So What is the Deal with Sullinger's Back?


The NBA draft has come and gone, and the Celtics drafted a power forward with the 21st pick who may have a chronic back injury. That doesn't exactly have LeBron James quaking in his Nikes in Miami.


My reaction to the NBA Draft last June was probably like many of your's. Hey, looks like we drafted the second coming of Glen Davis and Leon Powe. Davis had a very good rookie year, with memorable games against the Pistons and Spurs. Powe had a memorable sophomore season with the highlight coming in game 2 of the NBA Finals where he was probably the game's most valuable player. But neither player earned the rave reviews that Jared Sullinger has earned in only a few weeks as a Boston Celtic.

Which got me to wondering. If Sullinger really is this good, how did he fall to 21? I did some research, and the results are compiled after the jump.

I was skeptical that the entire problem was his back. In the end, however, I do think that was the primary reason his stock fell among NBA teams. You'll also see that he had some problems against bigger players (not surprising for a player of his height). Finally, his rebounding numbers slipped a tad from college season number one to college season number 2.

Still, the biggest reason for Sullinger's fall in the draft appears to have been his back. The seriousness of his back issues remains a bit murky. Doc doesn't seem too concerned in the excerpts I provide below. But Danny does acknowledge the possibility of surgery at some point.

Seemingly the only roadblock in Sullinger's path is a back issue that caused him to plunge down draft boards. The 6-foot-9, 268-pounder arrived in Chicago for the draft combine in early June as a lock for the top 10, but teams were scared off by the discovery of bulging discs in his back during medical examinations. Sullinger played in 74-of-76 games at Ohio State, missing two last season with back spasms, though Ohio State Coach Thad Matta is quick to point out that, "From the day he came back, he never missed a game, he never missed a practice, he never missed a walkthrough."

"He had a bulging area that was due to his hamstring and quads being so tight," Satch Sullinger, who coached his son in high school, told ESPN.com earlier this month. "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 the 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."

"He's got a bulging disk. There's a difference," he said. "A herniated disk means the (inner layer of the disk is) already out. A bulging disk means (the inner layer is) protruding a little bit." Satch Sullinger, Jared's father, said that was the same diagnosis he received from an Ohio State team doctor after Jared first suffered back spasms last November. 

"I played for 13 years with a bad back and was OK, and he will be, too," Rivers, a former All-Star guard and the Celtics' coach, told Boston media after the team made Sullinger the 21st pick in the NBA draft on Thursday. "Our doctors checked him out, and they didn't give him a red flag. When you don't get red-flagged, it will pretty much be OK."  "We were concerned and we did our research on the back issues and felt comfortable," general manager Danny Ainge told reporters after the draft. "But there are some issues there, and our medical staff thinks that, short term and long term, there may be some maintenance issues with the back. "He may need surgery at some point, he may not."

Satch said two specialists retained by Jared's agent, David Falk, "say that surgery is not something they see (in his future), that this is a manageable thing. Jared understands how important flexibility is now, and stretching, and keeping his weight down. Those are things he has total control over."

Sullinger's gradual fall accelerated after ESPN reported that NBA doctors had "red-flagged" him for unspecified back issues that could shorten his career. Under those circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of teams for being gun-shy, even though his success in what might have been the nation's best basketball conference would indicate that his health is less of a risk than the talent level of many of the players picked ahead of him.


NBA scouts loved Ohio State's Jared Sullinger as a freshman, until they didn't.

They fell out of love with him after 6-10 Josh Harrellson, a second-round New York Knicks' draft choice (No. 45) who averaged 4.4 points as a rookie, played Sullinger better than anyone expected in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Sullinger got 21 points and 16 rebounds, but Harrellson got 17 and 10 for Kentucky. Without double-teaming Sullinger in the post except for "digs" (swats) at the ball, the other Wildcats could tighten the screws on William Buford, whose terrible shooting (2-of-16) led to the Sweet 16 upset.

Thus began the downsizing of Sullinger.

Against Kansas' 6-11 Jeff Withey in the Final Four, Sullinger was only 5-of-19 shooting. Withey had the muscle to push Sullinger into untenable angles and the reach to block him from behind in the push-and-shove in the paint. When Sully tried to force his inside game, the result was more ungainly shots than had been seen since Shawn Kemp had lost his hops and was bulling through the paint with the Cavs. Sullinger clanged shots off the under side of the rim and made wayward flings off the corner of the glass as he tried to draw fouls. Defensively, he was not quick enough to defend the high pick-and-roll consistently. Statistical surveys say opponents were successful more than 40 percent of the time against him in such situations. The pick-and-roll is the bread-and-butter of NBA offenses. 

Sullinger, projected as a lottery pick in the June 28 draft, got poor reviews during agility tests at the NBA combine, but said it shouldn't factor into his worth. "I'm not a testing type of guy. I'm a basketball player," Sullinger said. "?... I apologize to everybody that thinks I didn't do well. That's just me. I'm a basketball player. I know how to play with a basketball."

He averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds as a sophomore, after a freshman season of 17.2 and 10.2.


Lex said...

"Jared has consulted with one of the foremost specialists of backs and spines, who has vast experience treating professional athletes," Sullinger's agent, David 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."

FLCeltsFan said...

Only 15 years? hardly worth it LOL

I hadn't seen that quote by Doc that he played with a bad back. Interesting.

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