Jared Sullinger isn’t just the best high school basketball player in Ohio. He may very well be the best junior in the country. Many already think he is. A standout at Columbus Northland, who led the Vikings to their first state title recently, Sullinger is the Huntington Bank/Ohio High Magazine Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
It’s not surprising that Jared Sullinger is finding success at the game of roundball.
After all, his father, Satch Sullinger, was a pretty good basketball player in his day and also is Jared’s coach at Columbus Northland. Jared’s oldest brother is J.J. Sullinger, a highly athletic 6-5 swingman who helped Ohio State win the Big Ten championship in 2006 and is currently playing professionally. His other brother is Julian Sullinger, a 6-6 forward who just finished up a notable playing career at Kent State, a stint that included a MAC title.
Thanks in part to that impressive pedigree, Jared is now a 6-8, 235-pound junior post player, and, according to some services, the best recruit nationally in the 2010 class.
He also has more than proved his worth as a tireless competitor, winner and unstoppable force down low, which is why he is this year’s recipient of the Huntington bank/Ohio High boys basketball Player of the Year honor.
Michigan State signee Garrick Sherman of Kenton, a 6-10 center, had a fantastic senior year and other veteran players also excelled this season, including 6-3 Cincinnati Princeton guard Orlando Williams and Garfield Heights 6-foot scoring machine Carl Jones. So did several other talented underclassmen such as Dayton Thurgood Marshall point guard Juwan Staten, a 5-11 flash who is committed to the University of Dayton, and fellow Northland star J.D. Weatherspoon, a 6-6 skywalker who is promised to Xavier University.
However, none of them went into the year carrying as much fanfare and onus, and none of them were so completely instrumental in so many victories.
Northland was a marked team from the start even after losing talented point guard Devon Moore. The front line showcased Sullinger, Weatherspoon and senior power forward Javon Cornley while Dimond Hale was emerging as a talent at wing and sophonmore Trey Burke settled into the point guard spot – that is when freshman Jordan Potts wasn’t helping him out with those duties, moving the smooth Burke off the ball.
Even after losing a regular-season game at Canton Timken, Northland still went into the stretch run of the 2008-09 season as the top-ranked team in Division I and Sullinger was making headlines with his outstanding play on both ends of the court despite drawing double and triple teams and having to live up to the considerable preseason hype as an Ohio State commitment and a nationally elite prospect.
“My brothers, they help me identify pressure,” he said during the Vikings’ postseason. “It’s a blessing to have everybody watching you and watching over you, but at the same time it is a lot of pressure because as soon as you make one mistake it’s like a first impression. Other people get more leeway and I’ve got to be a player every game. At times I get so frustrated in my room I just sit there and listen to music. But overall I’m handling it pretty well.”
He handled it well enough to average 19.9 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting a hearty 67.8 percent from the field. The Vikings (27-1) missed out on an undefeated regular season but cruised to another City League title, got through the districts, took down Grove City and Dublin Scioto in the gritty regionals and then captured the school’s first-ever boys basketball state championship by subduing Warren Harding in the semis and the state’s No. 2-ranked D-I team, Cincinnati Princeton, in a gut-wrenching title game on March 28.
Earlier that week, Sullinger was named the player of the year in Division I and then was honored as Ohio’s “Mr. Basketball” by The Associated Press.
The award itself is prestigious but carries even more meaning considering only four juniors had ever claimed it: Jimmy Jackson, Greg Simpson, LeBron James and O.J. Mayo. The last two winners of the award are Jon Diebler of Upper Sandusky and William Buford of Toledo Libbey, who are both currently in the Ohio State program.
According to the AP, others considered for the award this year included Sherman, Jones, Williams, C.J. McCollum of Canton GlenOak, St. Paris Graham’s Josh Schuler, Tyler Tucci of Malvern and Aaron Craft of Findlay Liberty-Benton. Another in-state player who is already committed to OSU, 6-4 junior guard Jordan Sibert of Cincinnati Princeton, apparently got caught up in a numbers game and was not a finalist. Still, he provided yet another obstacle both for Sullinger’s plaudits and championship aspirations.
