both. His 1.1 blocks per game in 2011-12 double his per-minute numbers in the prior year, giving hope for momentum in the NBA. That said, it's unreasonable to expect him to become a shot-blocking threat like John Henson or Andre Drummond, but he'll pan out somewhere between Tyler Zeller and Arnett Moultrie.
In terms of defense, Sullinger is not a valued commodity, but he does present a bit of help Detroit's frontcourt currently needs. Sullinger was a very effective on-the-ball defender at Ohio State, a discipline that Greg Monroe lacks. His defensive failings relate mostly to pick-and-rolls, a place where Greg Monroe excels. Together, if the two were to establish chemistry on defense, they could work to switch off to match the opposition. Monroe has the height and mobility to bother NBA power forwards, and Sullinger has the mass to bother NBA centers. It may not be a marquis defensive duo, but it might just be serviceable enough to let them do their damage on the other end of the court.
The offensive damage is where this duo would shine. Both players can score efficiently and prolifically by using a wide, versatile range of offensive skills. Both can do plenty of damage in the low post, and both can stretch to 18 feet with an effective jumper. Monroe began to command double teams in his sophomore season, and Sullinger pulled them regularly in the NCAA. Having two 20-10 threats in the frontcourt that can both pull double-teams could be indefensible. The fact that both players are able passers makes the pairing all the more potentially dynamic.
On Draft Day, What's the Verdict?
The decision is obviously up to Arnie Kander, but the red flag news has the stink of subversion to it. If any team in the league has the training capacity to take on a developmental red flag like this one, it's the Detroit Pistons. If Sullinger's career does end early, in six or seven years, he may still outpace most draftees at the #9 spot.
While Sullinger does not present the above-the-rim, defensive shot blocker that would neutralize Greg Monroe's weaknesses, he might be serviceable enough to make for an average frontcourt defense. In terms of rebounding and frontcourt scoring, Sullinger might be the best option in the draft after Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson. Detroit can do a whole lot worse at #9, but I can't see them doing any better than Jared Sullinger.
We can talk about Sullinger's size, lack of athleticism and his back all we want. At the end of the day, all he's ever done on court is flourish-- and that's a hard record to deny. Pass on a proven talent like this at your own Peril, Detroit.