June 27, 2012

Sullinger embracing role of the underdog

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

The avatar on Jared Sullinger's twitter page says it all.

He's a two-time All-American who spent the past two years as both the leading scorer and rebounder on one of the top teams in the country and will be a multi-millionaire by the end of the week. So just how is it that a picture of the cartoon character 'Underdog' is what the former Ohio State forward feels best represents him these days?

"Since day one, I've been an underdog," Sullinger told gathered media members following a workout with the Toronto Raptors on June 21. "It's life. I like it."

The Columbus-native's current mindset likely stems from recent reports of failed physicals, medical red flags, and the subsequent mock drafts that project the former Ohio State star's status to be slipping for Thursday night's NBA draft. Once thought to be a lock to be a top-10 selection, recent mock drafts have Sullinger falling to anywhere to teams selecting from the mid-teens to the early 20s. On Tuesday, the online casino Boveda posted a prop bet setting the over/under on the 6-foot-9 forward's selection spot at 17.5.

Never one afraid to speak his mind, Sullinger didn't shy away from responding to the recent rumors of his declining stock.

"I couldn't care less," the 2011 Big Ten freshman of the year told the media. "Half of y'all have never played basketball a day in your life. Maybe in an open gym or around the (recreation center) or something, but never organized basketball. So it is what it is. If I'm slipping, I'm slipping. That's fine with me."

Even the thought of the former Buckeye big man answering questions about potentially not being a top-20 pick would have seemed far-fetched a year ago. After a freshman season that saw him earn All-American honors as the leader of an Ohio State team that earned the No. 1 overall seed in the 2011 NCAA tournament, Sullinger was projected to be a top-five pick in a draft in which the team from his home state- the Cleveland Cavaliers- owned two of the top four selections.

Despite his draft status and the guaranteed money that would have come with it, Sullinger opted to return to Ohio State for his sophomore season following the Buckeyes' disappointing exit in the tournament's Sweet 16. What was undoubtedly a wise move in helping cement his legacy at the school he grew up just miles from, has become a detriment to his status as an NBA prospect.

Although he played a crucial role in leading the Buckeyes to the Final Four, the Columbus-native's season long journey to New Orleans came at a price. Following Ohio State's win over Duke in November, Sullinger suffered from back spasms that kept him from participating in the Buckeyes' next two games. On Dec. 17, he logged just six minutes against South Carolina prior to leaving the game against the Gamecocks due to a foot injury.

Despite the the potential hit it may have caused to his draft stock, the 20-year-old forward insists that he has no regrets about returning to Columbus for his sophomore season.

"If I came out last year, I probably would't be as good of a basketball player as I am now," Sullinger said. "My shooting ability wouldn't have been the same, my conditioning, you never know what could happen. So if you want to do 'what if?" I always do 'what if' with the negatives and not the positives."

Sullinger insists that his back and feet are now fine, but on June 19, ESPN reported that issues with his back had caused him to be medically red flagged by NBA teams in the weeks leading up to the draft. David Falk, Sullinger's agent, denied the report, stating that his client's only medical issue stems from tightness in his hamstrings and quads- something that can be controlled should the 265-pound forward maintain a proper weight.

His recent slide resulted in Sullinger not receiving an invite to Newark, N.J. for Thursday night's draft, but that doesn't seem to be bothering him, if the words he's posted next to that cartoon avatar are any indication.

"For my (people) that care don't show me any type of sorrows time to get BETTER," Sullinger posted to his twitter account on Monday night. "That's the name of the game."


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