Greatness Becomes Him
When Sullinger began to play for his father in high school, his talent, consistency and fortitude soon became evident to the point where college coaches and recruiting analysts began to take notice.
Already about 6-6 and skilled, Jared was an easy prospect to follow when he splashed onto the prep scene. He helped Northland to a 24-1 mark as a freshman power forward but came off the bench as an asset on a deep team. He suffered a broken bone in his foot soon after the season but healed quickly and made an impression at the AAU level, leading his team to the 15-and-under championship at the end of the summer.
After a productive first year of high school and his decision to accept a scholarship offer from Ohio State head coach Thad Matta, Sullinger found himself among the elite recruits in his class. Blessed with nimble moves, soft hands and an innate ability to time his jump and snare rebounds, he put together a fantastic sophomore season, averaging 20.5 points and 12.0 rebounds per game.
Northland once again posted an undefeated regular season and claimed the City League championship only to lose early in the postseason, this time to Westerville South. Not coincidentally, Sullinger did not play in that game. His father sat him out after learning that his youngest son had fallen behind on a class assignment.
It was a painful double whammy for young Jared – the loss and the personal responsibility that went with it.
“Lesson learned,” he said last year. “It’s obvious the lesson is learned. What he did really changed my whole perspective of life. He told me, he said, ‘I’m doing this for you. I’m not doing this for the team. I’m not going to put my team around junk so we can just win the state championship.’
“When he said that, at first it killed me. I thought it was supposed to be about basketball. But I see what he meant. Every time I go to school now I have a different perspective about school. I laid low, I was down, but I got back up – and now I’m going to kick it up.”
Even with the unfortunate ending to his sophomore season, Sullinger had become a legitimate force. He was named first-team all-Central district and third team all-state, the only sophomore to make any of the first three teams in Division I.
“That’s nice, but for me it’s all about the wins,” he said.
He proved his words were not bluster as he put together a dominant summer with the All-Ohio Red AAU squad even though his college path was already secured. In fact, with Sullinger up to 6-7 and 245 pounds and the focal point of that program, the 16-and-under team lost just once all spring and summer and laid waste to everyone in its path at prestigious events such as the King James Shooting Stars Classic in Akron, Ohio, the It Takes 5ive Classic in Cincinnati and the AAU Nationals in Orlando, Fla.
Many believe All-Ohio Red was the best team on any prep level with Sullinger on top of his game and along the same front line with 6-9 shot blocker Adreian Payne of Dayton Jefferson and Weatherspoon. The backcourt was loaded as well with Staten, Craft and Sibert, Jared’s close friend and future college teammate.
Even with multitudes of talent around him on his AAU and high school teams, Sullinger is a clear standout. His success rate is no accident – and neither was Northland’s loss without him last year. He understands what needs to be done on the floor in certain situations and he rarely gets out of control or tries too hard to make a play. He is effective on the block and while driving from the wing, and he’s also a heady passer both in the half court and when firing an outlet to start a fast break.
“Some kids are tremendous players but they’re one-dimensional,” said his father. “They’re going to score it on the block or they’re going to use a pick to get to the cup. Jared can score multifaceted. I mean, he can hit you with the three, he can hit you with the jump shot off the dribble, he can get to the cup, he can post, he can bring the ball up the floor. He can hurt you with his pass as well. He’s so multifaceted that he’s a matchup problem. Who are you going to match up with?
“Because he can do that he makes the other players around him better. The great player can do that. I know he’s my son, but he helps make other people better with his passes that they know if I cut I’m going to get it. Cutting and passing is two different worlds if the guy can’t pass it. So he has their faith and their confidence.”
Even with his wide lower body, Sullinger still manages to get by defenders, especially when using his patented spin move on the dribble. He also is now able to pull up and knock down the midrange jumper when he is cut off or defenders retreat on him.
“I have to give that to my brothers, because all summer I would play them one on one, and they would never let me get on the inside, so they made me take the jump shot,” he said.
“Jared’s got a little bit of both his brother’s games,” Satch Sullinger said during the season. “He’s got enough to go out and be enough of a threat so that if he has a mismatch, he can be very effective.”
Anatomy Of A Title
After outdueling everyone in his path on the AAU circuit over the summer – a list that included 6-8 Josh Hairston of Spotsylvania, Va., and 6-11 Evan Anderson of Eau Claire, Wis. – Sullinger did the same during his junior season while seeking the elusive state championship.
Ironically, Northland’s quest began with a preview against Cincinnati Princeton and Sibert on Nov. 28, which drew a full house the night after Thanksgiving at World Harvest Preparatory School in Canal Winchester.
Again Sullinger won the battle and the war, exposing Princeton inside in a leave-no-doubt 47-28 win.
Sullinger served notice for his “Mr. Basketball” candidacy by eating up 6-7 Marquis Horne in the paint and displaying improved stamina along with his superb all-around game.
“You can tell Sully’s been working,” Sibert said. “That’s one thing me and him have been working on. Both of us want to be great. We want to be great college teammates, great high school buddies, great AAU teammates.”
During the regular season, Sullinger stared down 6-10 Tyler Smith of San Diego High School and outperformed the springy-legged top-five recruit at the Flyin’ To The Hoop Classic in Dayton on Jan. 17. The previous weekend he schooled 6-6 power forward Chane Behanan, the top sophomore in Ohio, in an easy win over Cincinnati Aiken at the Scholastic Play-By-Play Classic, held at Ohio State. Sullinger had 23 points and 12 rebounds in the 71-45 shellacking of one of the top teams in the state while Behanan was mired in foul trouble and scored just three points.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him,” Weatherspoon said afterward of his teammate.
As Northland plowed through City League foes and entered the postseason, Sullinger’s expression became even more determined. Also, his academics were no longer in question as his grade-point average climbed to a 3.2.
After leading the Vikings to the district title, Sullinger came through in the clutch of a come-from-behind win over Grove City and a palpitating 54-53 victory in overtime in the regional final with Dublin Scioto.
Emotion flowed when Northland clinched the berth in the state final four, like when young Jared was asked what it was like to play for his dad.
“It’s great,” he said. “There are times when I want to say, ‘Leave me alone. I don’t want to get better.’ But then there are times when it’s like, ‘You know what, he’s right.’ Right now from my sophomore year, me and his relationship got so much better just because I was doing my schoolwork. And now, I really appreciate what he did last year – because without what he did last year, we would have never gotten this far, because I would still be slacking off.”
Jared nearly won the game with Scioto in regulation, but his 35-foot heave was just a few inches short of dropping home.
“A whole bunch of things were going through my mind,” he said. “But one thing when we came out of that huddle was I let the team down last year with my grades and I wasn’t going to let them down again. I told them, I said, ‘Overtime. I’m taking over.’ I said that to the four seniors. I was not going to let them down this year. I told them, ‘We’re going to make it to the Schott one more time.”
That’s exactly what Northland did, with Sullinger lighting the lamp again. He pummeled Harding inside in a comfortable semifinal win and was in the middle of the drama against Princeton with the state title on the line and a crowd of more than 12,000 on its feet.
The score was tied at 58 with 7.5 seconds left and the Vikings were huddled during a timeout when Jared took the role of his father and decided to bark out the plan.
“I went over there and I said, ‘Give me the ball. I’ve got this, Man. I’ve got this.’ I knew I was going to handle it,” he said.
Sure enough, the 6-8 Sullinger took the ball in a clearout situation and drew a foul shooting a three from the top of the key. He made 2 of 3 free throws with 2.7 seconds left and the two points were the difference in a 60-58 win.
“Hey, he said he wanted the ball, and I gave him the ball,” Satch said amid the postgame celebration. “At that point the mismatch with him being a big and being able to shoot off the dribble and make a decision, why not him?
“At the end of the game put the ball in the hands of your best player, whether it’s your son or not. If (former point guard) Devon Moore were here, I would have put it in his hands.”
Sulliner finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, but, as usual the box score still didn’t illustrate his true value to his team or his uncanny ability to take over whenever necessary.
“When it’s the fourth quarter I feel like players come to play, and I feel like I’m one of those players and I just get like a demon,” he said.
“My eyes get real low, I get this little mean face and all of a sudden you’ll see me yelling at people. At home, I’m like the softest 6-9 dude you ever met in your life. I don’t know. It’s my alter ego.”